The new coronavirus has spread significantly worldwide since it first emerged in China in December 2019, making it a global pandemic, per the World Health Organization (WHO). There are over 2 million confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 around the globe, according to a WHO report on April 19.
As countries and cities continue to enforce social distancing, encourage self-isolation policies, and postpone major events (including the Olympics!), one question is likely on your mind a lot: When will this pandemic actually end?
The short answer is, no one can say for certain. But infectious disease specialists and researchers have some thoughts to help put this global health situation into perspective.
How long will people be dealing with the novel coronavirus in the U.S. and around the world?
Honestly, it’s impossible to say if and when the coronavirus will die down because it’s a totally new virus, and therefore unpredictable, says Faheem Younus, MD, the chief of infectious diseases at University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health. But pandemics have happened before, and they eventually pass as they become more contained, and as vaccines are developed and distributed. But researchers do look at past pandemics to make very baseline predictions about when it might end. And in the past, pandemics have typically lasted between 12 and 36 months.
Here’s one example of the timeline of a past pandemic: In 2009, a novel H1N1 flu pandemic occurred. (Remember swine flu?) The WHO declared a pandemic that June, and by mid-September, the FDA approved four vaccines for the virus, and they started getting administered in October. In late December, vaccination was opened up to anyone who wanted it, and the pandemic was deemed over in August 2010, according to a timeline from the CDC.
In the past, pandemics have typically lasted between 12 and 36 months.
The bummer is, though, you can’t simply model a new pandemic against a past one and accurately determine how bad or long *this* pandemic will be—because they are not the same viruses, and viruses behave and spread differently, says Rishi Desai, MD, a former epidemic intelligence service officer in the division of viral diseases at the CDC. But as more info becomes available about COVID-19, better predictions will be made. “My expectation is that COVID-19 will continue to be a threat for a good part of 2020, and that we will start to see the page turn in 2021,” Dr. Desai says. “At that point, we may have a vaccine, and we will have much more experience with this disease.”
Some good news: Right now, researchers are working on multiple vaccines in both animal and human trials. Researchers typically need one-and-a-half to two years to develop a new vaccine, as WH reported previously.
Could warm weather help mitigate the spread of novel coronavirus and help end it?
You may have heard a pesky little rumor that the COVID-19 pandemic *might* die down in spring/summer, since the spread of other types of coronavirus tends to peak between December and March. But, again, “it’s hard to know which way this virus will go,” says Sandra Kesh, MD, an infectious disease specialist and deputy medical director at Westmed Medical Group in Purchase, New York. At this point, experts simply don’t know enough about how COVID-19 spreads, and how shifting weather and temperatures may or may not affect it, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Another reality is that changing seasons tend to have *less* of an impact on new viruses, says Dr. Kesh, so you can still get sick outside of the typical winter season. And, remember: This is global, so it’s always winter somewhere. As such, the situation could potentially improve in one hemisphere when summer arrives and simultaneously get worse in another because, yep, it’s winter there, explains Dr. Younus.
So what might happen with the novel coronavirus in the next few months?
“Because this is a new virus, those who have not been infected (the vast majority of the world) have no immunity to it,” says Dr. Kesh. That’s why if enough people in a community get sick at the same time, it overwhelms our health care resources and disrupts the everyday processes in life we all rely on like going to school, work, shopping centers, and public gatherings, she explains. You’re probably already seeing that happen, depending on where you live.
Don’t be surprised if events continue to get postponed or canceled as we move deeper into the spring and summer, and expect to stay inside, save for essential outings and activities, and limit contact with others likely until the end of May or longer (although no one can say for certain, and it depends on where you live).
Here’s an example of what’s going on in one of the U.S. states being impacted the most by COVID-19: In New York state, government and health officials are dealing with the novel coronavirus outbreak there by requiring 100 percent of the workforce to stay home, excluding essential services. In addition, all non-essential gatherings of *any* size (and for any reason) are temporarily banned. Residents of NYS are also encouraged to wear a mask in any environment in which it’s tough to socially distance yourself from others.
The more people who stick to the rules in their area, the better off we’ll all be, experts agree. Staying home and taking other distancing measures are “an important way of slowing down the spread of the virus and buying time,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, Tweeted recently. But to truly do away with the virus, Ghebreyesus went on to say, “we need to attack the virus with aggressive and targeted tactics—testing every suspected case, isolating and caring for every confirmed case, and tracing and quarantining every close contact.“
There is another silver lining here: “As the virus spreads, more and more people will develop immunity to it, so the impact will decline with time,” says Dr. Kesh. Again, though, just how long that could take isn’t clear (sorry!).
Will people have to practice social distancing until the end of the pandemic?
The pandemic might not be formally declared over for a while—but social distancing mandates will likely get lifted before then. Despite reports that people may need to socially distance until 2022, that probably won’t be the case.
As WH reported previously, many experts predict that some areas of the country will end social distancing sooner than others, as opposed to the entire U.S. re-opening all at once. Ultimately, though, experts anticipate social distancing continuing until the end of May 2020, at least. We just don’t know yet.
In the meantime, keep practicing all of the hygiene and lifestyle habits you’ve been hearing over and over.
Truth is, you’ll have to go with the flow as novel coronavirus continues on, as the future remains unknown. But ultimately, the future of the novel coronavirus pandemic depends on how we respond to it together, and there’s plenty you can do to help, experts agree.
Follow the rules regarding social distancing and self-isolation in your location, stay calm (as much as you can!) and stick to the basics, too. Wash your hands often, keep them away from your face, know what symptoms to look out for, stay in and away from at-risk populations (like the elderly and immune-compromised) when you’re sick, and encourage your friends and family to follow suit.
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