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The future of COVID-19: What can we expect over the next six months?

COVID future
Posted at 3:14 PM, Jun 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-25 11:00:19-04

As we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to COVID-19, many can’t help but wonder: could that light flicker out? What can we expect in the next six months or even a year?

We sat down with three health experts to answer those questions.

Which parts of the U.S. could face a rough road ahead?

“We’ve got this story of two Americas. We’ve got some cities that are above 70%--San Francisco, places like that--and then, where the numbers are much lower,” Dr. Charles Stoecker, who lives in Louisiana, a state where vaccination rates are low.

Dr. Stoecker is a health economist and professor at Tulane University. He also advises both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) on vaccine compliance.

Initially, the U.S. saw a great deal of hesitancy among minority communities, and understandably, as there have been some abuses in our country. Now, the U.S. is seeing more white Americans in rural areas with the lowest vaccination rates.

While the vaccinated will be primarily protected against the virus, the areas with higher numbers of people who are unvaccinated could put strains on hospitals, especially with the increased cases of the delta variant.

“So, if we look what's happening even right now--so in the state of Colorado, where we have low vaccination rates in specific counties, we're already seeing increased cases, increased hospitalizations. And I predict we're going to see increased deaths in these counties. We're going to see a surge of need of our ICU beds,” Dr. Rebecca Weintraub, a professor at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Weintraub also runs vaccine delivery at Ariadne Labs, which is a health system center between the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She says herd immunity is unlikely.

“You know, when we speak to our colleagues and epidemiologists that I interface with, most folks say that is not within our mind, that should not be within our mindset or even the goal at this point. We've lost that window of opportunity,” Dr. Weintraub said.

So, what happens this fall? Will we see a major resurgence?

“We usually also see other respiratory viruses circulating, particularly influenza, flu,” said Dr. Amanda Castel, a professor of epidemiology at George Washington University, whose expertise stems from her training as a CDC and prevention epidemic intelligence service officer. “And so, it'll be important for us to encourage people to get vaccinated for flu also, if they haven't already because that will help us kind of tease out COVID versus flu. Otherwise, we're going to see people starting to move indoors a little bit more, and depending on where you are and vaccination coverage, that may be a time when we must revisit masking, which obviously those restrictions have been lifted currently."

But what about shutdowns?

Dr. Stoecker questions whether there is the political will to do another shutdown if we see a resurgence of cases. He suspects not because the areas that are hit the hardest are the same areas that are less amenable to taking health mitigation measures.

And the big question: will we see an end to coronavirus?

“So, I think the virus is going to end up being what we call an endemic. So, endemic means that it's kind of establishes a baseline in the communities not outbreaks may occur here and there, but generally, it's just kind of circulating in the background,” Dr. Castel said.

Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering