The prediction is one of four scenarios presented in the scenario hub's round of modeling. Each is dependent on two main factors: Whether or not children ages 5 to 11 become eligible for the vaccines and whether or not there are any more variants. The best-case scenario, that younger children can get vaccinated and we don't see any new variants, is what's reflected above. The worst-case scenario is the opposite, and shows a slow and steady increase in cases once a new variant is introduced. However, all four scenarios show that by March 2022, the daily number of COVID-19 deaths will have declined significantly.
While things should be looking up by March, Andrew Noymer, PhD, an associate professor of population health and disease prevention at the University of California, Irvine, says that we should still expect to see surges in the future.
"I don't doubt that a hundred deaths a day by March 2022 is a possibility, especially since it's described as the best-case scenario. It's always possible to have a rosy best-case scenario," says Dr. Noymer. "But I expect the cyclicality to remain. That means at some point in the future after March 2022 to have another wave. In a long enough time frame, no more variances is a little bit more of a deus ex machina than a plan."
COVID-19 modeling scenarios can be a bit tricky, explains Brian Labus, PhD, MPH, an infectious disease epidemiologist and public health professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, but as long as vaccine uptake continues to increase, we should be working our way to a better place.
"Trying to predict COVID is like trying to predict the weather," says Dr. Labus. "We can tell you it's going to get cold in the winter, but we can't say exactly how cold, we can't say exactly when, and it's the same problem with COVID. We expect that our cases are going to decline once we start vaccinating children, once we have higher rates of vaccination, both in the US and around the world. But exactly what that looks like is really impossible to say."
Modeling works off of what we already know along with hypothetical scenarios; it's impossible for any model to predict with 100 percent certainty.
"We are talking about the virus we know right now. When we made these projections a year ago, it was before the Delta variant existed. And when the Delta variant showed up, because it spreads more easily, we have to change our assumptions and then model it," says Dr. Labus. "A lot of that is based on a number we look at that tells you how easy this virus spreads." This number explains how many people each case will, on average, infect. "With that number, we can then figure out what percent of people we need either protected from natural immunity or vaccinated to say that we've reach herd immunity. When that number changes, all those calculations change too." Previously, researchers thought we would need 60 to 70 percent of the population to develop immunity to reach herd immunity. With more easily transmissible variants like Delta, that number is now 80 percent.
Both Dr. Noymer and Dr. Labus stress that COVID-19 will likely become endemic, meaning we will never eradicate it. But we can get it to a point where we have it under control. Reaching "endemicity or herd immunity won't mean zero COVID, it just means a less chaotic COVID," says Dr. Noymer. "There's going to be COVID in some way, shape, or form 10 years from now." Dr. Labus likens this distant reality to what we currently experience with other vaccine-preventable diseases. "We haven't eradicated measles or mumps or pertussis, but we have them under control in our population where when cases do occur, they don't infect everybody in a community," says Dr. Labus.
As we get through the next few months, it's important to continue doing what you can to decrease the spread of the virus through vaccination, booster shots, and masking when indoors.
"Look at Alaska or West Virginia or Ohio or Indiana, they're seeing lots of cases right now," says Dr. Noymer. "We have vaccines in all of those places. Not everyone wants a vaccine, but they're available. The vaccines are only as good as the number of people willing to roll up their sleeves and-or get a booster."
Booster shots are recommended because immunity against coronaviruses doesn't last very long, whether it's gained through vaccination or infection. Breakthrough COVID-19 cases are possible in vaccinated people and the risk seems to increase the further people move from their initial vaccination date.
Wearing masks when indoors is also important, explains Dr. Noymer. This is so even when you're vaccinated because vaccinated people can still catch and transmit the virus. Masking inside "lowers the flame on the pot. There will still be some people who get COVID, but it just lowers the temperature of the water," says Dr. Noymer. This is because wearing a mask decreases the amount of viral particles someone exhales into the air and the amount of viral particles one can inhale. This all impacts the severity of the infection.
As we head into 2022, know that it's very possible that the United States will find itself in a much better place than it is now, but that it's still important to remain vigilant if we're to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Confused about vaccines? Here, a biochemist explains how they work:
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