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The coronavirus has uprooted life as we know it. Everything from our social gatherings to our daily errands has been completely changed and most of us are not too fond of the switch (to say the least). The whole world is eagerly awaiting a COVID-19 vaccine for the safety of ourselves and our loved ones and for the return of life as we know it.
Realistically and sadly, though, life will not go back to what it was for quite some time due to questions around the actual vaccine and how and when it will be distributed.
“One thing that is important to remember: This is not going to be one of those light switch things when all of a sudden we have a vaccine and everyone is vaccinated. It’s going to take some time,” said Hilary Godwin, dean of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health. “We’re fortunate in that we have a number of vaccine candidates that are under development, but we really sped up the process enormously so the chance of any one of those being super effective is not great.”
Life is going to look different for the next few years, but what exactly does that mean? Below, we spoke with experts in public health and mental health about what the world may look like after the anticipated COVID-19 vaccine arrives.
A year from now, and even beyond that, Godwin expects to still see people wearing masks in public — especially people who are more vulnerable to COVID-19.
“I think a big part of the future will be greater expectations around masks. Mask-wearing has not been part of the culture in the United States for infectious disease control other than in clinical settings,” she said.
“Mask-wearing will become more normal, the way it has been in many Asian countries in recent years,” she added. “We’ll see a shift toward that.”
The speed at which scientists are working to create a COVID-19 vaccine is impressively fast, but the excitement surrounding fast-track vaccine development is met with concerns from many health professionals.
“The rate of development of the vaccine is like nothing we have ever seen before,” said Aparna Kumar, a nurse-scientist and assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University. “It’s great that the science is moving quickly, but it also creates limitations in terms of what we know about the efficacy of the vaccines.”
She defined the efficacy of a vaccine as how well a vaccine works in ideal conditions, like in a randomized controlled trial. The efficacy demonstrates how much the vaccine reduces the frequency of illness in a vaccinated versus an unvaccinated population.
Kumar ― who is also the chief community officer at Dear Pandemic, an all-female team of researchers and clinicians who are working to combat COVID-19 misinformation by sharing accessible and accurate information on social media ― said the vaccine may not eradicate the virus, either.
She noted that childhood vaccines work very well, but something like the flu vaccine is 40% to 60% effective, depending on the year and the strain of flu.
“The flu vaccine prevents many people from getting severely ill and from the disease circulating in the community to the level it would, but we still know that a large number of people are going to get sick,” she said.
She added that discoveries around a vaccine’s effectiveness are difficult to discuss until the vaccine is deployed to the community, meaning health professionals cannot predict the effectiveness rate of the COVID-19 vaccine until it is administered to the general public.
The impressively fast creation of a COVID-19 vaccine also lends itself to worries about the actual distribution of the approved vaccine.
“We’re going to have challenges getting a vaccine deployed primarily because of supply chain problems,” said Tony Moody, a physician-scientist at Duke University. “How do you manufacture enough doses and get them distributed in a timely manner? We can do really nice things with vaccine manufacturing capacity — we make billions of doses of the influenza vaccine every year — but doing that for a new product and having the ability to get it rapidly distributed is going to be really challenging.”
He also anticipates problems around the glass vials and stoppers needed for vaccine storage and distribution.
“Most vials and stoppers are manufactured overseas and if you can’t actually get ships coming in, you can’t get supplies,” he said. “Even if you can make the vaccine, can you get enough vials?”
With the increase in digital technologies and the realization that some industries can easily continue without sending staff across the county or across the globe, Godwin said she expects business trips will be reduced for people in most industries.
“My guess is there will probably be fewer business trips. We now don’t have to be physically in the same room to accomplish many things,” she said.
She added that work-from-home routines have accelerated the adoption of technologies like Zoom in a way that would not have happened otherwise. She expects corporations to be more flexible with remote work policies ― especially if work is still getting accomplished at home while keeping people from getting sick and helping the company with operations costs.
Unfortunately, as the vaccine is rolling out and determinations about its efficacy are being made, crowded sporting events and packed concerts won’t become part of our new normal.
“It’s going to be hard to convince people to go back to large gatherings that are simply for entertainment or recreational purposes,” Moody said. “I think what you’ll see is clusters of people at smaller gatherings. I doubt we’re going to have big events with tens of thousands of people coming together.”
He voiced concerns regarding crowds inside of performing arts and sporting venues, in particular. He questioned how to safely welcome groups of people into an enclosed space and what that means for the venue.
“How quickly are we going to be able to get people back into venues? Is it going to be a situation where venues have to charge twice as much because they can only fill half as many seats? Which then makes so many of these things out of reach for people — I think that’s going to be really challenging,” Moody said.
And since fresh air circulation helps mitigate the risk of the virus, he added that outdoor social gatherings will become even more of the norm.
There is no question that people are profoundly affected by the major events that occur in their lifetime. People who lived through the Great Depression have different tendencies than those who did not; those who grew up during the Vietnam War have a different outlook than those born postwar. It is to be expected that modern-day society will be shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Edwin Fisher, a professor of health behavior at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, noted that the psychological after-effects of disasters typically emerge six months after the event ends. He anticipates long-term mental health effects and societal changes as a result of the pandemic, which has kept millions of Americans isolated socially and physically for months.
“Because it’s ubiquitous, because it’s everywhere, because it hits us 24/7, we tend to lose track of the effects of COVID on our daily lives, mood, and consciousness,” Fisher said. “Well, what will the similar effect be of having lived through the greatest global pandemic in over 100 years? There are going to be many, many long-term effects.”
He worries about depression, suicide rates, and marital problems — things that are currently at heightened rates because of the pandemic.
Kumar pointed out that our health system will only be more prepared for any future health crisis or future coronavirus outbreaks after what we’ve experienced with the pandemic.
“We’ve learned a lot about our own public health systems and structures in this pandemic, and those things can only get better,” Kumar said. “As we continue to move on, we’re more prepared for potential future outbreaks. Having these structures and systems in place, we can just reactivate them when we need to.”
Most of the general public now also understands pandemic-fighting behaviors like social distancing and mask-wearing, two things that were virtually unheard of in the U.S. before this year.
While the vast majority of people are counting down the days, Fisher warned that any unrealistic and premature hyping of the vaccine could lead people to believe that all troubles will be over as soon as the needle pricks their body.
“I think there is a tremendous likelihood of conflict, social discord, and unanticipated consequences with the arrival of the vaccine,” he said.
Communities, co-workers, friends, and families will be faced with tough decisions regarding everything from the topic of how to safely socialize after months and months of isolation to sending their child to school where there may be unvaccinated students.
He also stressed that there are likely going to be issues regarding vaccine distribution and the potential for inequalities around race that the illness has already highlighted and exacerbated.
Sadly, COVID-19 won’t disappear when the vaccine is deployed. Godwin noted that the U.S. has a long history of people being opposed to vaccines.
“We are already seeing people saying they wouldn’t want to get the vaccine and that limits our ability to create herd immunity, which provides protection for those who can’t get the vaccine or haven’t gotten the vaccine,” Godwin said.
She cautioned that the virus will still be circulating even after an effective vaccine is widely available as a result of those who choose not to get the vaccine.
“We are going to be living with COVID for a while,” she stressed.
Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.