By now, pretty much everywhere in the world has been affected to some extent by the global pandemic of COVID-19. National events like most sports organizations, global events like the Olympics, and local events like art shows and parties have all been delayed, postponed, or canceled entirely. Some are trying to transition to online or digital variations, but not all events can easily make that leap.
The question on everyone’s mind right now is this: when will it all be over? When can we return to life as we knew it before the virus made the leap from bats to humans and started spreading like a wildfire?
This is an extremely complicated question to answer, but we’ll do our best.
Why Events Are Being Delayed and Canceled
To understand how long it might take for things to return to normal and events to start coming back, it’s important to know exactly why they’re being canceled in the first place. Obviously, the reason is the virus, but why?
The COVID-19 virus transmits primarily through droplets. What this means is that moisture you expel from your body carries a high concentration of the virus – that high concentration can infect other people when they let those droplets into their systems.
Droplets are expelled from your body through normal living. This includes breathing and sweating, as well as coughing and sneezing. Droplets can contaminate you through breathing them in, as well as through getting in your eyes and even open wounds.
The reason COVID-19 is so dangerous is that it’s a “novel” virus, that is, it’s new. People have not encountered this virus or a variation of it at any point in our history, because it has primarily been an animal-borne virus. Our bodies have no natural immune system response to it, so it’s able to get a foothold in our lungs very easily. Luckily, the virus is relatively light, all things considered. It doesn’t kill a high percentage of the people it infects. The reason everyone is so afraid of it is that it’s extremely infectious. It’s very, very easy to catch it, and as such, sooner or later almost everyone is going to get it. The flu might kill more of the people who catch it, but hundreds of millions more people are going to catch COVID-19 before we can develop a vaccine for it.
Flattening the Curve
You may have heard the phrase “flattening the curve” used in reference to COVID-19, and as a reason behind staying isolated, canceling events, and keeping your distance from other people. What does it mean?
Flattening the curve means spreading out the number of people who catch the virus. Essentially, if we do nothing, the number of people infected by COVID-19 will grow exponentially. One person has it and spreads it to ten people on day 1. On day 2, those ten people each spread it to ten people, so 100 people have it. Day 3, those 100 people each spread it to ten people, so 1,000 people have it. Day 4, 10,000 people have it. Day 5, 100,000 people have it.
These numbers aren’t accurate, of course. There’s no guarantee that one person will give it to ten people, and it takes more than one day for the growth rate to increase like that. The actual curve is something like three days for the number of cases to double. And, sure, you might not spread it to anyone, but there are also super-spreaders who have given the disease to hundreds or thousands of people. A man in India exposed the disease to nearly 40,000 people!
Left alone, everyone in the United States would catch the disease (more or less, accounting for population spread and density) in a matter of a couple of months. Since the disease only lasts for a few weeks, after which you’re either recovered or deceased, you would think that the pandemic would be over in a couple of months at most.
The problem here is if there ends up being an insanely huge number of cases that are far more than the nation’s hospital systems can handle. If a city has a million cases of the virus, and 5% of them need hospitalization, that means 50,000 people need hospitalization. No hospital system is capable of handling that many intensive care patients, and indeed, there are entire counties with either no ICU beds or no hospitals within them.
The point of flattening the curve is to slow the spread of the disease. It will take longer for the pandemic to pass, but fewer people will be infected at any one time, so it’s easier for hospital systems to handle them without having to let people die for lack of available treatment. Overall, more lives are saved.
Developing a Vaccine
So what about a vaccine? As soon as we can develop a vaccine and produce it in large quantities, deliver it to people throughout America and the world, we can put the whole pandemic thing behind us, right?
Well, this is true, but it’s also more complicated than you might think. Vaccines require a lot of research and testing. Now, we’re obviously not virologists here.
Vaccines need to pass a number of tests before they can be made readily available.
- The vaccine needs to be safe. If taking the vaccine has dramatically negative side effects it’s not a good treatment.
- The vaccine needs to confer immunity. The coronavirus is new, and we don’t know much about it. For example, we don’t know how long immunity to it lasts after you’ve recovered from it, and we don’t know if an immunity to one strain confers immunity to others, or even how many strains there are.
- The virus needs to stay stable. How quickly the virus mutates can be a huge factor in how long it takes to develop an effective vaccine. This is, by the way, why there’s no one-shot vaccine for the flu. There are hundreds of strains of the flu, and no vaccine can handle them all. Scientists have to guess which strains are going to be prominent each year and develop and produce the relevant vaccine in advance.
