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Dr. Anthony Fauci tells Healthline that a COVID-19 vaccine alone won’t return our lives to a more normal state. Getty Images

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It’s the 64,000-dollar question adjusted not just for inflation but for the deep craving the world has to just get back to life already.

When will things get back to normal? And is that normal anything like the world we called normal before COVID-19 blasted into our lives?

Healthline reached out to some of our nation’s leading infectious disease experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, and posed the question: When will life return to the way it used to be?

Here’s how they see it.

Dr. Anthony Fauci

Dr. Anthony Fauci pauses when asked when we might return to normal and then pivots to what he wants us to know now.

We’ve got a lot more digging deep to do before this is over. In other words, a vaccine alone isn’t going to solve this pandemic, at least not now.

What America needs to do, he said, is to commit to masking, social distancing and the rest, listen and learn about upcoming possible vaccinations (so as to trust them), and then, take the vaccination.

“I’m a little bit disappointed in what I see,” Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Healthline. “When you want people to do the kinds of things that can mitigate against spread and you see people still not doing it, that to me is discouraging.”

“If we can get everyone to pull together and realize we all want to open up the economy, we all want to get people back to work, we all want to get a degree of normality, the best way to do that, as I said many times before and I’ll say it again, is to get that level of infection in the community down,” he said.

“The easiest way to get your children back to school when you’re in a red zone is do everything you can to make sure the zone you are in changes from red to green,” he added. “Then you can get the kids back to school.”

On Wednesday, Fauci told a Senate committee that he expects 700 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to be available by next April.

However, he told Healthline, we will still need to abide safety protocols such as physical distancing and mask wearing.

“We can be greatly helped by vaccine,” he said, “but it’s not vaccine alone.”

Fauci said that lending a date to a possible “normal” is tricky at best.

“There really is no absolute time I can tell you now unless certain things fall into place. It’s going to depend on the efficacy of the vaccines being tested right now and the uptake in the community of the vaccines,” he said.

“Let’s assume that we get a reasonably effective vaccine. Not measles vaccine where you have a 98 percent effective — I think that would be almost too much to ask for — but let’s talk about 75, 80 percent effective vaccine, which would be really good if we did that,” he said. 

“If we did that and we ultimately got everybody who should be and could be vaccinated, I would think that, together with not necessarily abruptly ending measures like masks and physical distancing, if we could get the majority of the community to adopt those health measures together with a reasonably effective vaccine, then we could get the level of infection down so low in the community that by the third quarter end of 2021 we could start thinking in terms of normal,” he explained.

But what if all doesn’t fall into place? 

“If we don’t have an effective vaccine, it may really be awhile before public health measures themselves get the level of virus so low that we can really feel like we can be, quote, normal without any significant restrictions,” he said.

“If the vaccine is reasonably if not quite effective, but not a very large proportion of the population take it, then that would really be unfortunate because it wouldn’t provide that umbrella of protection over the community so that you could feel reasonably certain that when you go to a family function, a wedding, or the like, that there’s not going to be a couple of people in there that are actually infected,” he continued. 

For that reason, Fauci is pushing for and helping with public education on vaccinations. He wants that campaign to start now rather than after a vaccine is approved.

“There are a lot of [public service announcements] I’m going to be involved in. I think you’re going to see a lot more of that,” he said. 

“That fundamentally is the job of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), but several of us are also involved [in] reaching out to the community, particularly the minority community because you know they’ve been skeptical, for good reason, about the federal government given the history of how the federal government over many, many decades have treated them, dating back to the things they don’t forget like the Tuskegee Study and other issues,” he said.

“So, yes, there will have to be better outreach, PSAs, transparency in what we do. There will have to be a lot of activity to try to get people to get vaccinated,” he said.

What would Fauci like the public to do to help move us toward a time of normal?

“First, get your flu shot and get it early,” he said. “Before October 31.”

Then, he said, double down on your masking and physical distancing efforts.

“People should really pay attention to the things we’ve been saying about universally wearing a mask, physical distancing, avoiding crowds, trying to do things outdoor instead of indoor,” he said. “You know, if we had universally adhered to that throughout the country, I doubt very seriously we would have seen the kind of surges that are continuing to keep us at a very high baseline.”

That baseline concerns him even this far into the pandemic.

“You know, baseline is very important. Remember, when we peaked, mostly driven by the outbreak in New York City, we never got below 20,000 baseline,” he said. “And then when the resurging occurred, we went up to a baseline of 70,000 a day. We’re now down to between 35,000 and 45,000 [positive tests a day nationally]. That’s still an exceptionally high baseline.”

That’s why he’s still pushing the basics.

“The only way you get down in the absence of a vaccine is by public health measures. You know it’s not rocket science. It’s pretty obvious and it’s been proven times and again. We’ve got to get that baseline low,” he said. “The lower the baseline, the better you are as you go into the fall and winter, of containing any little bits of blips of infection. When you have such a high baseline of community spread, it becomes very difficult to contain these surges that occur.”

“If we want normal, we need to make that our normal for now,” he added. “We can be greatly helped by a vaccine. But this is not going to be a vaccine alone solution.”

