It’s official: The new coronavirus (COVID-19) is now a pandemic, meaning it has spread significantly worldwide since it first emerged in China in December 2019, per the World Health Organization (WHO). There are over 110,000 confirmed cases and counting around the globe.
As countries and cities self-quarantine, limit travel, declare emergencies, and cancel major events, one question is likely on your mind a lot: When will this pandemic actually end? The short answer is, no one can say for certain. But infectious disease specialists and researchers have some thoughts to help put this global health situation into perspective.
How long will people be dealing with the novel coronavirus in the U.S. and around the world?
Honestly, it’s impossible to say if and when the coronavirus will die down because it’s a totally new virus, and therefore unpredictable, says Faheem Younus, MD, the chief of infectious diseases at University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health. But pandemics have happened before, and they eventually pass as they become more contained, and as vaccines are developed and distributed. But researchers do look at past pandemics to make very baseline predictions about when it might end. And in the past, pandemics have typically lasted between 12 and 36 months.
Here’s one example of the timeline of a past pandemic: In 2009, a novel H1N1 flu pandemic occurred. (Remember swine flu?) The WHO declared a pandemic that June, and by mid-September, the FDA approved four vaccines for the virus, and they started getting administered in October. In late December, vaccination was opened up to anyone who wanted it, and the pandemic was deemed over in August 2010, according to a timeline from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In the past, pandemics have typically lasted between 12 and 36 months.
The bummer is, though, you can’t simply model a new pandemic against a past one and accurately determine how bad or long *this* pandemic will be—because they are not the same viruses, and viruses behave and spread differently, says Rishi Desai, MD, a former epidemic intelligence service officer in the division of viral diseases at the CDC. But as more info becomes available about COVID-19, better predictions will be made. “My expectation is that COVID-19 will continue to be a threat for a good part of 2020, and that we will start to see the page turn in 2021,” Dr. Desai says. “At that point, we may have a vaccine, and we will have much more experience with this disease.”
Some good news: Right now, researchers are working on multiple vaccines in both animal and human trials. The WHO director-general said this week it may take 18 months for a novel coronavirus vaccine to be developed.
Could warm weather help mitigate the spread of novel coronavirus and help end it?
You may have heard a pesky little rumor that the COVID-19 pandemic *might* die down in spring, since the spread of other types of coronavirus tends to peak between December and March. But, again, “it’s hard to know which way this virus will go,” says Sandra Kesh, MD, an infectious disease specialist and deputy medical director at Westmed Medical Group in Purchase, New York. At this point, experts simply don’t know enough about how COVID-19 spreads, and how shifting weather and temperatures may or may not affect it, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Another reality is that changing seasons tend to have *less* of an impact on new viruses, says Dr. Kesh, so you can still get sick outside of the typical winter season. And, remember: This is global, so it’s always winter somewhere. As such, the situation could potentially improve in one hemisphere when summer arrives and simultaneously get worse in another because, yep, it’s winter there, explains Dr. Younus.
So what might happen with the novel coronavirus in the next few months?
“Because this is a new virus, those who have not been infected (the vast majority of the world) have no immunity to it,” says Dr. Kesh. So in the worst-case scenario, “if enough people in a community get sick at the same time, this could overwhelm our health-care resources and disrupt the everyday processes in life we all rely on like going to school, work, shopping centers, and public gatherings.” Already, the WHO has called for a 40 percent increase in production of medical equipment, as health-care workers are facing shortages of personal protective equipment like gloves and N95 masks.
Depending on where you live, don’t be surprised if events are postponed or canceled, and be prepared for a potential ordered quarantine in your city or region for an extended period of time in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, says Dr. Desai. A snapshot of what that might look like: In Washington state, health officials are dealing with the novel coronavirus outbreak there by asking residents to avoid gatherings of over 10 people, shift towards working from home, and stay in as much as possible if they’re pregnant, older than 60, or have underlying health conditions.
There is a silver lining here: “As the virus spreads, more and more people will develop immunity to it, so the impact will decline with time,” says Dr. Kesh. Again, though, just how long that could take isn’t clear (sorry!).
In the meantime, keep practicing all of the hygiene and lifestyle habits you’ve been hearing over and over.
You should make sure you’re prepared for disruptions (which are a possibility), possibly at your job or in your community. You may have to go with the flow to some extent, as the future remains unknown.
But ultimately, the future of the novel coronavirus pandemic depends on how we respond to it, and there’s plenty you can do to help, experts agree. Stay calm (as much as you can!) and stick to the basics: Wash your hands often, keep them away from your face, know what symptoms to look out for, stay in and away from at-risk populations (like the elderly and immune-compromised) when you’re sick, and encourage your friends and family to follow suit. A healthy dose of perspective: “For the average healthy person, [COVID-19] is not likely to be life-threatening at all,” says Dr. Younus.
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