The new coronavirus has brought American life to a near standstill, closing businesses, canceling large gatherings, and keeping people at home. All of those people must surely be wondering: When will things return to normal?
The answer is simple, if not exactly satisfying: when enough of the population—possibly 60 or 80 percent of people—is resistant to COVID-19 to stifle the disease’s spread from person to person. That is the end goal, although no one knows exactly how long it will take to get there.
There are two realistic paths to achieving this “population-level immunity.” One is the development of a vaccine. The other is for the disease to work its way through the population, surely killing many, but also leaving many others—those who contract the disease and then recover—immune. “They’re just Teflon at that point,” meaning they can’t get infected again and they won’t pass on the disease, explains Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at the University of California at Irvine. Once enough people reach Teflon status—though we don’t yet know if recovering from the disease confers any immunity at all, let alone lifelong immunity—normalcy will be restored.
Unfortunately, both of these paths could be a year or two long, but degrees of normalcy will likely be won back in the meantime: Come summer, Americans might get restaurants but no music festivals, offices but no crowded beaches, bars with spaced-out seating. Projecting when each facet of daily life will be restored would be easier if public-health authorities had an omniscient view of who is infected, who has recovered and become immune, and who is still susceptible—this is the information that would emerge from widespread testing, which the United States is terribly behind on deploying.