How long will this last?

The truth is, we don’t know when the COVID-19 pandemic will end. There are two main reasons for the uncertainty, and they are related to both biology and behavior. First (perhaps the bad news), there’s a lot we don’t yet know about how the virus behaves. Second (the good news), there are many things that you--as an individual, as a parent, as a leader of a business, organization, city, or state--can do to change the course of this pandemic.

We can control a lot: how quickly we act, how long we practice social distancing (aka physical distancing), and how aggressively we distance ourselves (like whether only high-risk people stay home or we close all schools, public transit, and non-essential businesses).

What we don’t know yet are things like just how infectious this virus is (this is also called its R0, pronounced R-nought, and it can change over time), whether the virus will be less infectious when weather warms up, what proportion of infected people will require hospitalization, and how often people who fall ill with COVID-19 will die from the disease.

Check out this tool that allows you to tweak the parameters mentioned above. This way, you can see for yourself how each uncertain factor might affect the total number of people infected or hospitalized, and how many people might eventually die from COVID-19. This data visualization tool also allows you to see for how long the pandemic (and related things like “shelter in place” orders) could last under different scenarios.

The bottom line is that the pandemic’s timetable is uncertain, which is frustrating and, frankly, scary. But mathematical models can help us examine, understand, and plan for the possible scenarios. If there’s any good news to be found, it’s that what we do now matters.

Last updated: March 26, 2020 at 7:00pm ET
Science review by: JAB