Keep Those Plans on Hold. Social Distancing Probably Won’t End for at Least a Year

  • Experts say social or physical distancing measures against COVID-19 will probably need to remain in place for at least a year.
  • They say an important factor will be how effective vaccines are and how many people get them.
  • Until then, it’s important to maintain physical distancing as well as other safety protocols, such as mask wearing.

Remember back in January when birthday parties, family get-togethers, school assemblies, and movie theaters were a worry-free common occurrence?

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Those gatherings are now totally different, or completely canceled, with social or physical distancing measures in place.

As so many of us long for stadiums packed with fans, concert venues teaming with people, or even restaurants filled with strangers, the question of when it will all end looms large.

Not to mention the return of smaller cultural nuances, like hugs, hellos, and handshakes.

Healthline asked experts when physical distancing will end. The short answer is that it likely won’t be soon.

Distancing into the distant future

None of the four experts Healthline interviewed could definitively say when physical distancing would be in the rearview mirror.

“That’s a crystal ball question,” said Catherine Troisi, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, Texas.

Before it can end, Troisi told Healthline, herd immunity needs to be achieved.

“That can happen in two ways. Either enough people get infected and are immune — it’s probably around 70 or 80 percent — we’re nowhere near that,” she said, citing a study that found fewer than 10 percent of Americans have antibodies. “The other way is through a vaccine. Now, how long immunity will last is still an issue with vaccines that we just don’t know.”

There are a lot of unknowns and challenges ahead when it comes to vaccines.

“If we vaccinate everybody and then it works in 50 percent of people but the other 50 percent may be able to transmit infection… that would mean you’d still want to be socially distanced,” Troisi explained.

“And then, of course, this scenario that I threw out there that everybody gets vaccinated is not going to happen,” she said. “We already know that there are many people who are hesitant about getting the vaccine.”

“The best answer really would be that at this time we do not know (when social distancing will end),” said Dr. Waleed Javaid, director of infection prevention and control at New York City’s Mount Sinai Downtown. “The vaccine is in its early stages. Even if it is out, it might take several months before the recommendations start changing.”

Dr. Westyn Branch-Elliman, an assistant professor of medicine in the infectious disease section at Harvard Medical School as well as an infectious disease consultant at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said, “I think the most honest answer to that question is, unfortunately, that we don’t know, and it’s pending a lot of factors that we’re just going to, to some extent, have to wait and see about.”

The best advice, experts say, is to take this pandemic day by day.

“I know that’s the hardest thing to hear sometimes, but accepting uncertainty is something that we’re all going to have to do while we wait and see what the science shows us, and what we are able to achieve over the next couple months to years,” Branch-Elliman told Healthline.

Treatments for COVID-19 may also change the pandemic’s course.

“The other thing that might affect when we can end social distancing is if we get a therapeutic that either is prophylactic, so you can take it and not get infected, or once you are infected treats your symptoms so well or the infection so well that you don’t get severe outcomes,” Troisi noted.

“All that being said,” Troisi added, “I think it will be at least another year [of physical distancing], and it makes me cry to say that.”

“I’m going to give you a couple of ifs,” Dr. William Schaffner, the medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a professor in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, told Healthline.

“If we have one or more vaccines, that’s pretty good, and if we can convince the population to come forward and be vaccinated, I would think one more year will get us to the point where we can really start breathing easy again, without our masks, and start going to large group gatherings with some degree of assurance and comfort, recognizing that the risk won’t be zero, but it would dampen down the risk so we can get back to something that’s more normal,” he said.

A dose of false hope

“People are hoping for a savior. It’s called a vaccine,” Schaffner said. “But they misunderstand.”

Schaffner said “political chatter” and not enough information from the medical and public health communities have raised expectations about the vaccine.

“The expectation of people when they talk about a vaccine is that ‘I’m going to get inoculated and I can throw away my mask because then I’d be wearing a suit of armor, I’m protected against COVID,’” he said. “Wrong. Why is that wrong? That’s because we don’t think the vaccine is going to be 100 percent effective.”

As an example, Schaffner said, if the vaccine is 70 percent effective, that means of every 10 people vaccinated, three will remain susceptible, or largely so, and we won’t know who those people are.

