Experts Say Some Social Distancing May Be Necessary Through 2022

A discarded medical mask sits on the ground as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to the media and members of the National Guard at the Javits Convention Center which is being turned into a hospital to help fight coronavirus cases on March 23, 2020 in New York City.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images

With over 70,000 new cases of the novel coronavirus on April 13, it’s likely that the virus won’t be going away anytime soon. That could mean that people around the world may need to continue practicing social distancing through 2022.

As Bloomberg reports, a new study published by Harvard researchers in the journal Science reveals that officials might not be able to lift social distancing guidelines for years to come, lest the world risk a renewed surge of the virus that could be even more severe.

COVID-19 still remains largely a mystery in many ways, but scientists do have some ideas about how it will behave. Most experts expect that it will show up seasonally, much like the common flu, in the colder months.

But intense social distancing followed by a rapid return to normal could cause COVID-19 cases to reach epidemic proportions rapidly, overwhelming the health care system.

“The social distancing was so effective that virtually no population immunity was built,” the study says.

To avoid this, some sort of social distancing will likely be needed through 2022 unless hospital capacity is increased or an effective vaccine is released to the public, according to the researchers.

“The Harvard researchers used computer models to simulate how the pandemic might play out. One possibility is that strict social distancing followed by intensive public-health detective work could chase down and eradicate the virus,” Bloomberg notes.

There is precedent for this type of model.

“That’s what happened with SARS-CoV-1, which caused a 2003 outbreak. But with confirmed cases of the new pathogen approaching 2 million globally, that outcome is seen as increasingly unlikely, the researchers wrote,” the news outlet added.

Currently, governments around the world are trying to figure out how best to balance social isolation measures and returning economies back to normal. In China, people are issued a color-coded exposure Q-code, which they show at various checkpoints. Individuals who have no exposure are coded green and may travel anywhere.

However, those who have been exposed to someone with the virus have a red code and are limited in where they can go.

In the United States, there has been pressure to re-open the government to alleviate some of the damage done to the economy by the strict social distancing guidelines. The Trump administration is reportedly eyeing a May 1 opening date, though many state leaders say that they will make their own determination on when to ease restrictions.

One question that remains unanswered is how much immunity patients may have after contracting COVID-19. Some studies indicate that people may experience a reactivation of the virus after recovering.