Here’s How the Pandemic Finally Ends

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Elizabeth Ralph

Here’s How the Pandemic Finally Ends

The precise timing, of course, is uncertain—an elusive future that rests on a series of known unknowns, things like how many people continue to wear masks and social distance and whether rapid Covid-19 tests become widely available and properly deployed. Much will depend on how effective the vaccines are, how many people refuse to get inoculated and how many people forget to get their second dose if the vaccine requires two (yes, that is a significant concern). And then there’s what epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, calls “the trillion-dollar word of the day with this disease”: immunity. How long, on average, will immunity from natural infection and from the vaccine last?

“We can get [to herd immunity] with vaccination and clinical disease,” he says. “The question is how long can we stay there. Meaning, if we get to, say, 75 or 80 percent immune projection, would it stay that way if we didn’t do anything else?”

Perhaps that’s the most important thing to understand about the pandemic right now: Though experts can make their best guesses, there is no certainty about Covid-19’s future. “If this were an influenza pandemic, I would feel confident telling you how it would end,” says Osterholm. “But this coronavirus keeps throwing us curve balls day after day.”

This kind of unpredictability is why Sarah Cobey, an epidemiologist at the University of Chicago, chose her field in the first place: “One of the reasons I wanted to study infectious disease dynamics is that they can be really unintuitive. They can be mathematically very predictable, but they can always be unintuitive.”

Before the vaccine: ‘Masks and distance’

The pandemic is far from over. It’s not even in decline. Cases of Covid-19 are on the rise in more than 19 states, and in just one day this week, the U.S. saw more than 40,000 new cases and more than 1,000 deaths.

Experts don’t expect those numbers to improve much as people move indoors for the fall and winter. Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina sees norms shifting as social distancing fatigue settles in: “Little by little there’s going to be fewer people wanting to sit outside, more people sitting inside,” he says. “And then people are going to say, ‘Well, you know, I was at dinner two nights ago and I was fine. I can go to this gathering of 30 people.’ Then ‘I can go to the gathering of 100 people.’ And it will probably be just kind of a slow … change of opinion about what the risks are.”

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