Social distancing measures may be necessary until 2022 to contain coronavirus pandemic, study shows

The world may need to continue social distancing practices until 2022 in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic unless hospital capacity is increased or an effective vaccine is developed, according to a new study.

In the study, published in the journal Science Tuesday, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers projected that several smaller outbreaks of COVID-19 could follow the more severe pandemic.

They determined that prolonged periods of social distancing may be necessary in order to control transmission and prevent health care facilities from becoming overwhelmed.

The researchers used data from the United States to model transmission of other coronaviruses and to project possible scenarios of COVID-19 infection through the year 2025.

Under the global health care system's current capacity, researchers say the pandemic may last until 2022, requiring social distancing measures to be in place between 25% and 75% of the time.

One -time social distancing measures, the study's author argues, may push the epidemic peak into the fall of 2020.

"Less effective one-time distancing efforts may result in a prolonged single-peak epidemic, with the extent of strain on the healthcare system and the required duration of distancing depending on the effectiveness," the study's authors wrote. "Intermittent distancing may be required into 2022 unless critical care capacity is increased substantially or a treatment or vaccine becomes available."

An effective vaccine may take months or years to develop and test, and until then, non-pharmaceutical methods like distancing are the only means to curb transmission of the coronavirus.

The coronavirus at the center of the global pandemic is new, and it's important to acknowledge that research and recommendations surrounding the virus are subject to change and evolve.

ABC News contributed to this report.

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