What life in 2021 will look like

  • Business Insider tapped eight leading COVID-19 experts across the US to create a best guess for what 2021 will be like.
  • The good news is that life with the virus is almost certain to get better in 2021.
  • But you will still need to wear a mask, social distance, and take other precautions, as it becomes safer to gather again.
  • Here is Business Insider's timeline for the year ahead.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

No one knows exactly what life will look like in 2021. But, we can be pretty sure things won't be as bleak as they were this year. 

After reporting on the coronavirus pandemic all throughout 2020, and asking leading infectious-disease experts to peer into their crystal balls to make conjectures about the year ahead, Business Insider health and science reporters Hilary Brueck, Andrew Dunn, and Aria Bendix have mapped out a best-guess timeline for what the next 12 months may look like across the US.

Overall, we're pretty confident that 2021 will be better than 2020 was — way better.

Vaccines are already starting to roll out, and availability will only increase in the new year. Antibody therapeutics could help fill in the gaps for those that don't get the vaccine. Testing could expand into homes, allowing people to take more control over illness surveillance.

So what does all that mean for getting back to normal? Will we feel safe enough to jump in a plane, catch a concert or movie, or celebrate a holiday at a crowded bar? 

The answers to those questions will vary for each of us, based on several factors. One variable will likely be how long it takes for your city or town to get at least 70% of people vaccinated, and another will be how comfortable you are taking risks.

There are also uncertainties that we will not attempt to predict, like a serious viral mutation that renders vaccines less effective, or higher-than-expected numbers of people refusing to get vaccinated.

Taking all of that into account, we tapped eight leading COVID-19 experts to map out what most Americans can expect from 2021. They all agreed our prediction was pretty apt. Take a look:

January is going to be tough, as essential workers continue getting vaccinated, and hospitals overflow with patients.

Date:

January 1, 2021: New Year's Day.

What's happening:

Transmission in the US is still high. Deaths continue. Hospitals are reeling from gatherings over Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Who's getting their shots:

Twenty million Americans — including healthcare workers and nursing home residents — have begun their vaccination course.

What the experts are saying: 

They're still hunkering down at home, wearing masks for essential errands, and keeping contacts to a minimum.

Scientists will be watching closely for signs that the very first vaccine distributions, which have been reserved for some of the most essential workers and vulnerable elderly adults, might have an impact on blunting the spread of the virus more broadly in communities around the country.

Researchers still don't know whether coronavirus vaccines prevent people from getting infected — only that they are good at preventing severe disease — so it may be a while before transmission starts to slow down. 

"I'm still making everybody wear masks at work, whether or not they're vaccinated," Dr. Alice Sato, an epidemiologist at Children's Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska, said.

In February, frontline healthcare workers will start feeling the effects of full vaccine protection. Some of them might go to the Super Bowl, but house parties are still a terrible idea.

Date: 

February 7-14, 2021: Super Bowl, Chinese New Year, Valentine's Day.

What's happening:

Intimate dates should be avoided, unless you already live together, or bubble together. Big Super Bowl parties are a bad idea. Vaccinated healthcare workers may attend the Super Bowl. 

Who's getting their shots:

Vaccines continue for priority groups, including frontline workers and Americans over age 65. Up to 100 million Americans could be vaccinated by the end of February.

Both Moderna and Pfizer's vaccines require two shots, given 3-4 weeks apart, so the only people with full-scale protection from infection at this point will be those that got their second vaccine dose in January. 

What the experts are saying:

Doctors don't expect the first months of 2021 to look much different than the end of 2020.

"People think, 'Oh, the vaccine is here, then everything is over.' No. Vaccine is not vaccination," Dr. Ricardo Correa, an endocrinologist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, said.

By March, many doctors, nurses, adults over 75, and frontline workers including: mail carriers, grocery clerks, firefighters, police officers, teachers, and bus drivers will have had a chance to be vaccinated.

Date:

March 17, 2021: St Patrick's Day.

