Story at a glance

  • Researchers say intermittent distancing may be required into 2022 unless “critical care capacity is increased substantially or a treatment or vaccine becomes available.”
  • The study noted more research is necessary on immunity and how the virus behaves.
  • The economy has been hit hard in the last month as most of the country has essentially shut down to contain the spread of the virus.

The United States may have to keep some social distancing measures in place into 2022 until a vaccine becomes widely available, according to a modeling study published Tuesday in the journal Science.

Researchers from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health used computer models to simulate how COVID-19 could spread over the next five years.


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Researchers say based on simulations of the coronavirus outbreak’s future course, prolonged or intermittent social distancing — such as stay-at-home orders and school closures — may be necessary over the next few years.

“Intermittent distancing may be required into 2022 unless critical care capacity is increased substantially or a treatment or vaccine becomes available,” researchers wrote in their report.

“We do not take a position on the advisability of these scenarios given the economic burden that sustained distancing may impose, but we note the potentially catastrophic burden on the healthcare system that is predicted if distancing is poorly effective and/or not sustained for long enough,” the report said.

The study noted, however, more research is needed to determine if the virus’s spread changes with the seasons, how long immunity to the new coronavirus lasts and if exposure to coronaviruses that cause mild illnesses offer any protection against the virus that causes COVID-19. Health officials have also said a vaccine could take 12 to 18 months.

Economies around the world have come to a standstill due to social distancing measures meant to curb the spread of the virus, as nonessential businesses have closed, prompting millions of people to be laid off or furloughed. Pressure is growing to loosen restrictions in the U.S. and elsewhere to get the economy up and running again.


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President Trump has appeared eager to lift federal social distancing guidelines that have urged Americans to limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people, to avoid public spaces like restaurants and to work from home if possible. Those guidelines are in place through the end of the month.

Trump will likely unveil guidelines this week geared toward allowing certain parts of the country to reopen their economies, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said Tuesday.

More than 598,000 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in the U.S. with more than 25,000 deaths. Worldwide, more than 1.9 million cases have been recorded with more than 123,000 deaths since the outbreak began late last year, according to Johns Hopkins University data. 


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Published on Apr 14, 2020