Washington state's top public health official said it will take "many, many months," and probably the development of a vaccine, before life can return to pre-COVID-19 normalcy.
Secretary of Health John Wiesman made the statement during a briefing to reporters Tuesday, saying he wanted to manage the public's expectations as the state appears to reach a plateau in the number of infections and deaths.
While officials, at some point, will start re-opening the economy, some facets of life during the outbreak will remain, he said.
"This normal that we're going to go into is going to be a different normal," Wiesman said. "We're not going to return to what we knew before COVD-19 for many, many months — and until probably we have a vaccine."
In this "different normal" residents will probably have to continue working from home, standing farther apart, wearing masks in public and not shaking hands, Wiesman said.
Washington officials are envisioning what a return to normalcy may look like amid signs that the state is controlling the outbreak and avoiding the most dire predictions of overwhelmed hospitals and shortages of lifesaving equipment.
The number of COVID-19 patients in Washington hospitals appears to have remained stable at between 600 and 700 for the past week, while the number of patients with the disease in intensive-care units has held at just under 200, according to data compiled by the state.
Signs of COVID-19 seem to be dropping in some parts of the state, leveling off in others, and rising in some areas — but, "overall, statewide COVID-19 activity appears to have plateaued," the state health officer, Dr. Kathy Lofy, said.
But officials said Tuesday that, in order to start relaxing social-distancing rules, infections must decline and they need the ability to test many more people. That means the state has to obtain more test kits and more protective equipment worn by health care workers while they swab patients, Lofy said.
The state may lift social-distancing rules, such as business closures, little by little, while health officials closely watch for signs the coronavirus is rebounding, Wiesman said.
If the virus returns, officials could resume or intensify restrictions on social activity in a localized area where there's an outbreak, he said.