How Long Will We Be Taking COVID Tests?
Two infectious disease experts weigh in on what to expect with everything from testing and quarantining to masking and social-distancing.
After the hardest year in recent memory, it’s a huge relief to know that all Americans age 16 and older are finally eligible for COVID vaccines. As of April 30, 99 million Americans are fully vaccinated, making up 29% of the country’s total population. We haven’t hit herd immunity yet, but we’re on our way to getting there. If Americans continue to get vaccinated at this rate (a big if, since recent polling suggests that one in four people would refuse the vaccine if offered), we could get back to some semblance of normal life by late summer or fall.
But that’s in a perfect world, and reality is a little more complicated. While the COVID vaccines are helping high-risk people breathe easier (and hopefully start making social plans again), it’s worth wondering when we’ll truly be over this pandemic. When will we be able to travel between states without worrying about COVID testing and quarantine rules? When will we stop having to stand six feet apart from strangers? There are no definite answers to these questions—hi, uncharted territory!—but experts have some educated guesses.
What Can We Expect These Next Few Months To Look Like?
In short, it depends on how many people keep following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “I'm hopeful we'll see continued declining in cases,” says Saskia Popescu, Ph.D., an infection prevention epidemiologist in Phoenix and member of the Federation of American Scientists COVID-19 task force, “but a lot of that is contingent on our continued non-pharmaceutical interventions, like masking, distancing, awareness for indoor spaces, and ventilation.”
Here’s what we know right now: The CDC says that fully vaccinated people can gather indoors with other fully vaccinated people (or unvaccinated people from a single household) without wearing masks or social distancing. They can also spend time outdoors without a mask, except in crowded settings. If you’re not vaccinated, you need to continue to follow all COVID prevention protocols: wear a mask, stay six feet apart from unvaccinated people outside your household, and quarantine upon exposure to COVID.
Thomas Hope, Ph.D., professor of cell and developmental biology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, expects that we may start to see geographic differences in COVID case numbers in areas where vaccine hesitancy is higher. “Hopefully by the end of the summer, we will be back toward something more normal,” he says, “but that transition is going to be different across the country.” Hope predicts that lower case numbers in some areas will prove the vaccine is making a difference, which might be a catalyst for vaccine skeptics to get their shot. “I’m hopeful that those differences are going to convince the naysayers that they need to get vaccinated,” he says, getting us closer to that goal of a fully vaccinated population.
How Long Will We Have To Put Up With COVID Tests?
With at-home COVID tests continuing to hit the market, it’s starting to seem like regular COVID testing is just the way of the world now. But how long will this continue to be a thing? Again, it depends on whether you’re vaccinated or not. The CDC says that when fully vaccinated people travel domestically, they do not need to get tested for COVID before or after travel, and they don’t need to self-quarantine upon arrival. International travel is a lot trickier because every country’s rules are different, and many places do not have widespread access to COVID vaccines. “The biggest problem we have—and this is a big problem—is that we have to vaccinate the world as soon as possible,” Hope says, to help eliminate the emergence of future variants that could potentially evade our treatment options.
For now, the CDC says fully vaccinated people do not need to get tested before leaving the United States unless their destination requires it; however, they do need to show a negative test result before boarding a flight back here. The agency also recommends getting a COVID test three to five days after travel, though vaccinated people do not need to self-quarantine once they get home.
COVID tests themselves will likely be here for the long haul. “COVID tests will be around as a diagnostic tool, just like any infectious disease,” Popescu says. “The use of diagnostic tools and contact tracing [or] quarantine is not a novel concept and [is] one of the cornerstones of infection prevention and public health. So, those tools will continue to be present, but we may see that quarantine is used less frequently as people are fully vaccinated.” So, you may not have to get COVID-tested after every exposure to the virus or every international trip, but your doctor might suggest a test if you develop symptoms consistent with COVID-19. That’s unlikely to change, at least for the foreseeable future.
How Long Will We Need To Wear Masks?
