Much of the country is likely to see some social distancing restrictions ease by late May or early June, a top public health expert told Yahoo News on Friday.

Kavita Patel, a Yahoo News medical contributor and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, heavily hedged her prediction in a wide-ranging interview with Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” podcast. The situation is rapidly evolving, Patel said, and even where there are openings, some regions will be in lockdown far longer than others.

At least 18,000 Americans have died of coronavirus as of today, and a staggering 500,000-plus have been infected, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.

Patel, formerly a senior health policy official in the Obama administration, warned that Americans potentially will never return to shaking hands in the workplace and will need to wear masks in public for the foreseeable future. Still, Patel predicted that major East Coast cities like New York and Washington, D.C., are likely to receive guidance by as early as the end of May that will allow schools, churches and other large institutions to potentially reopen on at least a limited basis so that “behavior that looks closer to normal” becomes possible.

“If we get a hot spot that is unexpected or kind of a reversal in these trends … then that [prediction] changes, but that’s what I’m looking forward to,” Patel told “Skullduggery” hosts Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman.

Barriers block the beach after Los Angeles County ordered parks and beaches closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease and encourage social distancing in Redondo Beach, Calif., on March 28. (Reuters/Patrick T. Fallon)

Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency room physician who previously served as the health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, joined Patel for the discussion and warned that even if some restrictions ease, Americans must be prepared to go back to a lockdown as events require. Wen did not offer an exact time frame for reopening, but said she believes restrictions will be rolled back in phases and that officials will likely stagger which types of entities can open when.

“We’re not going to see it all just, one day, everything’s going to go back to the pre-COVID-19 days,” Wen said. “We have to be prepared for what happens if there is another surge, what happens if there is another wave of infections.”

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Americans need to brace themselves for a longer-term shift in behaviors, Wen said, because the reality is that with a new virus on the scene, even the top scientists in the world don’t know what to expect.

“There’s a lot that we don’t know about what will happen in this country, and so continuing to tolerate that uncertainty is important for all of us,” Wen said. “There are a lot of unknowns because of our testing issues and also because of the demographics in our country [that] may differ from those in others.”

Patel said that while Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, has reopened, life there is in no way normal.

Both doctors did offer some hope that by the fall, when coronavirus infections are thought likely to spike again, the lead time available for researchers who are now working on potential antibody treatments and other important medical developments could make the threat less severe and therefore sweeping lockdowns less vital.

“We’ll have more antibody-based treatment ramping up to do clinical management of this disease, we’ll have other maybe additional drug tools in our utilitarian armament, and then we can use that as a bridge to a vaccine,” Patel said. “I am really hopeful that at some point then we get what we call in public health ‘herd immunity.’”

Referring to news reports out of Britain that officials there are contemplating potential immunity certificates, Wen dismissed critics who are concerned about the Orwellian undertones to a two-track system for reintegration based on individual immunity.

“It’s a great idea if we have the science to back it up,” Wen said. “The only way for this immunity passport to work is if somebody really develops long-term immunity and cannot become reinfected — otherwise you’re giving somebody false assurance … and [that] may be very dangerous.”

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Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please refer to the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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