Social Distancing Isn't Necessarily Going To Last Through 2022, Despite What You've Heard

  • A new Harvard study suggested that social distancing amidst the novel coronavirus pandemic may continue into 2022.
  • Experts say some areas of the country may end social distancing sooner than others.
  • It is likely that social distancing will continue until at least the end of May 2020.

After over a month of social distancing, scientists and health officials say it is working. Some cities and counties are seeing the curve of new cases of novel coronavirus flattening, and there’s talk about loosening stay-at-home restrictions.

But that might be jumping the gun, according to a new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and published in the journal Science. In their report, researchers speculate that social distancing could, or should, extend until 2022. Don’t enter panic mode just yet, though: The authors note this is one possible scenario, and there are a lot of variables and unknowns that could impact the timeline.

The Harvard researchers created multiple models of possible novel coronavirus transmission scenarios through 2025 and outlined what regulations and interventions could help mitigate the current and future outbreaks. They relied on the latest info about COVID-19 and seasonality and immunity data from similar coronaviruses.

The authors confirmed social distancing strategies work, specifically to reduce the strain of the virus on healthcare systems.

But unless a vaccine or treatment is developed, the researchers warned that intermittent social distancing may still be required into 2022. “Our goal in modeling such policies is not to endorse them but to identify likely trajectories,” they wrote.

If that makes you want to cry, don’t worry—it’s just one possible scenario that might play out. Here’s what else you need to know about the potential end of social distancing:

How will health officials determine when social distancing should end?

Health officials will take a bunch of statistics under consideration when it comes to lifting social distancing guidelines, according to Dr. Rishi Desai, MD, chief medical officer for health education platform, and former epidemic intelligence officer with the Centers for Disease Control.

Key factors for opening up the country again, per Dr. Desai, must include

  • Having the ability to rapidly test a large portion of a community if and when new cases emerge
  • Implementing effective contact tracing (being able to determine all individuals who may have come in contact with an infected person), as well as isolation and quarantine strategies
  • Ensuring that the healthcare system can handle another surge of cases, both in terms of both personnel and having ample personal protective equipment

    He adds that the number of new cases per day must also be below 1 percent of the peak, or that the number of new cases needs to have consistently decreased for six weeks in a row to consider lifting restrictions.

    Could some areas stop distancing before others?

    While the Harvard researchers’ models are generalized, they note that novel coronavirus spread can vary from community to community. The authors write: “The model will have to be tailored to local conditions and updated as more accurate data become available.”

    According to Desai, some areas will likely be able to stop social distancing earlier. “Yes, some states will meet these criteria slightly faster and we may consider opening those areas up slightly sooner than other areas.”

    That doesn’t mean swinging back to pre-novel coronavirus life right away, though. “Overall, we should keep large gatherings—more than 100 people in a closed space—off limits until we really have good control over the continued outbreaks,” Desai told Women’s Health. “This strategy allows the most essential functions back on line, like small businesses and schools.”

    How long could social distancing go on?

    There are still many unknowns about the novel coronavirus, but infectious disease experts will be able to estimate and update social distancing timelines as they learn more. Desai predicts the country as a whole will need to continue social distancing through at least May 30th.

    That’s much earlier than the Harvard study’s estimate of intermittent social distancing through 2022. But it’s a fine line: “Resurgence of disease absolutely will happen if we stop social distancing too soon,” says Desai.

    Until then, social distancing is critical to minimizing the spread of the novel coronavirus. “The virus needs to get from one person to another and depends on close contact to do that. Social distancing doesn’t allow it to happen,” says Desai.

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