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Winter Could Usher In Some Normalcy If Delta Surge Projections Are Correct


Schools will mostly stay open. More people will start working from the office. The holidays will feel more like 2019. Those are the implications of a new projection from a consortium of researchers advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the trajectory of the pandemic. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now.

Hey, Rob.


FADEL: So, Rob, this sounds like good news. Normal-ish (ph) life might be on the horizon. How did researchers arrive at this projection?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, Leila, if it's on target, it is really good news. This group of top pandemic researchers pulled together nine mathematical models to project four different scenarios over the next six months. And the group concludes that the most likely scenario is the best one. The worst of the surge is ending nationally, and the country will escape another winter surge as the pandemic slowly but steadily recedes again, at least through the middle of March. Here's Cecile Viboud at the National Institutes of Health. She helped run the consortium.

CECILE VIBOUD: The delta wave is on its way down. We are on the decline. According to this, in this scenario, there will not be a winter surge.

STEIN: And by the middle of March, the pandemic will have subsided more than early this summer, when it really looked like the country was putting the pandemic behind it and life was getting back to normal.

FADEL: OK, but how sure are they about this?

STEIN: Look; you know, these researchers know that we've been here before, and this virus...

FADEL: Right.

STEIN: ...Could totally surprise us again. You know, all bets are off if yet another even nastier variant takes over or if people don't keep getting vaccinated, at least at the pace they are now, or if everybody kind of lets loose again. But if none of that happens, this analysis concludes enough people now have enough immunity, you know, from getting vaccinated or getting infected to stave off another winter surge. But they also stress that this is the national picture. The surge will probably get worse before it gets better in some parts of the country, and hot spots will continue to erupt, especially where there still are lots of unvaccinated people and, you know, say, in Northern states that haven't had an intense delta wave yet. And hospitals in many places will still be overwhelmed for weeks before things calm down.

FADEL: So what could this mean for life getting back to normal?

STEIN: You know, it could be huge. You know, I talked about this with Justin Lessler at the University of North Carolina. He also helps run this group of researchers.

JUSTIN LESSLER: When cases do get low, I think we can really start resuming a lot more of our normal daily activities. And it seems like that is something that is within sight at this point.

STEIN: You know, like, schools should be able to stay open - not everywhere. You know, hot spots will force some schools to close. But the combination of adults being vaccinated, more kids becoming eligible for shots, lessons learned about masks, testing and ventilation, should keep most schools open. And remember when lots of businesses had plans that they'd hatched to bring workers back? They all came to a screeching halt? Well, many are already dusting off those playbooks.

FADEL: So the holidays are coming up - Thanksgiving, Christmas.

STEIN: Yeah, yeah.

FADEL: Can people gather?

STEIN: You know, the researchers say, yes, the holidays could be pretty safe. By Thanksgiving, the most likely scenario puts the situation close to where things were at the end of July. The delta surge, you might remember, was starting to accelerate then, but people could still travel safely and get together if they did it carefully. And by Christmas, the numbers should be even better. I talked about this with Dr. Ashish Jha at the Brown School of Public Health.

ASHISH JHA: That's the time period where people, I think, most worry because of all the socializing, the fact that it's been cold and people really are indoors. You'd think it'd be the highest risk. But I tend to agree that the level of population immunity we're going to have is going to be quite high. And if people are vigilant and if people are vaccinated and take some other modest measures, we can have a relatively normal-ish Christmas.

STEIN: And by next spring, life could really feel very much more like a new normal. The virus won't be gone by any means, but it'll be safe to do many of the things we've all been missing so much for so long now.

FADEL: Yeah. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein with possibly good news.

Thanks so much.

STEIN: Possibly. Fingers crossed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.