Don’t freak out, but social distancing could be a thing until 2022

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Social distancing is getting to all of us. It really doesn’t matter if you’re an introvert or an extrovert anymore, at minimum we all want to feel safe buying toilet paper. Well, sit down and take a few deep breaths, because according to a new study conducted at Harvard, social distancing may be prolonged. Before you freak out, that may not mean what you think, so let’s break it down.

The study, which was published Tuesday in the journal Science, combines the data from two coronaviruses, OC43 and HKU1, which are closely related to the novel coronavirus, in order to predict how it will spread. What the research cited by CNN suggests is that, in order to ensure that hospitals can continue to meet critical care needs, we may need to continue intermittent periods of social distancing until 2022 if a vaccine does not become widely available or we increase our critical care capacity.

"If intermittent distancing is the approach that's chosen, it may be necessary to do it for several years,” Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and an author on the study, told CNN.

First, let’s focus on the “if” here. What Lipsitch is saying is that if we as a country choose social distancing as the primary way of combating COVID-19 and we are unable to find a vaccine, we may need to prolong intermittent social distancing, reported CNN.

What this gets at, in part, is that if we keep critical care capacity as it is, we have to make sure that we don’t overwhelm the healthcare system by letting more people get sick than it can handle. We have to mete out the number of folks infected to make sure that each person can receive care. That equates to alternating periods of contact with periods of distance until we reach herd immunity — a.k.a most people have COVID-19 antibodies — which the study suggests might happen by late 2022.


Keep in mind that when scientists make models, they are using a conservative rationale to figure out a wide range of possible outcomes based on limited data. They are not magically forecasting a definite future. There are a lot of variables and possibilities. If, for example, we find a vaccine and are able to distribute it quickly and effectively, these findings may be less relevant. Cautious fingers crossed.

Increasing critical care resources would reduce the need to distance by several months, reported MIT Technology Review. COVID-19 could also behave in ways that are not predictable based on the data available from related viruses. And, as many experts have suggested, our behavior right now really makes a difference. Social distancing is working, so if we stay strictly adherent now, it could reduce both the amount of time that it is necessary and the number of people who die.

It’s easy to catastrophize research models or to imagine that scientists are just looking at numbers and don’t take our social needs seriously, but these researchers are taking the impact of their calculations into consideration. They know that they are telling us something that no one wants to hear. The study authors told CNN that they were aware that prolonged distancing could have "profoundly negative economic, social, and educational consequences." Their responsible approach is meant to protect as many people as possible.

We all want an end date. We all want to know when the imminent threat of COVID-19 infection will be over and we can either get on with the revolution or get back to the status quo. Unfortunately, certainty is not an option, but the truth is that it never is. The most hopeful thing, to me, about this research has little to do with its predictions. The sheer number of people it takes in different places and various fields, working alone together, to create these models that are intended to save human lives proves that not only can we handle this, we already are handling it.