(NEXSTAR) – Without the rapid development of an effective treatment or vaccine to fight the novel coronavirus, some social distancing may be necessary in the United States into the year 2022, a new study found.

The journal Science published the daunting projection from researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health Tuesday.

Models showed that wintertime outbreaks of COVID-19 “will probably occur after the initial, most severe pandemic wave,” and, without a vaccine or other intervention, “prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022.”

Researchers warned that “even in the event of apparent elimination, SARS-CoV-2 surveillance should be maintained since a resurgence in contagion could be possible as late as 2024.”

So how will we know if we’re effectively keeping our social distance? The study says that whether or not the healthcare system is overwhelmed will be a key metric.

Researchers created models using different governmental policies, among other factors, but the authors said the goal was not to endorse any particular policy.

“Our goal in modeling such policies is not to endorse them but to identify likely trajectories of the epidemic under alternative approaches,” they wrote. “We do not take a position on the advisability of these scenarios given the economic burden that sustained distancing may impose, but we note the potentially catastrophic burden on the health care system that is predicted if distancing is poorly effective and-or not sustained for long enough.”

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