“So you’ll get your vaccine and keep wearing your mask,” he explained. “And besides, lots of people won’t show up for vaccination because they’re antsy about it, and even if people show up, vaccinating 330 million people will take months. So it will take a long time. Get used to the new normal.”

Javaid said the effectiveness of the vaccine will need to be closely studied.

“We need to know exactly how quickly the vaccine becomes effective,” he told Healthline. “And how long does it remain effective? Once we know all those things, I think we might be able to remove the social distancing barriers.”

“At the end of this tunnel, this dark, dark, dark tunnel, there is light,” Javaid added. “We will have that. I do not know if it’s going to be 2 weeks, 2 months, or 2 years. I think it’s going to be more than 2 months. I think it’s going to be slightly less than 2 years (from today).”

There are other practical things to consider in regard to the vaccine, according to Troisi.

It most likely will be a two-dose vaccine, which “complicates keeping records,” and additionally, “the top candidates for the vaccine are MRMA vaccines, and those have to be stored at minus 80 degrees Celsius, and, well, we just don’t have a transport chain for that,” she said.

Transporting these vaccines from a factory, on airplanes, and then to doctors’ offices, she said, will create a logistical nightmare.

“My point is that even if a vaccine is licensed by the end of the year, it’s going to be awhile before people are going to be able to get it,” Troisi said.

There are lots of looming questions about the vaccine that only time will answer.

“What if we end up in a situation where a vaccine doesn’t last very long?” Branch-Elliman said. “Another possibility is that we have a vaccine but we don’t have a lot of it. So what are we going to do with our limited doses? How are we going to be able to increase production to vaccinate a large enough proportion of the population to really have an impact?”

“Unfortunately,” she added, “we don’t have answers to any of these questions yet, and until we do we, really can’t say how long [physical distancing] is really going to last. But if people want to do something, the thing that they can do is enroll in clinical research trials in order to help us get answers faster.”

A cultural shift

All the experts stressed that it’s still critical to continue following the COVID-19 safety measures, as tired as people may be of them.

“A lot of people are developing COVID fatigue, and you can see them going about without masks, gathering in large groups, not maintaining social distancing. So they’re promoting the spread of the virus,” Schaffner said.

“All those people are going to go home. Some of them will be newly infected and they will accelerate the spread in their own neighborhoods, and this sort of thing is happening all over the country right now,” he said.

If safety measures such as physical distancing continue to be the norm for another year, some of the practices may even end up sticking around.

“It may well be, though, that this experience changes our culture in some way. For example, countries in the eastern part of the world routinely wear masks in the wintertime. That’s very common,” Schaffner said. “Why don’t we do that here? It would protect us, not only against COVID, but against flu and a bunch of other respiratory infections.”

Schaffner believes that handshaking will return in some capacity, too.

“I think that would come back again, yes, but I think there will be subsets of people who — as I have been doing for years, at least during the flu season — I give people the old smile and give them the old elbow bump,” he said. “I just smile and say, ‘Hi, Tom, flu season,’ and they give a smile and they get it.”

With Thanksgiving around the corner, more people will be headed indoors, which is especially worrisome in terms of virus spread.

“Do you really want to expose grandma and grandpa? Particularly grandma who has a little bit of lung disease and grandpa whose got some heart disease, to a large family gathering? No masks and you’re not sure how safe everybody around that table has been for the last month? I think they’re going to have to make some adjustments,” Schaffner said.

Troisi suggested limiting the number of family members at your gathering, protecting anyone who is high risk, and taking things outside if weather allows. Or commit to a 2-week quarantine for all guests beforehand.

Noting increased infection rates across the country, Branch-Elliman said she’s not seeing a good way for upcoming Thanksgiving gatherings to be safe.

“The other thing to keep in mind is, we’re hoping that there will be a light at the end of this tunnel and it’s important not to take big short-term risks and sacrifice potential long-term gains,” she said.

“Maybe if we behave well now, and we’re safe now, in a year we can all get together and have Thanksgiving, and everybody can be healthy and together,” Branch-Elliman said.

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