New study: Why social distancing may need to continue until 2022

By Physician Sense
Published April 10, 2020

Key Takeaways

How long will social distancing go on? Perhaps intermittently until 2022, new research shows. 

According to a recent Harvard Chan School of Public Health analysis, the best strategy to ease the critical care burden and loss of life might be on-again, off-again social distancing. That’s the best course of action, researchers say, barring the development of other interventions, like a vaccine. 

The reason is that while social distancing immediately alleviates the critical care burden and lessens loss of life, it prolongs the amount of time required for herd immunity to develop, allowing for infection spikes that fluctuate with the changing seasons, researchers say.

“In the absence of such interventions, surveillance and intermittent distancing may need to be maintained into 2022, which would present a substantial social and economic burden,” researchers wrote. “To shorten the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic and ensure adequate care for the critically ill, increasing critical care capacity and developing additional interventions are urgent priorities.”

The research team’s findings, which were released as an academic preprint awaiting peer review, differ from those of other health experts. For example, a recent New York Times op-ed, published by Dr. Ezekiel J. Emmanuel, vice provost of global initiatives and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, outlines a plan to reopen the American economy by June. Emmanuel’s approach calls for 8-10 weeks of sheltering in place.

For context, the White House-cited Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation's COVID-19 projections currently predict a flattened curve by June 1 with about 60,000 deaths. Peak hospital demand is expected to occur on April 14.

Also for comparison, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently authored a 4-phase plan to reopen the country. Right now, it appears we’re at Phase 1: Slow the Spread. Gottlieb’s plan doesn’t offer a firm reopening date, or end to social distancing.

One-and-done distancing

In the eyes of the Harvard team, the problem with a one-and-done dose of social distancing is two-pronged:

  • How do we alleviate the burden on critical care and save lives?

  • How do we develop herd immunity while a vaccine or other intervention is developed?

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