With increasing vaccinations and declining new cases of COVID-19 in many parts of the country, the end of the pandemic may seem to be in sight. Many experts predict that the country will begin to normalize sometime between late spring and autumn.
But what does normalcy look like? How will we know when we get there?
And how will Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to lift nationwide restrictions on coronavirus affect the timeline?
Before the country normalizes, enough of the population must develop resistance to the coronavirus to stop its spread.
Experts set this threshold, known as herd immunity, to about 80 percent of the population. Experts from the Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation or PCCI recently predicted that Dallas County could reach herd immunity as early as late June.
Many people equate herd immunity with normalcy, but the two are not the same, said Dr. Holt Oliver of PCCI.
With herd immunity, “the risk of infection will be much lower,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean everyone has to just take off their mask when we get to this place.”
When Dallas County reaches herd immunity, the virus will continue to circulate, but the risk of large spikes spanning hospitals will be greatly reduced.
Normalcy will only resume when the number of confirmed and probable new cases falls below 1 in 100,000 or 27 new cases per day for 14 consecutive days, according to Dallas County COVID-19 response indicators. The current infection rate in the county is 21 new daily cases per 100,000, or 697 total daily new cases, placing it in the second highest “orange” category of community transmission, according to a database from Brown University School of Public Health. .
By county definition, even normalcy is not the same as life before the pandemic. His public guidelines for the “new normal” call for prolonged wearing of masks, social distancing and hand washing when eating in restaurants, shopping in stores and attending large gatherings.
Experts also point out that herd immunity is not a permanent condition. “It’s a liquid condition,” said Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard Channel School of Public Health. “He comes and then he can leave.” Mina said immunity among those infected at the start of the pandemic or vaccinated in early 2021 could weaken by the fall, which could trigger new waves of cases.
Coronavirus variants can also destroy herd immunity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified three main types of concern. One is a highly infectious strain first identified in the United Kingdom. Two other strains, one first identified in South Africa and one first discovered in Brazil, are spreading faster and can also infect some people who have been vaccinated or have recovered from previous cases of COVID-19.
Last week, Houston became the first city to report finding all three options of concern among its patient samples.
“It looks like we’re going to have to keep the vaccines up to date,” said Spencer Fox, a pandemic expert at the University of Texas at Austin. “I’m not sure about the frequency, but it may look like a seasonal flu.”
Dr John Carlo, a former Dallas County health and humanitarian director, said the new coronavirus could behave more like measles. The measles virus circulates at very low levels and returns to the pockets when vaccination or herd immunity levels weaken.
PCCI experts acknowledge that herd immunity may fade and return. Their prognosis depends on vaccination levels of at least 65,000 new shots per week and lasting immunity.
As of March 1, 45.5% of Dallas County residents were immune to the virus, according to the PCCI. From now until the end of June, the PCCI expects that 130,000 adults and children (5% of the population) will be newly infected with COVID-19 and approximately 1 million, or 40% of the population, will be vaccinated.
Steve Myth, president and CEO of PCCI, said he did not think Abbott’s decision to end restrictions on coronavirus restrictions in Texas would significantly affect the center’s forecasts.
“Otherwise, we can get to the levels of herd immunity faster, but getting there through more infected people is not safe for anyone,” he said. “We can and should get herd immunity through vaccinations.”
Dr. Philip Huang, director of health and humanitarian services in Dallas County, said in an interview that the cases could be lifted, similar to the way they did after Remembrance Day weekend after Abbott lifted the original state lock.
“There are still many people who remain unvaccinated and unprotected,” he said.
Along with its forecast, the PCCI published a map showing the approximate percentage of people in each North Texas zip code with immunity to the coronavirus. Prices range from 5.6% in zip code 75067 north of Coppell to 69.6% in zip code 75202 in downtown Dallas. Myth said that PCCI had no idea what the different prices accounted for.
Huang said a zip code map would be useful in identifying priority areas for vaccination efforts.
Carlo added that front-line workers and those with the least access to vaccines would bear the brunt of each new jump.
“It’s completely unfair to those in the mainstream workforce who have not yet been able to get the vaccines and are now more likely to be exposed to people who enter grocery stores, restaurants and bars without their masks,” he said. he. “It’s just a pity we couldn’t wait a little longer to be able to vaccinate these people.