In looking at the experiences of the Asian countries that entered the COVID-19 crisis in January, I believe that the pandemic will play out over four phases in the US.
Phase One (Infection) ran from January through mid-March. In this period, there was no social distancing and no active management — the virus was passing quickly, at a “one infected person infects two people” rate.
We are now in Phase Two (Social Distancing), which will last from March through mid-May. In this period, we will see infections in the US rise to 500,000–700,000 — the aftereffect of Phase One — peaking in late April or early May. At the same time that infections are increasing, social distancing via the shutdown of schools and work at home for businesses will have a significant impact on the spread of the disease. This societal investment will pay off as the number of new infections will begin to decline in late April and then begin to plummet in early May.
We will then enter Phase Three (Management), which will last from mid-May through the end of the year and into 2021. Pandemic Management Protocols (PMPs), ways of working, traveling, congregating, eating, moving, and connecting, will have to be constructed and maintained by governments, companies, schools, and all organizations in society. Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and China are now in this phase, with rigorous societal rules (e.g., face masks and gloves) and strict governmental management of the population using tracking apps and police enforcement of quarantining for the sick and those that are entering from other countries. But schools are reopening, people are eating in restaurants, workers are going to work, and the populations are resuming a form of normal life. This management phase in the US will necessitate strong governmental intervention and rules — likely requiring masks and gloves for everyone in public places like subways and very strict enforcement of quarantines for the ill. There will be new breakouts of infection, but with improved public health response, availability of tested antivirals, and near-universal quick testing, they will be managed and curtailed. As part of their PMPs, companies and other organizations will have to build their own logistical systems — vetting people before they enter office buildings, carefully monitoring and managing their workforce’s health and condition, and limiting travel and gatherings. Forrester is currently gathering worldwide PMP best practices and will be analyzing them in our forthcoming research streams.
Phase Four (Eradication) will occur in April–June of 2021 as a vaccine becomes available.
While Phase Two will be psychologically challenging due to the continued growth of infections, the real game will be played in Phase Three. Restarting the economy and resuming commerce will depend on the rigor of governmental management and the willingness of individuals to abide by rules and protocols to control the virus. If Phase Three is mismanaged by companies, states, and the federal government, we will not drop back to Phase Two — we will loop back to Phase One and start the process from the beginning. This will risk a year-long disruption of the economy rather than the three-month disruption caused by Phase Two.
A final complication will be management variability by region and state, making it more difficult to move all states into Phase Three at one time. The role of the federal government will be the difference maker here — if it requires uniform adherence to conservative protocols, the country will have the best chance to resume true inter-state commerce (e.g., air travel).
We will get through this moment — but it will take patience, management rigor, and a government that moves forward with vision and intelligence.