Timeline one: one to two months

I should note that the experts I spoke with think this timeline is highly unlikely. But America could be through with most of its social distancing in a month or two if the coronavirus turns out “to not be a serious pathogen, suddenly,” said William Hanage, an epidemiology professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. “All of the people who are now infected, instead of behaving like the infected people we’ve seen [before], have very mild disease, and we realize that immunity is being generated.” This “false alarm” outcome would of course be fantastic, but also produce “a lot of head-scratching” among public-health experts, Hanage said.

Another path to a short-term resolution is much grimmer: Too-lax social distancing could produce what Noymer calls a “big, short, sharp shock” of infections sometime in the next few months, overwhelming the health-care system and killing enormous numbers of people. After such a catastrophe, it’s conceivable that lots of people infected with the virus would recover, bringing the broader population closer, if not all the way, to immunity.

Both of these eventualities would make it okay to go out again in a couple of months, but even if Americans are still mostly cooped up at home in late spring, public-health experts will have learned more about the virus by then. Perhaps most important, they should know how much strain this first wave of infections will have put on America’s hospitals, and thus how effective containment efforts have been. This information isn’t readily available now, Hanage explained, because people who get infected today generally won’t require intensive care until several weeks from now. Also in a month or two, public-health authorities and researchers will likely have a better sense of whether those who recover from an infection are immune to future infections, and if so, for how long. That information will come in handy for containment efforts.