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When can we all get back to normal?
As the COVID-19 vaccination rollout gains speed, that's the question on the mind of many Americans. Unfortunately, the answer is less than clear-cut.
Experts say we first need to reach “herd immunity,” which is achieved when a significant proportion of the population becomes immune, mostly through vaccination, so the coronavirus can no longer spread easily.
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White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci has estimated that 70 to 85 percent of the U.S. population needs to be vaccinated to develop “a blanket of protection over the country and very little viral activity.”
Monica Gandhi, M.D., an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, says we will know we're on the road to normalcy based on what's happening in hospitals and in the community.
"We will know it when we see it,” she says. “First, hospitalizations will be massively reduced, because people can't get severe disease after they're immunized. Second, cases will be so low that even when people [have respiratory symptoms and] test, they won't have it.”
Estimates of when we will reach that point are all over the map. Some experts predict a return to normalcy as soon as April or May, while others say it may not be until 2022.
The wide discrepancy reflects the reality that a range of complex factors could affect the timeline, in ways both good and bad. Here are four of the biggest variables that will determine when we can return to some semblance of normalcy.
1. The pace of vaccination
Probably the most important factor is the speed of the vaccine rollout. If the U.S. administers 1.9 million doses a day — the average vaccination rate in early March — it would take an estimated seven months to cover 75 percent of the U.S. population with a two-dose vaccine, according to a Bloomberg projection.
But it likely won't take that long, experts say, because vaccine makers are ramping up production, with the potential to significantly boost the number of vaccinations administered per day. President Joe Biden announced March 2 that he expected there would be enough doses of coronavirus vaccine available for the entire U.S. adult population by the end of May, though he says it will take longer to get all those shots in arms.
"We're moving in the right direction, but if you map out estimates of when we vaccinate enough people [for a return to normalcy], we're still well into the summer,” says Cameron Wolfe, MBBS, an infectious disease specialist and co-chair of the clinical COVID-19 task force at the Duke University Medical School in Durham, North Carolina.