The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the lives of millions of people into a state of uncertainty, and as of May 8, there's no definitive end in sight to shelter-in-place measures in large swaths of the United States. As the weather grows warmer, more and more Americans are facing the temptation to go outside and return to some semblance of their former routines. Naturally, many people have a key question on their minds as a result of all this instability: When will quarantine end? Unfortunately for your summer plans, experts tell Elite Daily that it's difficult to narrow down an exact timeline with the limited data they currently have.
As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States approaches 1.3 million as of May 8, Americans are struggling with what may feel like an indefinite quarantine. Sporting events, concerts, weddings, and other large events have been canceled, and schools will remain closed through the end of the current school year in the majority of states — if not longer. With all this uncertainty, it's understandable that people are looking for answers. However, according to Rachael Piltch-Loeb, Ph.D, a preparedness fellow at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, those answers don't necessarily exist yet.
"We definitely do not have the data to support reopening," Piltch-Loeb tells Elite Daily. "Even in states where measures are being lifted, there is no evidence that the virus has abated. In fact, in some states the case counts and deaths are continuing to increase." This includes Georgia, which eclipsed 30,000 confirmed coronavirus cases as of May 8 — just days after lifting its stay-at-home order.
Different states have their own approaches to ending quarantine. Starting on May 1, states like Texas and Georgia lifted their stay at home orders, and many businesses have been allowed to reopen, though often with limited capacity. Meanwhile, states like New York, California, and Illinois — with major cities that risk a sharp uptick in caseloads — are taking it slower, with plans for phased reopenings. These states, which still have active stay-at-home orders, are planning to reopen "low-risk" businesses first, such as retail stores limited to curbside pickup. The states will then assess the impact of this phase, and if there's no spike in new cases, they will move forward with slowly reopening additional businesses. Restaurants, bars, shopping malls, and office buildings are further in the future, and governors in states with these phase-by-phase reopening plans warn their residents not to expect a return to any semblance of normalcy until a vaccine has been developed. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimates that a vaccine is approximately 12 to 18 months away — and that's an optimistic projection, given how long clinical trials typically take.
Experts don't have a definitive prediction for when it will be safe to end quarantine, though according to Piltch-Loeb, completely reopening everything as early as May or June is not supported by the limited data experts currently have. According to Dr. Lee Riley, M.D., professor and chair of Berkeley Public Health's Division of Infectious Disease and Vaccinology, tracking the person-to-person transmission of infection — in a process known as contact tracing — will be a huge part of figuring out when it's safe to reopen.
"We need to make evidence-guided decisions to relax social distancing measures," Riley says. "Most important is to find out who is continuing to get infected even after nearly two months of lockdown. This is well past the incubation period of COVID-19, so these new cases represent transmissions occurring after the lockdowns took effect. ... If we know who they are, we can use the data to decide who should go back to work first and later."
In order for quarantine to safely end, Piltch-Loeb says that there are three things that need to happen in addition to effective contact tracing. Until there is widespread and reliable diagnostic testing, antibody testing, and access to a vaccine and/or treatment for the coronavirus, Piltch-Loeb says, Americans shouldn't expect a return to normalcy. Diagnostic testing determines whether someone currently has the coronavirus, and this type of test is useful for policymakers to determine how many cases are confirmed in their jurisdiction. As states slowly move toward reopening certain businesses, diagnostic testing will tell them whether there is an uptick in cases or not — but only if everyone has access to accurate, affordable tests.
Antibody tests, meanwhile, determine whether someone has antibodies that may combat this particular coronavirus. Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease specialist at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health, tells Elite Daily that the antibody tests currently available for the coronavirus are frequently inaccurate. Swartzberg also warns against equating a positive antibody test with immunity or protection from the coronavirus, because researchers are still trying to figure out whether that's the case. Swartzberg and Piltch-Loeb both call for more robust and accurate antibody testing, as well as additional research into the the implications of these tests.
The final piece of the puzzle — and the most important in many states' plans to completely reopen — is the development of a vaccine and treatment for the coronavirus. "The last thing we want to do," Swartzberg says, "is bring thousands of people together in an enclosed space for a prolonged period of time" before these things are available. Until then, Swartzberg adds, Americans will hopefully see a "three steps forward, two steps back" rhythm emerge in states that have phase-by-phase plans to reopen.
"There is no magic point in time when it will be safe for life to be completely normal until there is a vaccine that works to confer immunity and people take that vaccine," Piltch-Loeb adds. "However, life will resume but there will be new normals. Restaurants will likely reopen but at lesser capacities and with new precautions in place; airline operators may be forced to not sell middle seats to make social distancing easier; workout classes may be half full, etc."
The development of a vaccine is key to ending quarantine because it will give people around the world a preventative measure against the virus, much like the annual flu shot. Then, even if people do contract the virus, their bodies would ideally be more equipped to fight it off. Until an accessible vaccine and affordable treatment are widely available, however — and it could be at least a year until they are — we should expect some degree of quarantine to continue, along with social distancing measures. If not, experts warn, we could see a second wave of the coronavirus — which is why quarantining and social distancing are both important tools to stay safe in the interim.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.
Rachael Piltch-Loeb, Ph.D, preparedness fellow at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Dr. Lee Riley, M.D., professor and chair of Berkeley Public Health's Division of Infectious Disease and Vaccinology
Dr. John Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., clinical professor emeritus at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health's Division of Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology