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The spread of the novel coronavirus has upended just about all corners of American life, either by directly forcing people to seek medical treatment or enter quarantine, or shutting down many other aspects of life such as restaurants, schools, small businesses and churches.
Now, as the number of confirmed cases of the infection keeps climbing in Maine and other parts of the country, and as many Americans isolate themselves in an effort to stop the virus from spreading further, they are probably asking themselves a simple question: How long will all of this last?
The immediate answer, according to public health experts, is that people will need to keep practicing rigid social distancing for at least several more weeks to minimize how many people catch COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, during its initial surge. By minimizing its spread now, they hope to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by patients.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reiterated that view during an interview with the Today Show on Tuesday. “I cannot see that all of a sudden, next week or two weeks from now it’s going to be over,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a chance of that. I think it’s going to be several weeks.”
But experts are less sure when the country will return to a point when people can safely leave their homes without taking any precautions, and they warn that point is probably far away.
It won’t arrive until a significant portion of the country is immune to COVID-19, either because they have already caught the virus — which can lead to suffering and death in some cases — or more preferably because they have received a vaccine, according to Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth and former director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, it could take at least a year for such a vaccine to be disseminated and for the population to develop what’s called “herd immunity.” Preliminary evidence from China has also shown that the coronavirus may not subside during the warmer summer months, Bill Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard University’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, told the Boston Globe.
“We can expect to live with some sort of social distancing advice or mandates for a few more months,” said Anne Mills, who is the sister of Maine Gov. Janet Mills. “My hope is that as we move through this surge in the next couple weeks, that restrictions and advice can be lifted for a bit, but we’re going to have to stay careful. If you completely cancel all advice and mandates around social distancing, you risk having another surge.”
Adding to the challenge, Mills said, is that while the current social distancing efforts are necessary to prevent a spike in COVID-19 cases in the short term, they will also delay how long it takes the population to reach herd immunity.
It’s hard to forecast what it will look like when society finally does start to return to normal, Mills said, but Maine can learn from countries and regions that have already seen surges of COVID-19 cases.
“Do you open up businesses first or schools first, or do them both at same time?” Mills said. “The good news, because we’re not the first state, is every week we get more information.”
Dr. Noah Nesin, the vice president of medical affairs for Penobscot Community Health Care, also said that it will be critical for Maine and the country to learn from countries such as China and South Korea as they begin to loosen their restrictions on their own economies and work toward herd immunity.
Based on the experience of other places, Nesin said that leaders could consider “pacing the return to some form of normality” so that people least vulnerable to the coronavirus head back to work first, followed gradually by people who are more vulnerable.
Some experts say that the restrictions shouldn’t be lifted until a few milestones have been reached, including a decline in total new cases and the expansion of testing for the virus such that it can be done widely, according to the Boston Globe.
Nesin said that places such as Maine will be hobbled by the limited number of coronavirus testing materials that are now available and new restrictions on who can be tested for COVID-19 that give priority to medical workers, the elderly, residents of group living facilities, people with underlying medical conditions and those who are already hospitalized.
Because testing is not being widely offered to those who may have COVID-19, it’s impossible to map out the full spread of the disease or figure out how it’s affecting patients, Nesin said.