Buckle up, folks. Social distancing is our new normal, and it's high time we accept that. A group of Harvard disease researchers has said that "people around the world might need to practice some level of social distancing intermittently through 2022 to stop COVID-19 from surging anew and overwhelming hospital systems," according to Bloomberg.
Before you freak out, this doesn't mean we'll all be stuck sheltering in place nonstop for two years. But we aren't going "back to normal" anytime soon, either. If we were to lift social-distancing requirements all at once, we could risk delaying the virus' peak and it could result in even more deaths.
How severely and how long social distancing measures remain in place depend on several questions that we don't know the answers to yet, according to Bloomberg: "Will the virus's spread change with the seasons?
"What immunity will people have after they're infected? And does exposure to coronaviruses that cause mild illnesses confer any protection against the pathogen that causes COVID-19?"
Because the virus is novel, we're still learning key information about it that will inform our social distancing requirements moving forward. There is a lot of talk from the U.S. government about re-opening our economy and loosening restrictions, but these researchers stress that there must be measures in place to control the disease before that happens.
These measures include widespread testing to be able to identify any flare-ups of the virus before they get too serious. Without widespread testing, it will be much more responsible to maintain social distancing instead of risk another round of the epidemic.
At this point, according to the Harvard researchers' computer models, it is unlikely that we will be able to "chase down and eradicate the virus" since there are already more than two million cases worldwide.
What's more likely is that the virus will stay and become a seasonal illness like the flu. "In one model," Bloomberg reports, "20 weeks of measures to limit spread were followed by an epidemic peak that was as great as an uncontrolled spread. The social distancing was so effective that virtually no population immunity was built.
"If the virus is more transmissible in colder months, delaying the peak into the autumn could exacerbate the strain on health-care systems, they wrote."
In order to avoid this, we might need to adhere to intermittent social distancing measures for the next two years. Between now and 2022, we need strategic handling of social situations in order to make sure we keep the virus under control and don't overwhelm our hospitals again.
This will depend on strong leadership in our federal and local governments as well as strict cooperation from individuals. This will also depend on everyone recognizing that things are not going to go completely back to "normal" for a long time.
I know it's hard to conceive of, but I'm finding it sort of comforting to just accept that things are different now as opposed to expecting everything to go back to normal in a month. It's just not going to happen. And we're going to have to work together to find ways to adapt and allow our lives to grow within this new reality. Might as well start now.