What's happening:

Bars remain closed. Indoor celebrations threaten to increase transmission. 

Who's getting their shots:

By now, vaccines are expected to have reached roughly 100 million Americans, and priority groups are likely expanding to include people under 65 with preexisting conditions. Each state may decide a little differently who's first in line for their shots, but generally the priority groups include: healthcare workers, people over 65, frontline workers, and people with preexisting conditions.

What the experts are saying: 

President-elect Joe Biden's COVID-19 advisor Michael Osterholm directs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He said he will be waiting at home for his vaccine, likely until some time in the spring.

"I will not budge in line, there's others who need to get this vaccine well before me," he said. "But the very second, the very second my number comes up, I'm there." 

Osterholm is 67 years old, so he is in one of the priority groups for vaccination. 

"I'm going to get mine at my healthcare provider, and when my number comes up, I'll be there 10 minutes early," he added.

When April arrives, we may all begin breathing a little easier when out in public.

Date:

March 28-April 13, 2021: Passover, Easter, First Day of Ramadan.

What's happening:

Houses of worship may limit crowds and keep ceremonies virtual or outdoors. Fortunately, with vaccines now available to the most vulnerable, the pandemic should be much less deadly across the US.

Who's getting their shots:

Vaccines could start being distributed to young, healthy Americans. Additionally, antibody therapeutics will start to fill in the gap for people who don't get the vaccine, blunting mortality. Antibody drugs (like Regeneron's anti-viral cocktail) appear most helpful as an early-stage treatment to keep people out of the hospital.

What the experts are saying:

"The spring is when we're going to start to see a light at the end of the tunnel," Megan Ranney, an emergency-medicine physician at Brown University, said. 

 

By May, going to an indoor restaurant for margaritas could be back in style, in some spots.

Date:

May 5-13, 2021: Cinco de Mayo, Mother's Day, Eid al-Fitr.

What's happening:

It's not safe to hug Mom yet (unless you already share a pod/bubble or live in the same house). Masks are still recommended. You (like Jha) may be able to have a margarita on Cinco de Mayo, at a socially-distanced restaurant, depending on what transmission, virus surveillance, and vaccine uptake is like where you live.

Who's getting their shots:

Young, healthy Americans continue to get vaccinated.

What the experts are saying:

Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, is ready for his margarita on Cinco de Mayo, as he predicts "indoor stuff starts becoming more comfortable."

"Maybe there is still some amount of social distancing," he said. "Maybe the place I go to has to have its windows open. And it's a little bit chillier and I'm wearing a sweater, even though it's May. I can imagine some changes, but I could imagine indoor gathering starting to feel better, early May."

 

As summer arrives, viral transmission will likely subside, and rapid testing may finally be available for your medicine cabinet.

Date:

May 31-June 19, 2021: Memorial Day, Juneteenth.

What's happening:

Overall transmission in the US starts to go down. Large gatherings are still prohibited. Some bars and movie theaters may reopen, likely requiring masks, and maybe with rapid tests.

Who's getting their shots:

Vaccine access continues to improve for young, healthy adults.

What the experts are saying:

"At-home testing will be widely available probably late spring to summer," Jha said. "I wish it was earlier than that, but I think widespread testing will be available, not at home, but in other contexts, well before then. Which will make a really big difference." 

 

By mid-summer, more than half of the country may be vaccinated.

Date: 

July 4, 2021: Independence Day.

What's happening:

Fourth of July BBQs are back! Outdoor gatherings, including weddings, may be relatively low-risk in certain parts of the country, but social distancing should still be maintained. Sports stadiums may allow fans at limited capacity.

Who's getting their shots:

Around 60% of the population could have access to a vaccine by this point. 

What the experts are saying:

"Let's say it's July, I've gotten vaccinated, the level of community transmission is very low, and I'm about to do something high risk, like go visit my elderly parents, and I use an antigen test," Jha said, suggesting he'd be comfortable with that scenario. 

But going to see summer blockbusters at the movie theater with his kids? Maybe not. 

