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Everyone is planning for a COVID-free summer. But epidemiologists say a new variant could emerge at any time.

March 1, 2022, 4:34 PM UTC

It’s been more than two years now since the coronavirus pandemic first arrived in the U.S., and it’s no surprise that “COVID fatigue” is setting in among many Americans who are ready to move on from the pandemic.

Roughly three in four adults across age, gender, race, political affiliation, and income groups said that “tired” and “frustrated” best describe how they feel about the current state of the pandemic, according to a late January survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And as we begin to finally inch past the Omicron winter surge that infected millions in the past few months, many Americans are looking forward to the promise of a post-pandemic summer, free from mask mandates and social distancing. But even though people are ready to enjoy their summers again, experts agree that the virus has blindsided us many times before, and predicting what the pandemic will look like in five months is next to impossible. 

But epidemiologists caution against hopes that summer 2022 is going to be entirely COVID- and restriction-free. The risk of a potential new variant could change the game at any time, much like how the Delta variant’s emergence last summer dispelled any ideas that the pandemic would soon be over. And the next coronavirus variant could also very well be more virulent and potentially more deadly than the Omicron variant that is still infecting more than 100,000 Americans each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“To a very large degree, the future is unknowable, and there’s still too many possible variables that could influence the ultimate outcome,” Christopher Labos, a cardiologist, epidemiologist, and associate professor at McGill University, told Fortune.    

What living with the virus means

Many cities and states across the U.S. have already eased COVID restrictions and lifted mask mandates

New York and California did away with indoor mask mandates for vaccinated individuals earlier this month; New Jersey, Washington, and New Mexico, among others, ended mask mandates in schools; in Illinois, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced today the city would end its mask mandate next week. In fact, Hawaii is now the only U.S. state to still have a mask mandate. 

And it’s not just the U.S. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in Parliament last week the country’s plans for “living with COVID,” which included ending all coronavirus-induced restrictions.

But while countries and states are scrapping mask mandates and restrictions right now, experts insist that the virus is ever-changing. Should new variants emerge, restrictions and public health measures may also resurface, depending on the severity and transmissibility of the virus at any one point in time.

“Everyone’s hoping that there are no more variants, but I think we need to at least plan for the possibility that there might be,” Labos said. 

A combination of tried-and-tested preventative measures, such as masking and keeping activities outdoors, can help people decide what they feel comfortable with doing this summer. A slew of therapeutic treatments for COVID-19 might also start playing a more prominent role as they become more available, including variant-specific monoclonal antibodies.

Labos says that fluctuating public health advisories are going to be an inevitable part of “living with the virus,” a phrase being used increasingly by government officials around the world. But this does not mean that we should ignore the virus’s existence or drop the preventative measures that have been successful so far. 

“Learning how to live with the virus doesn’t mean stopping the vaccination campaign; it doesn’t mean you have to not wear a mask in a public setting,” Labos said. “You can learn how to live with something while still taking basic measures to protect yourself.”

Fewer restrictions, and fewer inhibitions

Experts that Fortune spoke with say that the future is uncertain, but they are not expecting major disruptions to summer travel like the U.S. has experienced in the past.

“I think [a new variant] would likely impact people’s summer plans, but it wouldn’t shut them down completely,” Dr. Timothy Brewer, professor of epidemiology at UCLA and expert in infectious diseases, told Fortune. 

The Omicron variant, Brewer pointed out, completely disrupted Christmas travel last year, when thousands of flights were canceled and businesses across the country changed their hours as caseloads hit record highs.  

But Brewer thinks that it is unlikely we will see disruption on such a scale again, as wider immunity and more readily available treatment methods for COVID-19  may help people feel more comfortable making travel plans and venturing farther than they have over the past two years. “Unless the death rates suddenly start to skyrocket, I think people will continue to gradually open up what they’re doing and expand their willingness of what to do.”

For immunocompromised groups and people with underlying health issues, however, the virus may unfortunately continue to be an important factor in their lives.

“If you’re someone who’s immunocompromised, you might be less willing to make travel plans or engage in activities than someone who’s fully vaccinated and boosted and otherwise young and healthy,” Brewer said. “I don’t think it’s going to be the same for every person.”

Quarantine or testing requirements for travel will likely become much less cumbersome, according to Vickie Mays, a professor of psychology and health policy and management at UCLA, who also thinks that looser restrictions this summer will also give people an opportunity to make up for time lost during the pandemic.

“One of the things to think about in 2022 is that people are also needing to revisit some of the losses that they have had. So sometimes going away on a vacation will be to pay respects to what grandma used to like doing, or because grandpa took us there,” Mays said.

Mays thinks that travel and other activities this summer can give people a cathartic and long-awaited chance to reconnect with what may have been lost during the pandemic. 

“Some of this travel, I hope, is in the name of being able to reconnect as a family, celebrating the life of those who might have been lost to this pandemic, and appreciating time that we spend with each other,” Mays said. “That is really going to be healing for some people.”

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