With states, public health officials and even President Donald Trump weighing in on when the United States should lift social distancing requirements amid the coronavirus pandemic, a study authored by Harvard University researchers paints a bleak picture.
The study, published in the journal “Science,” suggests intermittent social distancing might be necessary until 2022 if no vaccine or pharmaceutical treatments for the novel coronavirus are found.
“The total incidence of COVID-19 illness over the next five years will depend critically upon whether or not it enters into regular circulation after the initial pandemic wave, which in turn depends primarily upon the duration of immunity that SARS-CoV-2 infection imparts,” the study said.
The researchers studied other coronaviruses related to the novel one that causes COVID-19 to simulate a host of potential outcomes for the current pandemic.
They argued implementing social distancing measures only once could result in a “prolonged single-peak epidemic” that strains the health care system.
“Intermittent distancing may be required into 2022 unless critical care capacity is increased substantially or a treatment or vaccine becomes available,” researchers wrote.
According to the study, transmission simulations found:
- “In all modeled scenarios, SARS-CoV-2 was capable of producing a substantial outbreak regardless of establishment time”
- “Much like pandemic influenza, many scenarios lead to SARS-CoV-2 entering into long-term circulation alongside the other human betacoronaviruses”
- “High seasonal variation in transmission leads to smaller peak incidence during the initial pandemic wave but larger recurrent wintertime outbreaks”
- “Long-term immunity consistently led to effective elimination of SARS-CoV-2 and lower overall incidence of infection”
- “Low levels of cross immunity from the other betacoronaviruses against SARS-CoV-2 could make SARS-CoV-2 appear to die out, only to resurge after a few years”
Researchers for the study noted distancing can have “profoundly negative economic, social, and educational consequences” — the economic consequences are the crux of Trump’s push to reopen the country.
“Our goal in modeling such policies is not to endorse them, but instead to identify possible trajectories under various approaches, help identify complimentary interventions that might reduce ICU demand, and spur innovation to expand the list of options to bring the pandemic under long-term control,” study author and Harvard assistant professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases Yonatan Grad told reporters in a teleconference Tuesday.
The study argues multiple shorter periods of social distancing is favorable over one long one. This is because social distancing would be too effective with no one getting infected and building immunity, which would be catastrophic if the virus showed up again.
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A 20-week span of social distancing restrictions meant a resurgence of the virus with a peak “nearly the same as the peak size of the uncontrolled epidemic.”
“The greatest reductions in peak size come from social distancing intensity and duration that divide cases approximately equally between peaks,” study authors wrote.
If intermittent social distancing is the chosen method to combat the virus long-term, then it may be necessary to do it for several years, study author and Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch said during the teleconference.
“Which is obviously a very long time,” he added. However, there’s a silver lining.
Early indications suggest that there may be more herd immunity in the U.S. population than what officials and researchers actually know about. This makes sense with what we already know about current U.S. testing, which is spotty due to uneven reporting among states and mild or asymptomatic cases flying under the radar.
“Each case that we know about is actually generating more immunity … than what we have been thinking,” Lipsitch said. And a shorter period of intermittent social distancing is “certainly possible.”