Reader question: How long will COVID-19 restrictions continue?

When will we exit the COVID-19 safety freeway and enter a “pandemic offramp?” Image edited from Michael Rivera / Wikimedia Commons.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a reader question from a friend of mine who recently got engaged! He and his fiancée are planning a wedding in summer 2023, and he asked me: “How likely do you think it is that (1) the COVID-19 pandemic remains a serious danger to our safety in the summer of 2023 and (2) the government still has the energy to keep enforcing COVID-19 restrictions?” I’m going to tackle these questions one at a time.

Will the COVID-19 pandemic still be a serious danger to our safety in summer 2023?

I talked to an epidemiologist last week (for an upcoming story); he pointed out that COVID-19 is incredibly unpredictable—even for the most knowledgeable experts.

We don’t know why Delta surges appear to dip after two months, for example, or why cases might pick back up again after a decline. We can hypothesize (at least in the U.S.) that cold weather and more indoor gatherings are playing a role in the current beginnings-of-a-surge, but that’s a hypothesis. And there are plenty of other questions we’re still working to answer about the coronavirus, from why some people are superspreaders to how the virus can cause symptoms that last over a year.

So, it’s hard for me to say whether we’ll see more COVID-19 surges after the one that seems likely this winter, or what those surges will look like—whether we can stave off most severe infections with vaccinations (and booster shots), or whether hospitals will become overwhelmed yet again.

At the same time, we know that the vaccines are very good at protecting people from COVID-19. Three-dose series (and two-dose series with Johnson & Johnson) are especially good at protecting people, including from infection, transmission, severe disease, and Long COVID.

These incredible vaccines were developed based on early coronavirus strains, identified in China in early 2021. And they’re still working great against pretty much all variants. In the past couple of months, I’ve asked several experts what they think future variants might look like; and the consensus is that new mutations basically will arise from Delta at this point. The virus could get more contagious (as we saw with AY.4.2), but it seems unlikely that it would evolve to evade vaccine-induced immunity.

Here’s Senjuti Saha, a sequencing expert from Bangladesh (whom I interviewed for my Popular Science story on global vaccine equity), discussing this issue:

If we let infections hang around for too long without protecting people, without decreasing the burden of infection, it would not be surprising at all [if we see] newer variants. Will this be just a more concerning mutant of Delta? It’s possible. But it also could be something completely new that we’re not able to predict at the moment.

But I think it’s also very, very hard for us to get a new variant that will evade all vaccines. With the number of vaccines we have, we can really vaccinate many, many new people very, very quickly. I think no matter what variant comes, we will be able to bring it under control.

Of course, as far as I know, nobody saw a variant as contagious as Delta coming—so this could be overly optimistic. Again, there’s still a lot we don’t understand about this virus!

Will the government still enforce COVID-19 restrictions in summer 2023?

This second part of my friend’s question gets at a concept called “pandemic offramps,” which I’ve seen discussed a lot in COVID-19 scientist circles recently. The idea is, essentially, we need to decide how to get off the current freeway of COVID-19 safety and resume some kind of “normal life.”

The New York Times recently devoted its morning newsletter to this concept, asking when Americans will stop needing to “organize their lives around COVID-19.” The newsletter argued that vaccinated people already accept risk that’s comparable to COVID-19 in other ways, such as driving in cars.

But this piece drew criticism for suggesting that the U.S. loosen restrictions more when a new surge is approaching, more than 1,000 Americans are dying of COVID-19 every day, and billions around the world are still unvaccinated.

We’re clearly not anywhere close to the “end of the pandemic” right now. But at some point, our leaders will need to answer some questions, such as: When are masks no longer necessary in public spaces? What about rigid vaccination checks, or regular testing for certain schools and businesses?

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Sarah Zhang argues that the U.S. needs to agree on a new COVID-19 goal. We’re no longer striving for 70% of adults to get vaccinated by July 4, so what are we striving for? Is there a vaccination threshold that we can label “herd immunity,” or a daily case threshold that would signify the ability to loosen restrictions?

Since public health systems in the U.S. are so fragmented, these questions likely won’t be answered all at once for everyone, but will be answered individually—by states, cities, school districts, businesses, and other institutions. New Mexico has already done this, to a certain extent, with a tiered system that helps counties add or remove COVID-19 safety measures based on outbreak levels.

And of course, in some states, it seems like leaders have already decided that any level of COVID-19 cases is acceptable, as long as businesses stay open. We can see other (less conservative) leaders go in this direction, too, with the popularization of booster shots rather than, say, implementing new mask mandates.

So, my TL;DR here is: I think serious restrictions on the level of wedding cancellation are pretty unlikely. Rather, the wedding venue might require vaccines, maybe including booster shots (possibly even multiple rounds of booster shots!). Maybe it will require COVID-19 tests or masks indoors, or the wedding planners might want to impose such precautions themselves for the safety of their guests.

Personally, I hope that by summer 2023, we can at least buy rapid tests in bulk at Costco.

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