COVID-19's aftermath a year from now: 4 expert insights

In August, Becker's asked several infection control leaders and epidemiologists: "At this time next year, what aspects of daily life will have returned to normal? What aspects of our society will be forever changed by the pandemic?"

Their responses are below.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for clarity and length.

Leonard B. Johnson, MD
Program director and chief of the division of infectious diseases, vice chair of the department of internal medicine at Ascension St. John Hospital in Detroit

I suspect larger gatherings of people (wedding receptions, restaurants, sporting events) will resume in a year. I also suspect that a lot of people will continue to socially distance out of habit and fear (avoiding walking on sidewalks with others, no handshakes or hugs, etc). The shields around cashiers, security checkpoints, etc., will also stay up. There is no justification for removing now that they are up. 

Richard Martinello, MD
Associate professor of internal medicine of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Yale School of Medicine. Medical director of infection prevention at Yale New Haven (Conn.) Hospital and Yale New Haven Health. 

I think the general population will shift toward being more conscious about the spread of respiratory pathogens. While their attentiveness to distancing and mask-wearing may be less than it is today, I think these behaviors will continue and we'll see them to some extent for years to come. I think mask-wearing behaviors, for some, will persist after the recommendations or requirements for masks are rescinded (likely in the spring/summer of 2021).

As part of this, I think people will remain concerned about crowds, and we'll see a sustainment of the shift toward online shopping and less shopping in person. I also think Zoom meetings, and similar technologies, will become a more permanent part of our life.From office work to out of town meetings and education, Zoom-style meetings will have a permanent presence both for its convenience, efficiency and also to sustain social distancing. I do think this will have a substantial, permanent effect on education at the high school and college level and may help to make access to high quality education more accessible and equitable.

I hope, but do not expect, that we’ll see substantially more funding for public health. The public health needs overwhelmed the "supply" available, leading to many organizations performing substantial amounts of planning or response independently. Without a greater sense of understanding about the need for public health services, there will be a lack of additional support for these services. Further, the sense will be that the worst is over, and the emotional fatigue from COVID-19 will drive people to focus on other issues. Without a continued focus on COVID-19 and the risk of other public health emergencies, substantial increases to public health funding are unlikely.

While I do think a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine will become widely available this next calendar year, I’m afraid that enthusiasm for the vaccine will likely be lukewarm, with some people concerned that the vaccines' development was rushed and others not convinced of the need. Further, a mild flu season (as has been experienced by many countries in the Southern hemisphere) may convince some that there is limited value for flu vaccination.

Neha Nanda, MD
Hospital epidemiologist and medical director of infection prevention and antimicrobial stewardship at Keck Medicine of USC in Los Angeles

Over the next year, the mobility in all areas will increase, i.e., people will be out and about more. This will likely occur because the fear factor/anxiety will have reduced given the ‘exposure’ theory (novelty wears off, as we keep hearing more about it). This will also be driven by advances in therapeutics, vaccines and gradually achieving herd immunity.

Remote learning in non service-based industries will be a new norm. In healthcare, telemedicine will continue to be embraced. Given the impact of a pandemic, there will be hubs of pandemic preparedness across the nation, along with recognition or respect for experts in their field.

Sandy Peno, RN
Nurse epidemiologist at UnityPoint Health in West Des Moines, Iowa

It's difficult to answer, as the impact of this virus will be long-lasting — medically, financially and economically. I'm hoping for a universal treatment and routine vaccination soon. We will adapt with time, patience, science and understanding. I'm just not sure what 'normal' will look like.

I do think there will be less socializing as the following examples (identifying only a few) will increase and become a way of life or the new norm:

  • Videoconferencing
  • Working remotely
  • Work space distancing
  • Less in-person interaction, increased online exchanges/transaction and delivery
  • Online adult and child education
  • Telemedicine
  • Routine masking will be an expectation related to patient care, much like routine glove use
  • Self-sustained living; increase in family movement to small acreages or communities

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