Winter is typically a time when other, less-lethal infectious diseases typically spread. The common cold and the seasonal flu seem to thrive on individuals spending more time indoors as opposed to outdoors; the closed quarters, the lack of sunshine, and the proximity of people near each other make for ideal conditions to transmit pathogens that sicken humans.
When it comes to COVID-19, the deadly illness caused by the pathogen being colloquially referred to as the “novel coronavirus,” the coming winter will present a twofold problem. First, of course, is the fact that this disease will do the same as its less-lethal cousins and spread about more under these conditions. Second, colds and flu cause similar symptoms to COVID-19, meaning that it could be difficult for health officials to keep track of who is sickened by the deadly pandemic and who simply has a mundane cold or flu.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, noted that a vaccine could make all the difference in the world.
“I think November, December, January, February are going to be tough months in this country without a vaccine,” he said.
Of course, it’s highly unlikely that a vaccine will be developed by that time. By the most ambitious estimates, a vaccine might be deployed by the end of 2020, but early 2021 seems more likely and even that timetable is a hopeful one.
It’s not just an inoculation that could mitigate the severity of the epidemic when winter comes, experts say. Getting on top of the disease before the seasons change includes limiting how many and under what conditions people can be in places such as bars, gyms, movie theaters and schools.
Caroline Buckee, associate director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the country is doing the exact opposite.
“We should be aiming for no transmission before we open the schools and we put kids in harm’s way — kids and teachers and their caregivers. And so, if that means no gym, no movie theaters, so be it,” she said.
Similarly, epidemiologist Michael Mina said that the best time to get the upper hand on a pandemic is when environmental conditions naturally limit its spread. In other words, during the summer, when there’s less time spent indoors, the time is ripe to try to get the virus under control.
Unfortunately, said Mina, the U.S. is “squandering” every opportunity to do so.