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What will life look like if we don’t reach herd immunity?

Will we have to wear masks in some spaces forever? What about concerts?

WASHINGTON — Coming out of a COVID-19 pandemic winter in 2020, many were looking toward the spring, feeling encouraged by positive vaccine news and the potential herd immunity they could shepherd along. Many remain hopeful that herd immunity could bring the country back to a sense of normalcy. Around 70% vaccinated was the percentage goal shared by some experts and leaders, leading many to believe that if just enough people get vaccinated, we can all finally leave the days of masking and social distancing behind.

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But with vaccine hesitancy swirling and persisting access issues, getting such a large percentage of the population vaccinated has posed a challenge; prompting PSAs, discounts and feuding family and friends, all in the name of getting as many people vaccinated as possible. 

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With serious doubt emerging about whether we’ll ever get to a vaccine finish line, many are starting to question if our pandemic experiences may slowly morph into everyday life. 

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QUESTION: what does the future hold when it comes to the pandemic?  

WUSA9’s Q&A Team went to experts to find out. 

ANSWER: “I think the more likely scenario is that [COVID-19] never completely goes away. The question is whether the risks become more like coronaviruses normally,” Dr. Eili Klein, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at Johns Hopkins University, said. He reminded that there are already different coronaviruses circulating in the population that cause normal colds and it’s possible COVID-19 could become the same. 

“That will sort of inform the public health response, whether we're going to have to continue getting vaccinated, whether there'll be a booster shot this fall, or whether there'll be a booster shot next fall. Those sort of questions will also play out over time.”

Q: What about masking and social distancing? Are those measures here to stay?

A: Dr. Klein doesn’t believe so. “We don't typically cancel concerts and wear masks for flu every year. It becomes a risk where the benefits of not doing all of this stuff outweigh the risks of it,” he said. 

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Dr. Klein predicts vaccinations will pick up and cases will fall this summer, which will make the pandemic much more manageable in the immediate future. “The question then will be somewhat individual risk and people who are vaccinated will be at very low risk of having severe disease,” he explained. “When fall comes around, that risk might go up a little bit, but in general, it's going to be probably a manageable risk in terms of all of the other risks that we have.”

However, as we look to the future, health experts don't always agree on plans to keep everyone safe and restrictions can differ even from county to county. Various members of government, organizations, some neighbors and even close family members aren't always in agreement about what choices are best when it comes to pandemic safety.

Q: In the future, could the pandemic be over to some people and not others?

A: Ultimately what people see as the end of the pandemic and a return to normal could come down to the individual decision-making Dr. Klein referenced. Something ethicists, like Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, Director of the Georgetown University Kennedy Institute of Ethics, are deeply familiar with.

“[These decisions] start with simple things like when you wear a mask, and where do you wear a mask? When to go back to work, whether to do testing, whether to see relatives who haven't been vaccinated yet,” Dr. Sulmasy explained. “These decisions we'll make will be gradual. But I think coming soon, within the next few months, people are going to be able to start making these kinds of choices.”

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Dr. Sulmasy has a history of giving his guidance in the pandemic, as the D.C. Department of Health asked him to provide ethical guidance as they created their vaccination plan. The consultation provides an example of the major role ethics has played throughout the pandemic, from governmental decisions down to everyone’s individual daily choices; who we see, when we see them and even how much toilet paper to buy.

“It is important to recognize that public policy, particularly around health care, really is seriously ethical,” Dr. Sulmasy shared. “We need to make ethical choices and not just scientific choices.”

His hope is that when individuals face these decisions, they'll be thinking of the community instead of only themselves. 

“One thing that I hope people have learned from the pandemic is an appreciation for the common good,” he said. “Now is not the time to sort of let everything rip, there's still a lot of virus circulating out there.”

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