Analysis Finds We Might Need Months Of Social Distancing To Curb Coronavirus

by Cassandra Stone
A man wears a protective mask as he sits in Times Square on March 12, 2020 in New York City.
Gary Hershorn/Getty

We may need to socially distance for months to ensure our healthcare system isn’t overwhelmed

New analysis from Imperial College London has concluded that, in order to flatten the curve of the virus and avoid completely overwhelming our healthcare systems, we’re all going to need to practice “social distancing” for months, rather than a few weeks.

The findings show that we need to basically shut down society in order to accomplish this, which means lawmakers need to figure out a plan of attack in moving forward when it comes to schools, places of business, and treatment.

“The take-home message of that Imperial College model is that in order to keep from overwhelming the health care system with severe cases, we are going to have to have very tight controls in place on transmission through social distancing. And those controls are going to be so tight that they will be economically and socially very damaging,” says Marc Lipsitch, an expert on infectious disease modeling at Harvard University, tells NPR.

Lipsitch warns that both situations may be unavoidable altogether, as there is no vaccine to prevent the spread of this virus. “There’s no really good option that doesn’t involve at least one of those two problems,” he says. “And in fact, both could happen if we aren’t very careful about how we manage things.”

Currently, officials recommend Americans avoid gatherings of 10 people or more, dining in restaurants (most restaurants are operating for take-out services only), all non-essential businesses, and to also avoid unnecessary travel.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, announced these new recommendations on Monday. “We had new information coming out from a model, and what had the biggest impact in the model is social distancing: small groups, not going in public in large groups,” she said.

The Imperial College London says the issue moving forward is that there is no clear way to go from here since a crisis of this magnitude is unprecedented, and there’s no way of knowing how long we need to continue the processes currently in place.

The college’s researchers analyzed different combinations of ways to proceed: home isolation of infected people, home quarantine for all household members of infected people, social distancing for all ages, and social distancing for those over the age of 70.

Another option they focused on was to keep a relatively modest restriction on social activity — this option combines all of the efforts above for a lengthier period of time. This approach cut estimated deaths in half and reduced peak healthcare demand by two-thirds, they found.

Unfortunately, even this option doesn’t solve the crisis we’re facing. It still leaves hospitals completely overwhelmed — the surge capacity would exceed by, at minimum, 8-fold. Even if all patients who were diagnosed with the coronavirus were treated in some manner, the U.S. alone would still see more than one million deaths.

However, it still resulted in many deaths and overwhelmed intensive care units. The simulation showed that the surge capacity of hospitals would be exceeded by at least 8-fold. Even if all patients were treated, the U.S. would see more than 1 million deaths.

According to the college, keeping the number of deaths low and keeping health care systems functioning required social distancing for the entire population, over a long period of time.

“It is likely such measures — most notably, large scale social distancing — will need to be in place for many months, perhaps until a vaccine becomes available,” researcher Neil Ferguson says in a written statement. “The effects on countries and the world will be profound.”