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Many Health Experts Believe Worst Of The Coronavirus May Be Over

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What a year it has been - 12 months of lockdowns and loss. Now, though, there is hope on the horizon. For the first time since the pandemic upended life in the United States, many public health experts say the worst could finally be over. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been talking to infectious disease experts, epidemiologists, public health officials, medical historians. And there are caveats to this good news, Rob. But it's at least a moment to mark, isn't it?

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Yeah, Rachel, I think it really is. You know, like millions of other Americans, I've been hiding in my house for a year now, doing one gloomy story after another from this makeshift studio in my attic.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Yes.

STEIN: You know? And it just got worse and worse.

MARTIN: Yeah.

STEIN: So it is almost hard to even imagine that this awful nightmare could finally be starting to end. Now, not everyone is ready to say the worst could be over, but I checked in with more than 20 leading experts I've been talking with throughout the pandemic, and it's been pretty striking - most are. Here's one example, Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown School of Public Health.

ASHISH JHA: I'm optimistic that the worst may, in fact, be behind us. So to be able to say, I think, cautiously optimistic, that the worst may be behind us - boy, that does feel really good.

MARTIN: Wow.

STEIN: Now, you know, Rachel, nearly 60,000 people are still getting infected every day. Hundreds are still dying every day. So thousands of people are probably still going to get very sick and die before this is all over. And that hope, as you said, it comes with some big caveats - if everyone doesn't let down their guard too fast, if those dangerous variants don't mess things up again before enough people can get vaccinated, and if the vaccination campaign doesn't stumble badly. But if none of those ifs come true, there could be that elusive light at the end of the tunnel.

MARTIN: What does that light encompass? I mean, what does that exactly mean?

STEIN: Yeah, so what it means is that the number of people getting infected, sick and dying will hopefully slowly, but pretty steadily continue dropping from here on out, and life would slowly, but steadily return to something much more normal. Our new normal is finally in sight, people tell me. That's because of the vaccines, the fact that a chunk of the country already has some immunity, and the weather is getting warmer, which slows down the virus. So even if there is yet another wave, chances are it'll be more like, you know, like a ripple than another surge. Here's what Dr. Anthony Fauci told me about this the other day.

ANTHONY FAUCI: If all goes well, if we stick by the public health measures, if we effectively vaccinate, I think we are looking at a brighter future over the next several months. That's entirely conceivable and probably likely.

STEIN: We're talking about more people heading back to stores, restaurants, work, more and more kids going back to school, small groups of fully vaccinated people getting together for dinner parties indoors without masks. The CDC is already saying vaccinated people can start getting together that way again.

FAUCI: So, I mean, that's such good news. What about if we project into the summer, like summer camps for kids, vacations? Can we do any of that?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, people are telling me that the summer is looking - it could be pretty good, you know? It won't be like the summer of 2019, but it will hopefully be way better than the summer of 2020. Here's Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington.

ALI MOKDAD: We will see more grandparents visiting and hugging their grandchildren. More restaurants will open. We will see sport events, weddings, church and religious events. We will have summer camp for kids, even, like, kids staying in the same bunk. People will travel more, including myself. I will get on a plane and see my mom. Life will go back to normal.

STEIN: Now, hot spots could flare up again because of the variants, you know, people getting careless, people who haven't gotten vaccinated. But the trajectory of the pandemic could mostly keep going in the right direction.

MARTIN: I mean, that is such good news. What about - a lot of parents are concerned about what the fall looks like for kids and school. What do we know?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, young kids won't be vaccinated, but their teachers hopefully will be. So with the virus down, schools should be pretty safe - you know, probably wearing masks, but no more slogging through school on laptops at the kitchen table for most kids. I talked about this with Jennifer Nuzzo at Johns Hopkins. She's got a 7-year-old son.

JENNIFER NUZZO: Seven-year-olds aren't meant to spend their entire days on the computer. And it's really hard to cover the subjects that they're supposed to cover on a Google Hangout. They need to interact with their classmates. They need to learn how to, you know, not talk when the teacher is talking and not just because the mute button's on. I think it'll be really beneficial for them to be back in the classroom.

MARTIN: I suppose I'm ticking through the seasons here...

STEIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...But I do have to ask about winter, when things potentially - I mean, we could get in trouble there?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, there's a possible storm cloud on the horizon for the winter. The virus could surge again in the winter if the coronavirus follows the seasons, like the flu. But it hopefully shouldn't be anything like the horrific winter we just went through. And Dr. Fauci is hopeful that life could still continue getting better and better.

FAUCI: It is conceivable and probably likely by the time we get to the fall, late fall, early winter, by the end of this year, that we will have a gradual but very noticeable and important return to some form of normality, maybe almost exactly like we were before.

STEIN: You know, some worry it might take longer than that because of the variants. And even in the best scenario, the virus won't be gone. New variants could evolve. We'll probably need new versions of the vaccines for the variants and, you know, booster shots.

MARTIN: So that's kind of the view of the next 12 months, say. But you've also been talking with historians about what this means for us in the long term, right? I mean, the trauma we've all collectively gone through.

STEIN: Yeah. Yeah, so the aftereffects could ripple for decades. I've talked about this with several medical historians, including Keith Wailoo at Princeton. He said this pandemic is a world-changing event that has already reshaped a whole generation.

KEITH WAILOO: It has already been the case that the pandemic has had a profound impact on society, on basic questions like the nature of our social interactions.

STEIN: You know, the pandemic revealed some pretty deep problems in how society, you know, treats the elderly, poor people, people of color. It could change so many parts of our lives - you know, our homes, our work, how we travel, how we touch each other.

MARTIN: Yeah.

STEIN: You know, will the elbow bump replace the handshake for good? You know, looking back, the Black Death led to the Renaissance. The 1918 flu pandemic gave way to the Roaring '20s. We've just begun the new '20s. It's impossible to know what world will emerge as the virus recedes, but it seems pretty clear that we'll be hearing the echoes of this pandemic for a really long time.

MARTIN: Yeah. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you so much, Rob. We appreciate it.

STEIN: You bet, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.