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Combined vaccination and physical distancing are enough to prevent future COVID-19 surges

The hospital industry has been beset by coronavirus surges, stretching finances and resources thin.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

A combination of robust vaccination programs and strict physical distancing rules could avoid recurring peaks of COVID-19 without the need to rely on stay-at-home restrictions, according to a new study by epidemiologists and demographers from WorldPop at the University of Southampton, in collaboration with the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

This research used anonymized mobile phone geolocation data with epidemiological and coronavirus case data from China to model the potential impact of vaccination and physical distancing on virus transmission. They predicted the effect of different combinations of interventions on low, medium and high density cities.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.


The impact of social distancing in containing future resurgences of COVID-19 depends greatly on the intensity of measures, population density and the availability of vaccines across geographical areas and time. 

All of those factors combine to affect not only the broader population, but also the hospital industry itself, which has been beleaguered by surge after surge of coronavirus patients, stretching finances and resources thin.

Cities with medium- and high-density populations will need both vaccination and distancing to prevent future intense waves of COVID-19 until herd immunity is reached, researchers found.

However, they suggest cities with low populations and effective vaccination could fully interrupt transmission without the need for physical distancing. In all cities, full "stay-at-home" lockdowns would no longer be necessary.

The results also suggest strong physical distancing interventions implemented for short periods of time may be more effective than mild, longer term ones.

This gives policymakers and public health authorities a framework by which to identify appropriate levels of intervention for keeping coronavirus outbreaks in check over time. What's more, even though the data is from China, the team said this framework can be applied to cities around the globe.

The researchers recognize some limitations to their data – for example, the absence of data on the contribution of handwashing and face masks, and challenges of vaccine supply – but emphasize that the approach can be quickly adapted to provide near real-time data to address emerging, time-critical needs.


In the U.S., the sometimes Byzantine vaccine distribution process has been closely watched. In January, President Biden issued a number of executive orders aimed at ramping up production and supply, including invoking the Defense Production Act to secure supplies necessary for health workers responding to the pandemic.

In addition, Biden also issued an executive order to ensure a data-driven response to COVID-19 and future high-consequence public health threats. Consistent with this policy, the heads of all executive departments and agencies are to facilitate the gathering, sharing and publication of COVID-19-related data in coordination with the Coordinator of the COVID-19 Response.

Twitter: @JELagasse
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