“We are probably looking at five- to six-month phases, done in different ways and times in different places across the country,” pandemic expert Irwin Redlener of the Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health told BuzzFeed News. “Putting people through that process will be extremely difficult.”

A recent spate of think tank reports and scientific presentations expand the Imperial College scientists’ vision, suggesting that cities, counties, and towns will need to enact public health lockdowns of varying lengths, with stops and starts based on if and when coronavirus cases hint at rising again.

This cyclical approach to social distancing in order to limit COVID-19 deaths depends on measures such as intensive care unit availability and cases dropping for two weeks or longer. To work — limiting the US death toll to hundreds of thousands of lives lost instead of millions — they demand widespread, fast, and accurate tests; a fortified health care system; and public health officials having the breathing room to track down and isolate new cases before they can spread. Most of all, they require endurance from people nationwide, along with the kind of financial assistance typically delivered to victims of natural disasters rather than economic downturns, noted Redlener, to help as unemployment surges to record heights.