A Harvard Study Says Social Distancing May Last Until 2022. It’s Not as Grim as It Sounds.

The coronavirus is a rapidly developing news story, so some of the content in this article might be out of date. Check out our most recent coverage of the coronavirus crisis, and subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.

A new study in Science Magazine about the transmission of the coronavirus sparked a wave of alarming headlines Wednesday declaring that social distancing mandates may have to remain in place into 2022. But the reality may not actually be so grim: The researchers’ model does not account for other ways of beating back the virus, such as effective medication that could prevent infected people from needing hospitalization, or even a vaccine.

A major focus of the effort to “flatten the curve” is to reduce the strain on the health care system. The new study, conducted by a team of researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, finds that under current critical care capacities, the pandemic could stretch into 2022. But, the authors write, “Increasing critical care capacity allowed population immunity to be accumulated more rapidly, reducing the overall duration of the epidemic and the total length of social distancing measures.” In other words, the more hospital beds, ventilators, and medical personnel we have to fight the virus, the less time we may be forced to spend cooped up in our homes.

And there are other steps the scientific community can take to stop the spread of the virus. “New therapeutics, vaccines, or other interventions such as aggressive contact tracing and quarantine—impractical now in many places but more practical once case numbers have been reduced and testing scaled up—could alleviate the need for stringent social distancing to maintain control of the epidemic,” the authors of the study write.

The study also assumes that the average number of people infected by someone with the virus is between 2 and 2.5. The number may actually be higher than that, which, MIT Technology Review points out, would be a good thing: If mild cases of the virus are more prevalent than we’d thought, herd immunity would be possible sooner.

In any event, social distancing will most likely not be a continuous reality over the next two years. The authors of the study envision intermittent phases of social distancing tailored to the prevalence of outbreaks and the preparedness of health care systems in specific communities. 

“Keeping in mind that our goal is getting up to population-level immunity, in the absence of a vaccine or potentially other types of interventions, what we might see is this kind of on-off, intermittent distancing,” Yonatan Grad, one of the paper’s authors, told CNN. “And to get up to population immunity—again, that end point—would take until 2022.”

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.