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On Sunday, President Trump heeded the warnings of public-health officials and walked back his plan to lift social distancing guidelines by Easter. Instead, all Americans have been instructed to continue to avoid nonessential travel, going to work, drinking and eating at bars and restaurants, or gathering in groups of more than 10 for another month, and perhaps even longer.
But how much longer? Here are a few timelines that public-health experts and journalists have proposed for when and how life might start to regain at least a semblance of normalcy.
There are only two scenarios in which the country reopens by May, according to Joe Pinsker at The Atlantic:
One involves the virus somehow turning out to be a less harmful pathogen than it has proved itself to be — an outcome experts told Mr. Pinsker is more or less unthinkable.
The other scenario involves the United States relaxing its social-distancing measures prematurely, allowing the virus to burn through the country. In a couple of months, the population would most likely exhibit some degree of herd immunity, but at the cost of potentially millions of lives.
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Restrictions could safely ease by June, but only if the United States takes extraordinary measures, Zeke Emanuel, a health-policy expert and vice provost of the University of Pennsylvania, writes in The Times.
First, the Trump administration would need to issue a nationwide shelter-in-place order that lasts eight to 10 weeks: four for cases to peak, and another four to six for cases to decline to a level that the health care system could manage. As of now, only about three in four Americans have been ordered by state and local officials to stay home.
The federal government would have to use the shelter-in-place period to expedite the distribution of testing, protective gear, intensive-care equipment and training. It would also be essential to deploy a public works corps comprising thousands of people to test, isolate and trace the contacts of the infected and certify the immune.
Such a sweeping response would be, as The Times editorial board writes, “a Marshall Plan, an Apollo mission and a New Deal all rolled into one.” But if it could be managed, the country could start to slowly lift restrictions on children and young adults in a couple of months, Dr. Emanuel says. If the initial easing doesn’t cause hospitals to be overwhelmed, then more people could go back to work, and restaurants, bars and other venues could start operating at half their legal occupancy.
The need for strict social distancing could also decrease in June if the virus wanes in the summer months, as the flu does. As Sharon Begley writes at Stat, preliminary research has suggested the virus may indeed display some seasonal behavior, though it’s far from definitive.
The end of the year
The kind of response Dr. Emanuel and the editorial board call for is unlikely to happen, Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker argue in The Times. They predict that labs will start running low on essential chemical reagents in three to four weeks, dooming any suppression strategy that depends on widespread testing. The idea that the country will be able to mobilize its manufacturing resources to meet the demand for masks and ventilators in a matter of weeks is, in their view, also a false hope. The hard truth, the authors say, is that many hospitals will be overrun, and many people, including health care workers, will keep dying.
That means some social distancing will most likely be necessary at least through the end of the year, as Mr. Pinsker suggests.
Even if infections decline in the summer, the fall will still bring a second wave. But the reprieve from the virus would give the country more time to prepare for that wave, in turn reducing the severity of social-distancing restrictions required.
If infections don’t fall off in the summer, Mr. Pinsker says, more socializing and some out-of-the-house working might still safely take place (potentially because of higher levels of immunity, provided it lasts). But “this would still be a world with rigorous hand-washing, well-smothered sneezing, and generous amounts of hand sanitizer (and suspicion of anyone who disregards these public-health norms),” he adds.
One reason to hope the situation might improve by the end of the year is the potential advent of pharmaceutical treatments. The Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has noted that some antiviral medicines are already in trials; initial clinical data for the drug that has shown the most promise, remdesivir, is expected in the coming weeks. Mount Sinai Health System also announced plans last week to try transferring blood plasma from recovered patients to critically ill ones as a new therapy. A successful treatment wouldn’t slow transmission, but it could at least save lives and lighten the burden on the medical system.
2022 and beyond
The surest way of ending the pandemic would be a vaccine, which will probably take at least 12 to 18 months to develop — if it can be developed at all — and even longer to distribute, Ed Yong writes in The Atlantic. But he says that doesn’t mean the country will have to endure continuous restrictions until 2022: In the meantime, the country may go through multiple rounds of social distancing — perhaps two to four more — between which schools and restaurants could reopen. Each round of distancing may be less restrictive than the last since, as Mr. Yong writes, “the virus will find spreading explosively more and more difficult.”
In the long term, people may find new ways to socialize safely, according to Gideon Lichfield, the editor of the M.I.T. Technology Review. “Maybe movie theaters will take out half their seats, meetings will be held in larger rooms with spaced-out chairs, and gyms will require you to book workouts ahead of time so they don’t get crowded.” He also imagines that a new regime of surveillance will emerge, much as it did after Sept. 11, to screen people for disease and immunity before they’re allowed to enter airports and nightclubs.
Even if a vaccine fails to be found, social distancing will end, Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, has written in The Washington Post. Eventually, the virus will have infected most of the population and will be here to stay. But even if people who recover do not retain permanent immunity, new infections will almost certainly be less severe. “There will be a time after the pandemic when life returns to normal,” Mr. Lessler writes. “But a long and painful process may be in store first.”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
MORE PERSPECTIVES ON WHAT MAY COME NEXT
“The Crisis Could Last 18 Months. Be Prepared.” [The Atlantic]
“Restrictions Are Slowing Coronavirus Infections, New Data Suggest” [The New York Times]
“It’s Starting to Feel Like a Pressure Cooker in This House” [The New York Times]
WHAT YOU’RE SAYING
Here’s what readers had to say about the last debate: It’s the Largest Relief Deal in U.S. History. Is It Enough?
Peggy from Washington: “It seems like this bill is an actual compromise — something that Congress has not done in a while. … Congress actually did its job, finally!”
Robert from Illinois: “As a health care worker, I just had to advise my son to remain in Germany during this pandemic because I have lost faith in the ability of the United States to manage this health crisis and take care of its people during the ensuing economic downturn.”
And Laura from Washington, D.C., criticized the relief package for allotting only $500 million for the district while states get a minimum of $1.25 billion. This despite the fact that Washington has more Covid-19 cases than 19 states and its residents pay more in federal taxes than those of 22 states.