Since starting in Wuhan, China roughly four months ago, the coronavirus outbreak has gone on to infect millions of people worldwide and has killed more than 230,000.
There are now indications the public health crisis could last another 18 months to two years, and countries should prepare for the worst-case scenario, according to a new report from epidemiological experts in the U.S.
“The virus caught the global community off guard, and its future course is still highly unpredictable; there is no crystal ball to tell us what the future holds and what the ‘end game’ for controlling this pandemic will be,” the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota said in its report.
The four experts who put the study together looked at three different scenarios of how the public health crisis could unfold in the coming months. The report focuses on the “temperate Northern Hemisphere,” which encompasses the United States, the report said.
Similar predictions, though, can be made about the “Global South,” where a lack of robust health care infrastructure, including a shortage of personal protective equipment, and the presence of other infectious diseases could result in the pandemic becoming even more severe, according to the study.
To help form their predictions and guidance, the experts looked at previous public health crises, including the SARS and 1918 influenza epidemics. Some of the scenarios the experts put forward have occurred during past pandemics, according to the report.
One looks at if the spring wave of COVID-19 is followed by a series of repetitive smaller waves in the summer and then consistently over a one- to two-year period, eventually diminishing gradually in 2021.
Another scenario shows the spring wave being followed by a larger wave in the fall or winter of 2020 and one or more smaller waves in 2021. This is what happened during the 1918 flu, and some CDC officials are anticipating a winter resurgence of the virus to be far more deadly than the current wave.
The third situation looks at if the current coronavirus wave is followed by a “slow burn” of ongoing case occurrences without a clear pattern. This trend has not occurred during previous influenza pandemics, the report noted.
“Whichever scenario the pandemic follows (assuming at least some level of ongoing mitigation measures), we must be prepared for at least another 18 to 24 months of significant COVID-19 activity, with hot spots popping up periodically in diverse geographic areas,” the report said.
Noting that COVID-19 spreads more easily than the flu, the report found that the outbreak likely will not be halted until 60% to 70% of the population is immune to the viral respiratory infection.
The experts recommended government agencies and health care providers prepare for the worst-case scenario of no vaccine being available and no herd immunity developing. Authorities should also develop strategies to ensure protections for medical workers during COVID-19 surges, the study said.
Public officials should message their citizens that the pandemic will not be over soon and that people need to be prepared for potential periodic resurgences of the disease over the next two years, according to the report.
“As the pandemic wanes, it is likely that SARS-CoV-2 will continue to circulate in the human population and will synchronize to a seasonal pattern with diminished severity over time,” the experts wrote.
The release of the report comes as several states in the U.S. are beginning to prepare to reopen their economies and lift social distancing guidelines, despite the United States being one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic.
As of Friday, there were more than 1 million confirmed cases of the disease in the U.S. and roughly 60,000 total coronavirus-related deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A Massachusetts General Hospital COVID-19 simulator has found fatalities could increase by the thousands as well if states do away with restrictions prematurely.
Massachusetts has seen some of the highest numbers of infections and deaths in the nation, with more than 62,000 total cases of the virus and 3,562 coronavirus-related fatalities identified as of Thursday.
A vaccine to prevent the disease is not expected to be available until January, and there is currently no recommended medical treatment for the respiratory infection.
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