For the past year and a half, the pandemic has created a deep feeling of uncertainty as the threat of COVID has loomed heavily over everyday life. Even a brief respite that saw cases drop steadily through the spring was short-lived as the Delta variant sent numbers back up again through the summer. But now, one virus expert says that the pandemic's days may be numbered and that COVID will finally be "under control" in a matter of months. Read on to see when we might finally be able to put the virus behind us.
We may be able to get COVID "under control" by March of next year, one expert says.
In their latest set of projections, researchers at the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub used mathematical models from nine different research groups to develop a set of four forecasts for the next six months, NPR reports. Each included various events that might determine how the virus would spread, including whether or not children would become eligible to be vaccinated or if another highly contagious variant were to appear.
The model that the researchers plotted as the most likely scenario, involving vaccinations for children and sparing the public yet another easily-spread variant, showed a steady decline throughout the winter without any significant spike. After assessing the model, William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, cautioned that while "there could be a number of bumps in the road," he was cautiously optimistic that the Delta surge was in its last phase and that the pandemic would be "comparatively under control by March."
Other experts are optimistic but still caution that unknown variables could end up affecting the timeline.
According to the projection, current numbers should continue to fall through the fall and winter. The model expects the rate seen on Sept. 11 of 145,097 new cases a day to drop down to 9,055 by March 12. COVID-related deaths are expected to follow suit, plunging from a rate of 1,626 per day to 59 on the same date.
"Any of us who have been following this closely, given what happened with Delta, are going to be really cautious about too much optimism," Justin Lessler, PhD, an epidemiologist from the University of North Carolina who helps run the modeling hub, told NPR. "But I do think that the trajectory is towards improvement for most of the country," he says.
But Lessler warns that even though the most likely scenario model presents a relatively rosy outlook, it's far from certain that it will play out as predicted. Another of the models that takes a new contagious variant hitting the U.S. into account predicts that cases could rise to as high as 232,000 per day before dropping to around 50,000 in March. "We have to be cautious because the virus has shown us time and time again that new variants or people loosening up on how careful they're being can lead things to come roaring back," Lessler told NPR.
Not all areas of the country may see the same level of progress by spring.
While Hanage sees a very real potential for COVID to be brought under control by spring, he also cautions that history tells us we may be in store for another surge of the virus. He points out that the heights of the pandemic were reached over the winter when colder weather forced more people indoors. "If you look at the seasonal dynamics of coronaviruses, they usually peak in early January. And in fact, last year we saw a peak like that with SARS-CoV-2," he told NPR.
Both Lessler and Hanage also expressed concern that the numbers shouldn't mislead anyone into believing that certain states wouldn't continue to see some surges. Lessler specifically cited Pennsylvania and some western states such as Utah and Idaho as being at risk of case spikes, while Hanage said states with colder winters could see infections rise as well. "I would be concerned about interpreting these in an overly optimistic fashion for the country as a whole," Hanage warned.
However, Lessler points out that this winter has the advantage of widely available, highly effective vaccines and a greater number of people who have been exposed to the virus. While the infection rates are still high and precautions are still necessary, he argues that conditions are at a better point than they were this time last year. "The biggest driver is immunity," he told NPR. "We've seen really big Delta waves. The virus has eaten up the susceptible people. So there are less people out there to infect."
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Other experts also predict that spring could be a turning point in the pandemic.
Even as the Delta variant surge shows signs of tapering off, other experts have given similar predictions about when the pandemic will really start winding down. According to Celine Gounder, MD, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York City, it likely won't be until next year, telling The New York Times: "I don't think we're really going to turn the corner until next spring."
Gounder added that while they won't be as severe as the ones experienced last year, we'll most likely see another set of surges over major holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's as people congregate indoors. She also points out that the return of students to the classroom provides a new way of spreading the virus that wasn't seen during earlier phases of the pandemic.
"A lot of schools across the country are just not taking this very seriously this year," Gounder told The Times. "So you will see transmission from schools back into the community."