Study Suggests Intermittent Social Distancing Could Become Necessary Against COVID-19 Until 2022


Social distancing has become the new norm in the attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and that norm could become a mainstay of life for the next couple years, a new study suggests.

Based on predictions of recurring outbreaks of COVID-19 in coming years, a study published in Science, and first reported by STAT, suggests that intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022. That recommendation is based on the absence of other solutions to the disease, for which there is currently no treatment nor vaccine.

“Additional interventions, including expanded critical care capacity and an effective therapeutic, would improve the success of intermittent distancing and hasten the acquisition of herd immunity,” the researchers said in the study abstract. “Even in the event of apparent elimination, SARS-CoV-2 surveillance should be maintained since a resurgence in contagion could be possible as late as 2024.”

There have been more than 600,000 people diagnosed with COVID-19 across the United States and more than 24,000 disease-related deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracking map. Social distancing, as well as stay-at-home orders, have become a mainstay of preventing the spread of infection and overwhelming hospital systems.

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The suggestion of the need for intermittent periods of social distancing was the crux of a research project from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“With no pharmaceutical treatments available, interventions have focused on contact tracing, quarantine and social distancing. The required intensity, duration and urgency of these responses will depend both on how the initial pandemic wave unfolds and on the subsequent transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2,” the researchers said.

Over the course of the study, the research team points to a number of factors that could play a role in the way COVID-19 continues to impact society over the next few years, including seasonal activity, herd immunity and other factors.

“The total incidence of COVID-19 illness over the next five years will depend critically upon whether or not it enters into regular circulation after the initial pandemic wave, which in turn depends primarily upon the duration of immunity that SARS-CoV-2 infection imparts,” the researchers said and added that social distancing strategies could reduce the extent to which SARS-CoV-2 infections strain health care systems.

However, the researchers also acknowledged that social distancing practices, even intermittently, will likely result in negative economic, social and educational consequences.

“Our goal in modeling such policies is not to endorse them but to identify likely trajectories of the epidemic under alternative approaches, identify complementary interventions such as expanding ICU capacity and identifying treatments to reduce ICU demand, and to spur innovative ideas to expand the list of options to bring the pandemic under long-term control. Our model presents a variety of scenarios intended to anticipate possible SARS-CoV-2 transmission dynamics under specific assumptions. 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,” they said.


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