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Even with a vaccine, COVID-19 will last for years, expert says

While Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health and other health experts are hopeful vaccines will make a real difference in managing COVID-19, some of the pandemic's challenges are likely to persist for a long time. Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a physician and sociologist at Yale University, has written a book about what the virus means for our lives. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two states, California and Texas, have now reported more than one million cases since this all began.

    Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health said today he was hopeful the vaccines will make a real difference in slowing the pandemic. But he warned, the virus could remain a chronic problem and said Americans need to double down on public health measures.

    We are going to look at that bigger picture now with Dr. Nicholas Christakis. He is a physician and a sociologist at Yale University. And he's the author of the new book "Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live."

    Dr. Christakis, thank you very much for joining us. It is a powerful book.

    And with the fact the pandemic is doing so poorly right now, people are — we are seeing it spread across the country again, I want to come to a point you make in the book. And that is you think a lot of decisions were made in the wrong direction early on, not enough personal protective equipment, not enough done with regard to testing, not consistent guidance around masks.

    Paint that picture for us, if you would.

  • Nicholas Christakis:

    The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live": Well, the thing that we are experiencing right now is a once-in-a-century event.

    And early on, back if December and January even, experts had a very high expectation that this was likely to happen. And what we should have done, in my view, as soon as China locked down and put nearly a billion people under home confinement beginning January the 24th, we should have perked up our ears and said, over, my goodness, what is happening in China? We should prepare.

    And we should have done just the things that you mentioned, preparing our testing capacity, our masks. The public should have been steeled with resolve for what was ahead of us, and so on.

    And, unfortunately, we didn't really make adequate preparations until we were really hit hard in March.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You also write, Dr. Christakis, about the politics of this, frankly, misinformation that went around public, just, frankly, conspiracy theories that were allowed out there without being corrected, bad guidance.

    How much did that contribute to the slowness of the response in the United States?

  • Nicholas Christakis:

    Well, one of the things that's important to realize, unfortunately, is that, for thousands of years, as the germ has spread through social networks from person to person, lies and denial have followed right behind.

    You might even say that lies and denial are part of what makes an epidemic an epidemic. And you can understand it from a human point of view. People don't want to believe that this bad thing is happening. People wish to have superstitions about what might cause it or what might cure it. These are very normal human responses that human beings have been manifesting for hundreds or thousands of years.

    But it's the role of leadership, in my opinion, our leaders who we elect, to help us not be that way, to help us actually see the world for how it is, and not kind of in a fantasy way, pretending that nothing is happening, when, in fact, our world has changed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When we — we have just learned in the last few days that the vaccine may be available in coming weeks or by the end of the year, early next year.

    But we're also hearing this warning from Dr. Fauci and others that it may be with us for a while. What do you think the real timeline is in terms of when life returns to a semblance of normal?

  • Nicholas Christakis:

    I think, even if the vaccine or several vaccines are invented in the next few months, which is likely, we still have challenges in manufacturing, distributing and persuading the public to accept the vaccine.

    And those challenges will take about a year. And, meanwhile, the virus is still spreading, and it will continue to spread until we reach a threshold of about 40 to 50 percent of Americans who are infected. Right now, we're only at about 10 percent. That threshold is known as the herd immunity threshold.

    So, that will take us into 2022. So, from my perspective, the first period during which we're confronting the biological and epidemiological impact of the virus, and we're living in a changed world, wearing masks, physical distancing, school closures, and so on, will last until sometime in 2022.

    And then we're going to begin a second period, when we are recovering from the psychological, social and economic shock of the virus. And this has been seen for thousands of years with other epidemics. And that will take a couple of years for us to rebuild our economy and recover.

    And so, sometime in 2024, I think, life will slowly begin to return to normal, with some persistent changes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you see the behaviors that we have adopted today, whether it's mask-wearing, social distancing, not shaking hands, that's going on for the foreseeable future.

    But do you think we will go back to what life was like before 2020 ever?

  • Nicholas Christakis:

    Yes, although there will be some persistent changes.

    For example, in the 1918 pandemic, to pick a trivial example, people — the restaurants used to have spittoons. And spittoons were seen as unsanitary during a time of a respiratory pandemic. And so, afterwards, spittoons disappeared, and they never returned.

    So, there are things like that on a bigger scale, too, I think. For example, business travel, I think, will change. Teaching and working from home will change. I think there may even be some changes in the women's labor market participation.

    We are not the first generation of people to confront a serious epidemic. This has been a part of the human experience. And we will see the other side of it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You write about, yes, we will see the other side, but you also write about the profound — the profound loss that we all have experienced.

    Dr. Nicholas Christakis, thank you so much.

    Again, the book is "Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live."

    We appreciate it. Thank you.

  • Nicholas Christakis:

    Thank you for having me.

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