In a matter of days, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, life changed abruptly for many Americans and in most countries around the world. In many places, busy streets and sidewalks are now empty. Once-bustling restaurants and bars are closed. Families are hunkering down in their homes. Those who have to venture out to buy food and other supplies try to stay a safe distance from everyone.
One question on everyone’s minds: How long will this last?
Scientists say there isn’t a simple answer.
On Monday, President Donald Trump said the U.S. may be managing the outbreak through July or August. And New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the state’s number of coronavirus cases may peak – not end – in 45 days. The overall message is that the country will be fighting the virus outbreak for a matter of months, at least, not days or weeks.
If the virus makes a jump to new person every two to five days, as scientists calculate, then a single infected person could lead to 4,142 total infections within a month — assuming nothing is done to break chains of transmission. Unless such measures are put in place, scientists estimate that between 40 and 80% of the global population could become infected. Based on an analysis of data from China, scientists found that the majority of new infections are transmitted by people with mild symptoms who may not even know they’re ill, said Jeffrey Shaman, a public health expert at Columbia University.
Even if most people recover and only a fraction of total infections are severe enough to require hospitalization — about 14%, scientists estimate — the sheer scale of the epidemic will put enormous strain on hospitals, healthcare workers and other patients who may see unrelated procedures delayed.
Scientists now agree that measures to break or slow the chains of transmission are crucial to ensure that emergency rooms aren’t quickly overwhelmed by surges in critically ill patients.
So how does this end?
Most scientists believe the fight against COVID-19 won’t be over until there’s an effective vaccine. But [U.S. government disease expert Dr. Anthony] Fauci and other experts say it will be more than a year before a vaccine can be ready for widespread use. “The best-case scenario is that we have vaccine in 12 or 18 months and then our lives go back to normal,” [Mark Jit, a disease researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine] said. “The worst-case scenario it takes a long time for a vaccine to be developed, and the world is really changed and our lives aren’t the same again.”
While we wait, are we all shut-ins for more than a year? Almost no one thinks that’s realistic. What may be more feasible is a plan for intermittent restrictions and enhanced monitoring to control the disease, an idea explored in a new study from researchers at Imperial College London. Once the number of new cases falls below a certain threshold, schools, offices and restaurants could reopen. But if the number of infections spikes again, restrictions would be reinstated. “The analogy of pumping car brakes on an icy road is what we should be thinking about,” [Michael Levy, a University of Pennsylvania disease researcher], said. “You push on the brakes to slow things down, then ease up – but if you skid, you have to pump the brakes again.”
MacDailyNews Take: So, the U.S. is taking a middle approach between the two extremes of doing nothing vs. total lockdown (the Netherlands, for just one of many examples, is taking a similar approach the the U.S.).
Here’s the plan: Allow the virus to spread to people who are not really affected by it while protecting the vulnerable as much as possible. If the group that recovered from the virus is large enough, herd immunity will help protect the vulnerable against the virus. This will happen naturally, as some people have to work and some people will just not heed the warnings and properly distance socially. With the current measures already advocated and in place, the U.S. and other governments are trying to “flatten the curve” as much as possible to spread the peak of infections over a longer period. This way immunity is built up in the population that is best-equipped to survive it while the healthcare system is not fatally overloaded. Those who need help to fight and survive the virus will have access to the hospitals, doctors, nurses, and equipment they need. Most people who contract COVID-19 will not need hospitals, doctors, nurses, and equipment. They will get sick, their immune system will do its job, and then they will be immune.
If no measures were taken and the virus were allowed to spread unhindered it would make too many people sick quickly, overloading the healthcare system (see Wuhan initially, Iran and, to some extent, Italy).
On the other extreme, a “total lockdown” would result in fewer cases of COVID-19, but as soon as those controls were relaxed, the virus would spring right back into action and we do not and will not have an effective vaccine that is deemed safe for 12-18 months at least. We very likely will have effective treatments long before then.
It’s better in this case to overreact. Stay home. When you have to go out, stay away from others. Be smart. Let’s work together to blunt the coronavirus as much as possible!
More info on the Prevention & Treatment of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) via the U.S. CDC is here. Track the Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) here.