Human trials for a vaccine can take as long as 12-18 months before the vaccine is proven to be effective. Indeed, many vaccinologists don’t expect a viable vaccine for a year and a half.
Of course, with a global pandemic, some trials may be rushed. There are many more labs working to develop a vaccine than for other diseases, and more resources are being pushed towards testing. Some trials, like animal trials, are being skipped in favor of direct human trials. Some companies are even paying people to be willingly infected with the coronavirus just to test the vaccines they’re developing.
What does this mean for event schedules?
Worst Case Scenarios
If the world has to wait until a vaccine is developed, tested, made broadly available, and delivered around the world before events can be scheduled again, it could be a year and a half to two years before events can be scheduled again.
Obviously, this would devastate a large number of small businesses and large businesses alike, from suppliers like us to event facilities to sports leagues to people who want to get married or celebrate birthdays. Thankfully, this isn’t likely to be the case.
In order for life to return to some level of normalcy, a significant percentage of the population needs to either be vaccinated against the disease, or they need to have caught it and recovered. The number should be somewhere around 80% of the population with some kind of immunity.
Of course, there are a lot of factors that can throw a wrench into the works here. If the virus mutates and can re-infect people who have been infected before, things become a lot more complicated. Likewise, if an infection doesn’t confer lasting immunity, we may end up having to go through this entire process again in another year or two.
What’s generally more likely to happen is that some elements of life are going to return to normal, but some will stay in a pandemic status for quite a while. Full-on state-level emergency isolation, or country-level quarantines like what India, Korea, and Italy have been doing, are likely temporary measures. They won’t be over by Easter, but they might be over by the end of May. Or maybe they won’t! There’s too much uncertainty to know for sure.
In the short term, a lot of people are going to be infected, and a lot of people are going to die. The lack of adequate testing, especially among people with mild or no symptoms, means it’s going to be very difficult to map the full extent of the pandemic and its related immunity.
Over the course of the next couple of months, through April and into May, isolation is going to be important. Already, lax measures are leading to extreme levels of infection in epicenters like New York, Seattle, and Detroit. These areas are going to see high death tolls as hospital systems struggle to cope with inadequate protective gear, inadequate numbers of ventilators and associated equipment, and inadequate space to house people who need treatment.
It’s worth mentioning that by the end of May, a lot more study into the virus, and into how immunity to the virus works, will have been performed. We’ll have a much better idea of how to model the progress of the virus and how to handle it going forward.
The Best-Case Scenario
Probably the best-case scenario is that a lot of people are catching the virus and never know it because they experience either very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. We know that some people who catch the virus experience little or nothing, but again, due to the inadequate tests being performed, it’s impossible to say just how widespread this effect is.
If it turns out to be very widespread, and that a lot more people have caught and recovered from the virus than initially imagined, we might reach the herd immunity level of 80% sooner rather than later. This could, in an ideal situation, happen as early as June or July.
At this point, with testing and the knowledge of immunity, small gatherings may be viable again. For example, restaurants could open up dine-in areas again, and smaller parties could be held. Think gatherings of under 100 people, or under 250 people on the upper end.
With proper testing, it might even be possible to screen people in such a way as to identify the people who are immune, and allow those people to host and attend gatherings, while the people who are not yet immune can know their status and choose to take risks or not.
Major sports events, music festivals, and gatherings of thousands, tens of thousands, or millions of people are very unlikely to return within the next four months. Until we have a better picture of the full scope of the disease, it’s just too much of a risk.
Summer Shall See
One major question we have still to answer is whether or not the virus will recede in the summer. The seasonal flu, for some reason no one quite knows, tends to fall back in the summer. Warmer weather, more sunlight, more activity; no one is quite sure why the flu falls more dormant. We have no idea yet whether the coronavirus will follow suit, or if it will continue in full force in warm weather as well.
If the virus recedes in warmer weather, it’s possible that late summer gatherings will be allowable again. Large gatherings like sports will, again, still be off-limits, but smaller parties, weddings, and the ability to eat out are more viable.
If you’re interested in a more detailed rundown of possible timelines, The Atlantic has a good post about the different possibilities available here.
One thing is certain. This disease is not going to go away easily, and it has thrown a wrench into life for billions of people around the world. How long it will last, and how long before we can start returning to normal life, simply remains to be seen.