Elon Answers: COVID-19 could be around awhile

This is part of a series of articles featuring responses by Elon University faculty members to questions about the novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) submitted by Alamance County community members.

Does the Coronavirus have the potential to come back each year like the flu? As with the flu, can this virus return in a slightly altered strain year after year, meaning that a future vaccine would not be completely effective, or is this still unknown?

COVID-19 does have the potential to occur repeatedly. At this point, we do not know whether the virus will be seasonal. This means we may not see the virus slow down over the summer like we see with the flu. Because the virus is now so widespread, and because billions of people are still susceptible to infection, we expect the virus to remain in most populations around the world even as we practice social distancing.

Jen Kimbrough, assistant professor of public health studies

Every time we relax social distancing, we expect the virus to infect more people until eventually we reach the point of what scientists call “herd immunity.” That means that a large part of a population is immune to a disease and no longer vulnerable to infection. Population immunity protects everyone from disease outbreaks because not enough human hosts are available for the disease to spread.

We need immunity in about three quarters of our population to be protected from COVID-19. Until we have an effective vaccine, only a much smaller percentage of the population will be immune, so we expect to see repeated outbreaks of the disease. As we get better and faster at responding to outbreaks, we hope to have shorter periods of social distancing to control the spread of disease.

It can take as long as 20 years to develop a vaccine for many diseases, but scientists are hopeful an effective vaccine for COVID-19 will be available in 12–18 months. Scientists are already working on a vaccine they think might be effective against multiple strains of the virus. Whether the vaccine will need annual updating, like the flu vaccine, is too early to tell.

Is any organization collecting data regarding the virus victims to determine whether there are “common denominators” among the deaths, and among those who never experience symptoms of COVID-19? I realize HIPAA prevents publication of a person’s health condition, but I can only hope someone somewhere is compiling facts that might prove to be pertinent.

Related Articles

The Centers for Disease Control is collecting information about individuals infected by COVID-19. Healthcare providers are required to report patients suspected for COVID-19 to the local Health Department. The Health Department then sends the information to the CDC. The report includes demographic factors, symptoms, test results, hospital care, and whether the person died or lived. The report also identifies how the person contracted COVID-19, if known, and whether the person had any health conditions. Health care providers also keep notes about patients in medical charts, and these notes could later be accessed by public health researchers.

HIPAA does protect your medical information. Names and contact information for patients are kept private. Information can be reported only as group data, for example men or people older than 65. Researchers who need to get information from healthcare providers for research purposes must follow strict privacy rules to protect patients.

Is it safe to take a road trip right now? I don’t want to be trapped inside my home all day. Where in the Alamance County community is it safe for me to travel, and which areas should I avoid?

At this point, the virus is so prevalent across the United States you should avoid all unnecessary travel. Necessary travel means going to the grocery store, to work, to care for elderly or disabled persons, or to seek medical care.

It is safe to go outside in your yard to garden, play with children or pets, or just relax outdoors. It is also safe to go for a drive in your car, visit an uncrowded park, or go exercise in your neighborhood.

If you go out, make sure you avoid physical contact with other people, and keep a safe distance of at least 6 feet. When you return home, make sure you wash your hands in case you touched a shared doorknob or other surface.

Jen Kimbrough is an assistant professor of Public Health Studies at Elon University. Contact her at jkimbrough@elon.edu.


To submit a question to our team of scientists, visit tinyurl.com/eloncovid19, email us at eloncovid19@gmail.com, or use social media with hashtag #eloncovid19. Answers will be published as available in the Times-News, at www.thetimesnews.com, and on Today at Elon.