"I'm just not going to sit next to somebody random in a movie theater," Jha added, stressing he probably won't feel comfortable in that kind of setting until at least fall 2021. "I don't care how good the ventilation is, because I'm sitting for two hours."

Infection prevention and biosecurity expert Saskia Popescu likely won't be headed back theaters in 2021 either, in part because it's so hard to remain masked while you're there.

"The issue with theaters is: What do most of us do when we're there?" Popescu said. "We eat, and we drink. So unless you're going to totally remove that from the equation, I think it's going to be a little bit challenging."

Kids will return to school in-person in the fall, and possibly without masks on, as all of their teachers have had a chance to be vaccinated.

Date:

September 6, 2021: Labor Day.

What's happening:

Universities reopen and grade school students return to in-person learning, without masks. Large corporations may reopen office buildings. Outdoor concerts may resume safely, in areas with low transmission.

Who's getting their shots:

Vaccine uptake ramps up among the general population in rural areas.

What the experts are saying:

"My best guess is that I will not be going to Philadelphia Eagles games next year. But I hope I'm wrong," Paul Offit, a University of Pennsylvania vaccine expert, and Eagles season-ticker holder said.

 

By Halloween, it'll feel pretty safe to trick-or-treat. There may even be some indoor concerts happening.

Date:

October 31, 2021: Halloween.

What's happening:

Trick or treating returns. Halloween house parties are still ill-advised, but may be lower-risk activities in communities with easy access to rapid/at-home testing, low transmission, and widespread vaccine adoption. Indoor concerts may return with limited capacity.

Who's getting their shots:

The risk of infection is still high in pockets of the country, where vaccine uptake is low.

What the experts are saying:

"The stress that we all feel when we are around people who are not part of our household needs to go away," Jha said. "My best guess is sometime late summer to fall [2021], you can spend time with somebody else and not feel that anxiety that we all feel right now."

Ranney agreed.

"It will not be until the fall that we'll be able to take a true sigh of relief," she said. 

 

Thanksgiving travel will feel safe again in 2021 (with masks).

Date:

November 25, 2021: Thanksgiving.

What's happening:

Masks may be required on planes, but it's generally safe to travel home for the holidays. 

Who's getting their shots:

Most Americans who want a vaccine have access to one at this point.

What the experts are saying:

"I think there are going to be really important changes in rituals," Jha said. "Like the way that we shook hands or gave hugs may not happen. Maybe the culture becomes that if you feel at all unwell when you wake up in the morning, you put on a mask before you go anywhere." 

 

Christmas 2021 will also feel a lot more inclusive, with multi-generation, multi-family gatherings deemed safe again. Masks won't be completely out of the picture, though.

Date:

November 29-December 25, 2021: Hanukkah, Christmas.

What's happening:

It's safe to gather with family, including grandparents. Masks will still be recommended for large family gatherings where not everyone has been vaccinated.

Who's getting their shots:

Essentially everyone in the US has access to a vaccine by now. It's free.

What the experts are saying:

"Personally, I am planning on keeping masking as part of my life for a while," Dr. Ingrid Katz, an infectious diseases expert at Harvard Medical School said.

 

By the end of 2021, many of the activities we used to consider routine will be safe again. But, public health experts stress it'll still be important to remain vigilant.

Date:

December 31, 2021: New Year's Eve.

What's happening:

The risk of COVID-19 to the public is relatively low in much of the country, aside from select hotspots. Masks and social distancing are recommended in public places indoors, including restaurants and retail stores.

Who's getting their shots:

The US may achieve herd immunity, assuming that 75% of the country has opted to get vaccinated.

What the experts are saying:

"The US has very uniquely struggled with COVID-19, and I think that should be a learning lesson," Popescu said. "I really don't like the concept of 'when will things go back to normal?' because it's just like, 'normal' so we can keep neglecting global health security?" 

"I think packed house parties are going to be hard in 2021, period," Jha added. 

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