Model: Best scenario shows COVID declines through winter

But national resurgence possible if new variant emerges

BOSTON — As the number of daily COVID infections slowly creeps down in Massachusetts, some may be looking at the colder months ahead and bracing for yet another wave. But new modeling suggests, under the right conditions, it won’t happen here and it won’t happen nationally and that, in fact, the U.S. may be on the verge of the pandemic winding down.

The ‘right conditions,’ according to the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub, would include the absence of a new variant similar to Delta and the vaccination of children ages 5-11 beginning in the fall.

“I don’t want the public to think now is the time to let their guard down,” said Dr. Justin Lessler, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and one of the researchers involved with the Modeling Hub. “We’re at the peak now. So I would see this more saying, you know, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel here. Things are going to get better. So you don’t just have to say, oh well, this is how it’s always going to be.”

The Modeling Hub is unique in that it strands together forecasts from several different models - in the case of the most recent report, nine – and blends them into one projection.

“You know, if you have a problem you ask for advice,” said Dr. Katriona Shea, a biology professor at Pennsylvania State University who also works on the Modeling Hub. “And if it’s a small problem you might ask a couple of friends. If you’ve got a big problem that you’re trying to solve, you ask a ton of your friends and they won’t all give you the same advice.”

But at this stage of the pandemic game, the models are saying the same thing.

“There was pretty strong agreement among all the teams that over the coming months we will see declines in cases,” Lessler said. “Though there is some disagreement as to exactly when that would start, and when it happens is not the same for all states.”

But when that decline starts, the composite model shows it sustains right through the winter and into the middle of March.

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This latest round of modeling was released to coincide with the meeting this week of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which will be making recommendations on vaccinating children ages 5-11 for COVID. Yet the effect of immunizing that age group will provide, the composite model suggests, only a modest effect on overall infections.

“I think if we don’t see any new variants, it doesn’t play a huge role,” Lessler said. “It brings cases down a little bit faster. And of course if it’s your kid who doesn’t get infected because they’re vaccinated, that’s a great thing.”

The modelers do warn that they have less of a handle on the directional certainty of the pandemic than the effect vaccinating younger children will have on the infection rate. Because COVID has been anything but predictable.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to think we know what’s going to happen,” Shea said. “We do not know. What we’re trying to do is make the best possible guess of what’s going on but not an uninformed guess. A really, well-informed guess using the best available information, but with the understanding that we just do not have a crystal ball and we cannot see everything that might come up.”

Things such as an escape variant that truly can evade available vaccines is possible but not likely, suggested Lessler.

“Flu shows us there’s always the possibility for, in flu, what we call a ‘pandemic variant,’” he said. “An antigenic shift that allows a big wave to come, something that’s really escaping immunity. But something like Delta or one of those shifts becomes a lot less likely as we have more immunity in the population.”

Shea and Lessler both agree, no matter what happens over the next few months, whether it simmers or soars, COVID-19 is here to stay.

“There’s no reason to believe this disease will completely go away,” Lessler said. “But I think it will become less of a scourge to human health like it is now and more of an annual annoyance like influenza is.”

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