Dr. William Schaffner

When does Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert and professor in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Tennessee, feel we will be back to “normal?”

“The old normal?” he said. “I don’t know when that day will be, but it will be in the great and distant future. COVID… isn’t going to just disappear miraculously. It won’t just fade away.”

“This virus has plenty of human beings in our country it has yet to infect. If I had an emoji for it, it would be a sad, sad emoji,” Schaffner told Healthline.

That’s not to say Schaffner doesn’t have hope for us to get to another side of this. But he does have a caveat: If we as a nation do what needs to be done to get there.

“We have to be careful, sober, and reasonable,” he said. “We’re going to have to maintain our behavioral [actions, such as masking, distancing, and avoiding crowds].”

Schaffner points out that while Operation Warp Speed and the many other vaccination programs are exciting, the general public has to understand that “finding a vaccination” is different from getting that out to the entire population. 

That’s going to take time, too.

Schaffner said that, first, it’s unlikely whatever vaccinations we have will be 100 percent effective. For example, a tetanus vaccination hits the 100 percent threshold while the influenza vaccination does not. 

“Most [experts] feel this one will be somewhere in between those,” he said.

In other words, he said, if the vaccination is up to 70 percent effective, 30 percent of the population could still be at risk.

There’s also a high chance that a vaccination could require two doses, he said.

Schaffner said there’s an assumption when two vaccinations are needed that those who have had one will be prioritized for a second one before others get their first.

Then, there’s public perception.

“Current surveys indicate that half the population is reluctant to vaccinate [for COVID-19],” he said. “They’re wary. They’re going to wait to roll up their sleeve.”

Then there’s the challenge of how this vaccination may need to be handled.

“The vaccinations that are in late stage [trials] have special demands for handling,” he said. “We will need tightly controlled handlers all the way, and that will slow things down.”

And even once that’s solved, he said, we have more to ponder.

“Once all are vaccinated, we don’t know how long the protein will last [and protect people],” he said. “We’ll find that out down the road.”

So even then, he said, “Don’t break out the champagne yet.”

So what needs to happen? 

A strong dedication to masking, physical distancing, handwashing, and avoiding crowds.

He also believes that honest information needs to be delivered to the public.

“We know in public health with absolute assurance that if people understand the ‘why’ of things, people can handle things. We know that,” he said.

“Our leader now said he didn’t want to cause a panic,” he noted. “Yet every country in the world that has dealt with this straight has not had panic.”

“[The public] may not like what they hear, but at least they will understand it,” he added. “We need to prepare people for reality.”

So while he won’t pick a date for “normal,” he has this advice: “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Pace yourself and we will get there.”

Dr. W. David Hardy

Members of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) have been Zooming, discussing, learning, researching, and debating since the novel coronavirus first hit.

Dr. W. David Hardy, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Maryland and a spokesperson for the IDSA, as well as the HIV Medicine Association, has been at the center of it all.

When will we enter the “new normal?”

“When there is strong scientific evidence that the vaccination has rendered 65 to 70 percent of the population, that would be the time,” Hardy told Healthline.

And that, he agreed with Schaffner, will take more than just finding the right formula.

Given the need to solve distribution and storage problems, as well as to build a system to transport the vaccines, Hardy places his bet on the new normal as “the second or third quarter of 2021 for having the vaccinations ready and available, and more time to actually vaccinate all.” 

For that, though, he said the United States needs to build a vital side product: trust in science.

“It’s going to take an understanding and trust in that the science really has progressed since January,” he said, adding that there’s good news there.

“People need to trust that the ‘this is completely unknown’ part of this has passed,” he said. “That’s no longer true. The amount of research that has gone into this has been tremendous.”

On the front lines, Hardy said, panic has decreased as medical experts have learned more about both treating patients and protecting medical workers.

“As we learned more, we got more comfortable,” he said. “It is sort of like back when we would not go into the room of a person with AIDS. Once knowledge dispels the fear of the unknown, it gets less frightening.”

For instance, he said, “We now know this: [the novel coronavirus] spreads person to person, and surfaces are not as important.”

That means the general public should be comfortable with their safety as we wait for solutions by wearing a mask, washing hands, and physically distancing.

“Close interpersonal contact, not informal but close, that’s how it spreads,” he explained. “That’s why my panic level has come down. I now know how to protect myself and that gives me a great amount of confidence. My anxiety has really dropped.”

But the new normal? It may include some things we’re doing now.

Masking, he said, could become a seasonal thing, particularly around the height of influenza.

Handwashing is here to stay, he said, “But it should be anyway.”

And the handshake may be a thing of the past.

Or, Hardy said, “we’re going to have to learn to not take offense from now on if someone goes and washes their hands right after we shake their hand. It won’t be personal. It will just be the way things are done.”

But, in the end, trust in the system will be important.

“I am old enough to remember the polio vaccine,” Hardy said. “Everyone stood up, stood in line, and got that. I hope we will do that this time, too.”

“From the top down, all government needs to be careful to not throw doubt into this,” he said. “When our leaders propose conspiracy theories, it gets us no closer to that goal of normal.”