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Experts say you can expect the COVID-19 pandemic to linger for at least a year, with social distancing protocols and empty store shelves occurring along with waves of infections. Getty Images
  • Numerous reports and computer modeling indicates that we’ll see multiple waves of the COVID-19 pandemic over the coming months.
  • Self-isolation won’t stop the disease, but it will reduce strain on medical resources, allowing doctors to save more lives.
  • Scientists and doctors around the world are working on a vaccine, but it’s likely more than a year away.
  • We’ll have to get used to social distancing over the next 1 to 2 years.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a response unlike anything in memory.

Nonessential businesses, educational institutions, and any form of large-scale gathering have all been shuttered across the United States until further notice.

Millions of Americans are practicing self-isolation and social distancing in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

For some, it may be difficult to believe it’s only been a couple of weeks.

While several weeks of aggressive measures should slow transmission and give medical personnel a fighting chance, Americans should be braced for many more months of COVID-19 precautions, according to a federal government response plan.

The 100-page document, shared with The New York Times, paints a sobering picture of what the next year — or more — could look like.

While the plan’s authors acknowledge that it’s difficult to predict specifics “with such a fast-moving pandemic,” it states that we’re likely in for “multiple waves of illness” in the coming months.

The findings mirror similar reports, including one dated March 17 from Imperial College London, along with the opinions of doctors working on the front lines.

“We are at the beginning of what will likely be multiple rolling waves of the pandemic with an unclear timeline that could play out over the next 1 to 2 years, chiefly based on our ability to mitigate the spread of the virus,” Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline.

There’s been much talk of “flattening the curve.”

This is the principle that by slowing the spread of disease, we can avoid infections spiking and overwhelming the country’s medical system.

While this is the best strategy we have in the early days of the pandemic, experts say it’s important to point out this won’t beat COVID-19. It’ll merely slow it down.

“One of the downsides of flattening the curve is that, while you save lives, reduce the burden, and the overwhelming of hospitals, you extend the period of infections,” Dr. Eric Christopher Cioe-Pena, director of global health for Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York, explained to Healthline.

“As we reduce infections with social distancing, we are going to see one of two models play out: multiple spikes in cases throughout the next 18-month period until we are able to roll out a vaccine, each resulting in the need for strict social distancing and isolation of sick cases at home; or we are going to see a longer, more prolonged and steady stream of cases,” Cioe-Pena said. “The steady stream ideally will not overwhelm hospitals, but it will result in the same overall number of cases, just over a longer period of time.”

Cioe-Pena says this longer period of time will likely be 12 to 18 months.

For anyone holding out hope that they’ll be able to go to a baseball game or family event in the next few weeks, it seems unlikely.

Modeling used in the Imperial College London report indicates that social distancing protocols will need to last for months, not weeks, to be effective.

“The idea that we could do this for 2 weeks and then go back to normal basically pushes the big spike in cases back by 2 weeks but won’t be enough to stop the excess deaths and overwhelming of hospitals, according to this model,” Cioe-Pena said.

While it’s impossible to take anything but an informed guess at what the outlook could be a few months down the line, it appears that North Americans can expect at least a few months of social distancing protocol.

After that, further waves or even spikes will likely be seen in the number of known cases. If self-isolation protocols have been lifted in the interim, it’s likely they’ll be reinstated during these periods.

Then, a year or more down the line, there will hopefully be a vaccine that’s ready for widespread distribution.

Until then, doctors are unequivocal with their messaging: Stay isolated and flatten the spike.

“With effective lockdowns that promote social distancing, along with dedication to self-isolation and quarantine measures, it is hopeful that the intensity of the subsequent waves will be diminished,” Glatter said. “The public must heed these warnings in order for this to be effective.”

If there’s a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, it’s the simple fact that the pandemic will end — even though that won’t come for a while.

Potential vaccines are being developed by multiple countries, with some fast-tracking human trials.

But to prove that a vaccine is safe for humans, medical trials are necessary. And it will likely be 12 to 18 months before any vaccine is ready for mass distribution.

Glatter told Healthline it’s likely we’ll see the effects — or lack thereof — of mitigation efforts, such as social distancing, before a vaccine becomes available.

He also points out the news could get grim during that time frame due to the fast-moving nature of the virus.

“Within that time frame, according to the [London] study, we could see anywhere from 500,000 to 2.2 million deaths worldwide,” Glatter said.

“SARs-COV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, is nearly 10 times more lethal than seasonal influenza. The ability of the virus to continually mutate will also be a factor in the ongoing virulence of COVID-19,” he said.