That’s the million question everyone asks about COVID-19: When will life return to normal? And will the school be open in the fall?
However, reality depends a lot on how you define “normal”. And if enough Americans step up for a shot this summer, it might not be as depressing as you think.
Experts say autumn may be the season for a “new normal”, with the world slowly reopening and people wanting to reconnect, but with masks, routine tests and possibly even vaccine cards to give them access to cinemas or restaurants.
So what could derail it all? Infectious experts agree that at least 70-85% of the country needs to become immune to starve the virus. Markel said he favors 90% with such a hidden virus.
“It all depends on how many people roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated, you see,” Markel told ABC News. “So that’s my fear, that’s what keeps me up at night.”
Here is what health experts say could happen this year:
Spring will be a time of uncertainty and possibly more deaths
The country is at a standstill with the virus. Even with the national seven-day average down by 74% in a matter of weeks, the United States is still averaging about 64,000 new cases a day. This average is on a par with last fall just before cases exploded during the holiday season.
This halted progress means the country is entering the season of spring break tours, graduation parties, family holidays and neighborhood gatherings with already high viral transmission, all the while a new, more transferable variant originating from the UK is expected to be the most dominant virus strain in mid-March.
Health experts warn against states like Texas and Mississippi, which are now reopening and lifting mask mandates. There may be one last heartbreaking increase in new cases – followed by weeks later of hospitalizations and deaths – just as the nation is heading towards mass vaccinations.
“I know the idea of relaxing wearing a mask and getting back to everyday activities is appealing. But we are not there yet,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We’ve seen this movie before. When preventative measures like mask mandates are rolled back, things go up.”
Fingers crossed, summer becomes the season for mass vaccinations
“I think it’s a huge task,” Simone Wildes, an infectious disease physician at South Shore Health in Massachusetts and an ABC News medical officer, said of the mass vaccination.
“But if we can get it done June, July … we might have a decent summer. But it really depends on how things unfold in the next few months,” she said.
Markel also predicted that by early July, almost everyone “early accepting” of the vaccine would have gotten a shot. At that point, much of the nation may be able to expand their “pod” slowly.
Markel said he still would not recommend putting an early deposit on a non-refundable beach house with extended family this summer.
“Be flexible if you know people are not vaccinated, if there is an increase in the number of cases, especially with the variants that we can cancel these plans,” Wildes said. “There’s nothing wrong with making preliminary plans, but I think we just need to be aware of where things are at the particular time.”
Depending on how many Americans are vaccinated, falls may become the ‘new normal’
Dr. Anthony Fauci said Thursday that he now thinks by “fall, mid-fall, early winter” that everyone might go back to work, kids will be in school, and indoor dining can enjoy again.
His prediction follows a White House announcement that a vaccine manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, will be able to speed up its supply. But it would still take the summer months to implement the vaccines.
“As we come to terms with the implementation of the vaccine program, you will see something noticeable in the direction of returning to normalcy and probably getting there before the end of the year,” said Fauci, the nation’s largest infectious disease expert and president Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser. .
Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said he prefers to put “normal” in quotes now because life would probably look very different. For example, online business meetings can become more common than crowded conference rooms if possible.
“Masks should be one of the last things to go,” Schaffner said. “They’re annoying, they’re dorky, but they’re so efficient and so light and so cheap. They would not be the first things I take off; they would be the last.”
But if enough people are vaccinated, he accepted that schools and colleges should be able to open at low risk in the fall, and the United States could see a brighter Thanksgiving.
“My expectation is that we will be in this ‘new normal’ in late summer and into autumn and we can all – I hope – thank Thanksgiving in a more conventional way and sit around the table with our family, friends, relatives, with masks gone and thanking and rejoicing that we have come through this terrible pandemic and survived, ”Schaffner said.
Still, every expert interviewed by ABC News described a kind of cautious “wait-and-see” approach. Vaccination doubts among some Americans remain a concern. And if viral transmission in other countries remains high, the virus could mutate in ways that separate the effectiveness of the vaccines – potentially risking even vaccinated individuals.
“We may come back to some of the things we’re used to, but to say we’re going back to normal – it’s not going to be the same,” Wildes said.
“I think it’s even going to be hard for me to hug people,” she added later.
When it’s all over, no matter how many months or years away, Markel, who has spent 30 years studying pandemics, is sure of one thing: “We forget all about it.”
“We are continuing our happy path,” he said. “I’m telling you, I’ve studied a lot of pandemics. It’s the end. It’s like memory loss. And that’s what I worry about.”