We are all suffering from pandemic fatigue and looking forward to approval and distribution of vaccines to save us. But it is important to understand that vaccines won’t give us an early exit. With all the different vaccine trials under way, we will eventually have several vaccines — but they won’t make a major difference in the playing out of the pandemic.
After all, invention of vaccines is just the first step. They must then be manufactured, distributed and — most important — accepted by substantial numbers of people worldwide. Several recent surveys in this country indicate that many people will be slow to take a vaccine.
So, in all likelihood, vaccine uptake will not be rapid or widespread, especially if its safety is in doubt. Moreover, to be effective the vaccine will likely require a second booster shot (taken in three to four weeks).
Given the surge in new infections, vaccines will probably not be widely deployed before the U.S. achieves herd immunity — a level of infection in a population (it was roughly 40% for SARS-CoV-2) — that limits the further epidemic potential of Covid-19. We are not likely to reach that point before 2022 no matter what we do. Even then, vaccines would still be enormously valuable to protect uninfected people.
Either way, with good vaccines or without them, Americans will live in an acutely changed world until 2022 — needing to wear masks, avoiding crowded places and limiting travel, at least if we wish to avoid getting or spreading the virus. This is the immediate pandemic period.
For some time after we reach either herd immunity or have widely distributed vaccines, people will still be recovering from the overall clinical, psychological, social and economic shocks of the pandemic and the adjustments it required. This lingering response, typical of past serious epidemics, will last at least another year. Then, slowly, things will return to “normal,” but in a world with some persistent changes.
Many personal attitudes and practices, at home and at work, have already had to change as the first wave of the pandemic struck us. The deadly virus on the loose, the isolation and the slowed economy all worked together to foster more self-reliance — from home cooking to home haircuts to home repairs. People also took more personal responsibility for their own medical care and for decisions about whether to seek professional treatment, given the risks of going to a health care facility.
Many changes in ways of doing business that have been implemented in response to the pandemic are likely to endure. Practices long advocated by experts to facilitate the provision of medical care over the internet were suddenly not just permissible but encouraged. A portion of medical care moved online, to free up doctors’ time and reduce congestion in healthcare facilities.
The ripple effects throughout the economy have already been enormous, and we have seen only the beginning. As people continue to shift to working from home, employers are realizing they need less office space, which means fewer custodians, building managers and rental agents. The pandemic has already caused one of the largest global recessions in history. As long as the virus poses a material threat to life, many people won’t be willing to completely resume normal activities. The long-term effects of the pandemic are yet to be seen.