And in three to four months, researchers might have identified a treatment for COVID-19—not a cure, but something that could quickly and reliably ease symptoms and prevent deaths. This wouldn’t eliminate the continued need for social distancing, since large-scale outbreaks would still be possible, but it could reduce the risk of overburdening the country’s hospitals if an outbreak arose.
To Hanage, this timeline is likelier than the false-alarm scenario, but “all of this is Who knows exactly?”
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TIMELINE THREE: FOUR TO 12 MONTHS
One big unresolved question about COVID-19 is whether, like the flu, its spread will slow substantially during the summer. Researchers have a few theories for why summer is a season unfriendly to the flu—it could be that higher temperatures and increased UV radiation are inhospitable to some viruses, and/or that most schools are out of session, depriving viruses of a crucial breeding ground. But whether either of those theories applies to the coronavirus is not yet known.
Noymer guesses that we’ll find out if COVID-19 is seasonal sometime in the next two to three months, and here is where Timeline Three splits in two: In one possible universe, the virus recedes in the summer. In the other, it doesn’t. In both, at least some of the social distancing measures now in place continue into the second half of the year.
In the first universe, Noymer said, summer will be a bit more fun than spring was, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. Outdoor activities in small groups would probably be fine. Maybe bars and restaurants would reopen. But large gatherings would likely be out: “No Lollapalooza, no Major League Baseball, no crowded beaches,” Noymer guesses.
Hanage thinks that sports leagues might resume in the summer but without crowds, and that TV shows might forgo studio audiences. Meanwhile, stores might cap the number of shoppers allowed in at once. “I really don’t think that large crowds are going to be a thing for quite some time,” he said. But the smaller-scale units of American life might be phased back in.
It might even be (relatively) safe to travel to see loved ones. “Once it’s everywhere, and you are as likely to get infected in your local convenience store as anywhere, travel restrictions make very little sense,” Hanage said. “That said, there would need to be some responsible measures to help people not get too crowded in the airports.”
The downside of this closer-to-normal summer is that a resurgence of the disease in six months or so is a strong possibility (though not guaranteed). This “fall wave” of infections might arrive in September or October, reintroducing the need for social distancing. That social distancing might be on par with what’s happening now, or it might be eased a bit: By then, many people could have developed immunity, and could theoretically go out without risking infection. And we’ll know more about the virus too. If we’ve learned by the fall that children don’t spread it, schools might even reopen.