The authors of the paper, a preprint posted at medrxiv.org that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, determined that one long period of stringent social distancing could potentially backfire in a greater resurgence of infections come fall and winter, unless other interventions are put in place. The finding was consistent with the course of the 1918 influenza pandemic, during which cities that had low peaks during the first wave of infections—thanks in large part to social distancing measures—were at a greater risk of a higher second wave after those interventions were lifted.
Models detailed in the Harvard paper point to cycled periods of social distancing as a potentially better way to minimize the overall toll on the population, achieve greater “herd immunity,” and take pressure off already-strapped intensive care units (ICUs).
The approach may also provide a welcome summer respite for Seattleites, New Yorkers and other Americans who are currently going stir crazy—or facing economic hardship, large or small. “Any kind of reprieve would be welcome,” said Glass, who works as a physician assistant in radiology—now 30 hours a week due to reductions in elective surgeries in response to the pandemic. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs entirely, and millions more are expected to in the coming days.
Rather than fully releasing the brakes, according to the Harvard models, officials may eventually want to start pumping them—strategically letting up on social distancing as ICU beds empty, and then reenacting measures as beds fill back up. The idea, in part, would be to steadily build up population immunity while not overwhelming critical care capacity.