‘Disease doesn’t go away instantly’: Doctors, researchers explain when ‘normal life’ will return

MADISON, Wis.– After a year of masking and social distancing, nearly everyone is yearning for a sense of normalcy and science shows that might not be too far off.

Tim Metcalfe feels your pain.

“The changes are almost endless,” Metcalfe said.

Many things people had to do individually, he had to change across three grocery stores and hundreds of employees.

“From wearing masks to wearing gloves to having occupancy counters as you come into the store,” Metcalfe said.

That list goes on, but the Metcalfe’s Market co-owner said there’s one change that stands out.

“Home delivery and home pick-up, just a humongous change,” Metcalfe said. “We were running at about five percent of our total business of pick-up and delivery and now we’re running about 13 percent.”

Now, like the rest of the world, Metcalfe is evaluating how his store will return to normal as Wisconsin nears phase 1B of its COVID-19 vaccination plan.

UW Health’s Chief Quality Officer Dr. Jeff Pothof said the only way to get there is through herd immunity.

“We will see case numbers decrease and that will change public policy,” Pothof said. “Then you will see this gradual reopening of things from a lowest risk to a highest risk, somewhat slowly depending on how that data comes.”

The big question remains: when will that happen?

“In order to return to normal, you want to be in a situation where you’re not taking any preventative measures, like mask wearing and social distancing,” Anthony Ives said.

As an integrative biology faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ives is studying how many people need to be vaccinated before “normal” can be achieved once again.

“The numbers tell you a little bit of a sad story. Vaccination rates are variable in one part of the country to another, but in Milwaukee, for example, probably 60 percent of the people would have to be immune to the disease,” Ives said.

That rate goes up when accounting for new, more contagious strains of the virus, including one recently detected in Wisconsin.

“The disease doesn’t go away instantly,” Ives said. “It will still linger. It will just start decreasing.”

When it does, that doesn’t mean ditching everything people changed up to this point.

Pothof predicts many safety precautions taken during the pandemic might be a permanent adjustment in normal day-to-day lives.

“The value of masking is recognized by most of the population. It might be something to continue doing (during influenza season),” Pothof said. “I think people will think twice before they throw their hand out (for a handshake) and wonder what’s on the other hand before they touch it.”

Metcalfe, for his part, doesn’t think we should touch some of the changes we’ve gotten used to, feeling confident customers will see there are some benefits to gain from that pain.

“(Health and safety) is important now and I think it will be important in the future,” Metcalfe said. “Not only that you have the right prices and good products and good service, but how safe do I feel when I go to your business? I think that’s going to be for grocery stores, restaurants and all retail.”

Although normal life feels like it’s right around the corner, doctors want to remind people to continue to wear masks and social distancing because the pandemic is not quite over yet.