What's Next Until We Have A Vaccine? An Epidemiologist's Perspective

By: Tara Smith, PhD – Professor of Epidemiology, College of Public Health


I can’t count how many times I have said “we just don’t know yet” in interviews while discussing the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus responsible for causing COVID-19. Scientists and public health officials are operating without having all of the information about this new virus, and that makes it incredibly difficult to make confident predictions. In fact, the uncertainty makes the present conditions difficult for all of us. So, when I was asked to write about what will happen between now and when we develop a vaccine, I have to again start with acknowledging that there are many unknowns. 

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has noted that his administration will soon be releasing a plan for a return from the pandemic, but has cautioned that nothing will be back to what we know as “normal” anytime soon. I do not have any insider information into what Governor DeWine is planning for this, but I anticipate that it will entail slowly easing back on our current social distancing measures in conjunction with opening up businesses again. I also have to think there is a contingency plan in place for what his administration will do should the case counts begin to spike again. It is not likely that he is waiting for a vaccine. The most optimistic estimates put the development of an effective coronavirus vaccine 12-18 months out, and that does include time for mass production and administration of the vaccine, which could take another 6 months or more even after we have a discovered a successful vaccine candidate. 

We need to accept, for now, that living with this virus is our new normal. Even if social distancing is loosened, hand hygiene should still remain of utmost importance. Masks may be with us for the long-term, and large gatherings will remain risky even if and when they are legally permitted. If testing can be ramped up and case numbers are relatively low, we may be able to move to a containment strategy of identifying and isolating those infected with the virus and quarantining those who were exposed to sick individuals. But this tactic takes money and labor in addition to extensive testing capacity, which still remains limited just months into the pandemic. Another concern: if SARS-CoV-2 behaves like influenza viruses (another unknown), we may see a dramatic increase in cases during the fall, once again prompting another “stay at home” order and more remote coursework next semester. 

I wish I could provide more certainty. We have never experienced a coronavirus pandemic, so extrapolating what may happen in the coming months from our historical knowledge of other outbreaks is fraught with difficulty. Plan for continued disruption and adapt the best you are able. To paraphrase Pliny the Elder, “In these matters, the only certainty is that nothing is certain.” That will be our situation for the coming months ahead. 


Many students feel appropriately anxious regarding the impact COVID-19 on their lives.  The following may be helpful as they navigate this time of uncertainty.

  1. Virus Anxiety: Resources for anxiety and your mental health in a global climate of uncertainty
  2. Tips for viewing media coverage of COVID-19 (from American Psychological Association)
  3. Coping with Stress During Infectious Disease Outbreaks (from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
  4. Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19 (from CDC)


Students can consider accessing one of these apps for additional support and skills development:

  1. Headspace: mindfulness and meditation skill building
  2. Calm: calming music, meditations, and sleep stories
  3. Sanvello: tool for managing anxiety, depression, and stress
  4. Cassava: substance use recovery tool
  5. Prana Breath: meditation and breathing skills
  6. Virtual Hope Box: relaxation, inspiration, and coping
  7. Stop Breathe & Think: meditations tailored to emotions
  8. Moodpath: depression and anxiety tests and information


24-hour crisis resources that are available nationally include:

POSTED: Friday, May 1, 2020 - 11:48pm
UPDATED: Wednesday, May 27, 2020 - 12:34pm
Tara Smith