Social Distancing Due to Coronavirus Could Last Into 2022, Harvard Study Finds

A Harvard University study published Tuesday found periods of social distancing may be required for two years into 2022 in order to prevent future COVID-19 seasonal outbreaks from overwhelming the U.S. health care system.

Researchers at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health analyzed scenarios in which a surge of people sickened by the novel coronavirus could crush the country's hospitals and intensive care medical workers. The analysis included variables on whether people infected with coronavirus have developed short-term (one year) or longer-term immunity against coming resurgences.

The researchers projected that a wintertime outbreak "will probably" occur after this Spring's initial, "most severe" outbreak, and it's possible critical care capacities will be overwhelmed and unable to provide treatment for new waves of positive patients.

The researchers acknowledged the massive economic hurt the COVID-19 pandemic has put on the United States and across the globe. They said their research, published Tuesday in the journal Science, does not endorse any particular policies, but instead considers the viability of alternative options into preventing a "catastrophic burden on the health care system."

"Absent other interventions, a key metric for the success of social distancing is whether critical care capacities are exceeded. To avoid this, prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022," the Harvard School of Public Health researchers wrote in the analysis published this week.

"We projected that recurrent wintertime outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2 will probably occur after the initial, most severe pandemic wave," the researchers continued. "Additional interventions, including expanded critical care capacity and an effective therapeutic, would improve the success of intermittent distancing and hasten the acquisition of herd immunity ... Even in the event of apparent elimination, SARS-CoV-2 surveillance should be maintained since a resurgence in contagion could be possible as late as 2024."

SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus which causes the COVID-19 disease.

The researchers noted that varying degrees of seasonal transmission and the continuation of it having low fatality rates will have a major effect. But they still cautioned that "experience from China, Italy and the United States demonstrates that COVID-19 can overwhelm even the health care capacities of well-resourced nations."

In regards to the devastating effect the pandemic lockdown has had on the U.S. economy, the Harvard study authors said they were not taking a position for or against discussion of ending social distancing in the near future.

"Our goal in modeling such policies is not to endorse them but to identify likely trajectories of the epidemic under alternative approaches," they wrote. "We do not take a position on the advisability of these scenarios given the economic burden that sustained distancing may impose, but we note the potentially catastrophic burden on the health care system that is predicted if distancing is poorly effective and-or not sustained for long enough."

hospital nurses workers overwhelmed 2022
A Harvard University study of the "postpandemic period" found social distancing periods may need to extend until 2022 to prevent the U.S. health care system from being overwhelmed during likely future outbreaks. WIN MCNAMEE / Stringer/Getty Images

Correction (4/15/20, 03:00 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article said SARS-CoV-2 was also known as COVID-19. This has been corrected to state SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.