In the United States, we’re already starting to see a loosening of mask recommendations for fully vaccinated individuals. On April 27, the CDC updated its guidance to say that vaccinated people do not need to wear masks outdoors except in crowded settings.
Hope expects that indoor masking will be the final holdout until we get COVID case numbers down to a minimum. “Once there’s really not much virus bouncing around anymore, then I think maybe by September, we’ll be able to go without masks,” he posits. “It’s just hard to know. But I think we are on that trajectory, in part because we are getting so many people vaccinated.”
It’s worth remembering that masks can also slow the spread of other respiratory diseases like influenza and the common cold. Popescu hopes this knowledge will shape our choices moving forward: “In the winter months, I hope we'll be a bit more proactive and supportive of folks staying home when they're sick [and] wearing a mask in public.” Masking won’t necessarily be required in the future, but experts may continue to recommend it during flu season—at least in crowded indoor spaces.
When Will We Reach Herd Immunity, and What Happens When We Do?
The term “herd immunity” gets thrown around a lot as the magic number we need to reach to end this pandemic. But what does it mean, and how soon are we actually going to get there? “[Herd immunity] refers to a certain threshold of vaccination and immunity within a population where spread of the disease becomes less likely and the whole community has some protection,” Popescu says. In other words, we’ll reach herd immunity in the United States when enough Americans are vaccinated that the virus has trouble finding vulnerable people to infect.
COVID-19 is a new virus, and scientists don’t yet know the exact percentage of vaccinated people we’ll need to achieve herd immunity. This measure has been used to help eradicate other infectious diseases, so we can use those as a reference point: Herd immunity for measles is around 95%, while for polio it’s closer to 80%. Since COVID is a respiratory disease that spreads quite easily between people, it’s probably going to require a significant portion of vaccinations before any kind of herd immunity is reached. “The amount of contact it needs to spread can have an influence on this herd effect,” Hope explains. So, for now, the timeline and threshold for herd immunity is still pretty murky.
What Will COVID-19 Look Like in the Future?
If we can’t get rid of COVID entirely, what can we expect it to look like one year from now? How about in 10 years? “I think it's very likely it'll be endemic,” Popescu says, “something we see clusters or outbreaks of, but not on a global scale, meaning we can rapidly respond to them and minimize spread.” If COVID outbreaks become less common and isolated to specific regions, those are a lot easier to contain and stamp out. So, you may need to take a test or wear a mask if COVID cases ramp up in your area, but otherwise, you’ll be able to live your life as you did in pre-COVID times.
The key to getting back to business as usual is coordination from everyone. “To truly achieve this, we need equitable vaccine distribution and public health efforts,” Popescu urges—meaning it’s essential to follow federal, state, and local guidelines about pandemic precautions. Being hopeful and optimistic doesn’t mean being less vigilant! Hang in there, knowing that things will gradually start to improve in the coming months.
Oh, and one more thing: Keep encouraging the folks in your life to get vaccinated. The sooner they do so, the sooner we’ll be able to move forward as a community and nation. “I’m hoping that the people who wanted to stand at the back of the line will be willing to be vaccinated,” Hope says. “I think they’re going to see the results and [gain] a better sense of how science works. And hopefully, a better world comes out of this.” We couldn’t agree more.
- CDC Fully Vaccinated Guidance: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021.) “When You’ve Been Fully Vaccinated.” cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated.html
- NPR Poll on Vaccine Hesitancy: NPR/Marist. (2021.) “NPR/Marist Poll National Tables March 22nd through March 25th, 2021.” maristpoll.marist.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NPR_Marist-Poll_USA-NOS-and-Tables_202103291133.pdf
- At-Home COVID Test Options: AARP. (2021.) “New At-Home COVID-19 Tests Promise Results in Minutes.” aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2021/at-home-covid-tests.html
- Herd Immunity: World Health Organization. (2020.) “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Herd immunity, lockdowns and COVID-19.” who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/herd-immunity-lockdowns-and-covid-19