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For those anticipating a swift end to social distancing — or at least a substantial reprieve from isolation at some point this year — a modeling study published by researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health published Tuesday in Science comes as a potential blow a month and a day after President Trump first announced the measures.
“Intermittent distancing may be required into 2022 unless critical care capacity is increased substantially or a treatment or vaccine becomes available,” the researchers wrote. The Harvard team determined the lengthy timeline based on estimates of “seasonality, immunity, and cross immunity” for two prior betacoronaviruses and project that “recurrent wintertime outbreaks of [COVID-19] will probably occur after the initial, most severe pandemic wave.”
Though the projection is bleak, it’s not coming in a vacuum either: Some science writers and academic researchers have warned that living with the coronavirus will become a new seasonal normal. “It’s endemic in human populations and not going to go away without a vaccine,” Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Business Insider in early March. In a widely shared analysis of how to reopen the country published on Tuesday in The Atlantic, Michael Osterholm — an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota — told Ed Yong, “People haven’t understood that this isn’t about the next couple of weeks. This is about the next two years.”
The Harvard study added that in order to understand what social-distancing measures could be required over the long haul, more research on seasonal effects on spreading and the length of immunity is needed.