Can we get to ‘COVID zero’? Experts predict the next 8 months


COVID-19 is likely to follow a seasonal pattern – similar to some other respiratory viruses – with fewer cases come summer 2021 followed by a jump next winter, experts predicted in a Thursday briefing.

If that pattern holds, it could mean a need to reinforce the mask-wearing message as the weather gets colder and people once again congregate indoors.

“Right now, we are projecting the United States all the way to Aug. 1 [will have] 619,000 deaths from COVID-19, with 4.7 million globally,” said Ali H. Mokdad, PhD, professor of health metrics sciences at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, Seattle, during today’s media briefing sponsored by the Infectious Diseases Society of America and IHME.

The encouraging news is the vaccines appear to be working, and more Americans are getting them. “If you look at the data for these vaccines, they are extremely safe, they are extremely efficacious, and they make you basically impervious – for the most part – to getting serious disease, hospitalization, or death,” said Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security in Baltimore.

“These vaccines do what they were meant to do: defang this virus,” said Dr. Adalja, who is an IDSA Fellow and adjunct assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Emerging data out of Israel and other countries suggest a vaccinated person is less likely to transmit the virus as well, he added.

Still aiming for herd immunity

Furthermore, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is likely to approve emergency use authorization (EUA) among teenagers 12-15 years old “imminently,” thereby expanding the pool of people potentially protected by vaccines.

Such authorization could help with overall public health efforts. “That’s simply a mathematical formula,” Dr. Adalja said. “The more people that are vaccinated, including children, the quicker we’ll get to herd immunity.”

In addition, with lower case numbers expected this summer, herd immunity might become more achievable, said Dr. Mokdad, who is also chief strategy officer for population health at the University of Washington.

As important as herd immunity is, so-called decoupling is “more important to me,” Dr. Adalja said. Decoupling refers to separating infections from the more severe outcomes, so people who get COVID-19 are less likely to need hospitalization or die from it.

Vaccines get the credit here, he added, including with the variants. “Even if you get a breakthrough infection with a variant, it’s not likely to land you in the hospital or cause serious disease or death,” Dr. Adalja said.

Masks and the uncommon cold

Wearing a mask until we reach herd immunity is important because it’s not possible to tell who is vaccinated and who isn’t, Dr. Mokdad said. “Remember, as many people are waiting to get a vaccine, all of us have access to a mask,” he said.

Dr. Adalja agreed, adding that public health guidance on masks will likely stay in place until we cross that herd immunity threshold and community circulation of the virus goes down.

“People are probably going to want to continue wearing masks, at least some proportion, because they see the benefit for other respiratory viruses,” Dr. Adalja said. “How many of you had a common cold this year?”


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