Projected COVID-19 epidemic in the United States in the context of the effectiveness of a potential vaccine and implications for social distancing and face mask use

Mingwang Shen, Jian Zu, Christopher K. Fairley, José A. Pagán, Li An, Zhanwei Du, Yuming Guo, Libin Rong, Yanni Xiao, Guihua Zhuang, Yan Li, Lei Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Multiple candidates of COVID-19 vaccines have entered Phase III clinical trials in the United States (US). There is growing optimism that social distancing restrictions and face mask requirements could be eased with widespread vaccine adoption soon. Methods: We developed a dynamic compartmental model of COVID-19 transmission for the four most severely affected states (New York, Texas, Florida, and California). We evaluated the vaccine effectiveness and coverage required to suppress the COVID-19 epidemic in scenarios when social contact was to return to pre-pandemic levels and face mask use was reduced. Daily and cumulative COVID-19 infection and death cases from 26th January to 15th September 2020 were obtained from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus resource center and used for model calibration. Results: Without a vaccine (scenario 1), the spread of COVID-19 could be suppressed in these states by maintaining strict social distancing measures and face mask use levels. But relaxing social distancing restrictions to the pre-pandemic level without changing the current face mask use would lead to a new COVID-19 outbreak, resulting in 0.8–4 million infections and 15,000–240,000 deaths across these four states over the next 12 months. Under this circumstance, introducing a vaccine (scenario 2) would partially offset this negative impact even if the vaccine effectiveness and coverage are relatively low. However, if face mask use is reduced by 50% (scenario 3), a vaccine that is only 50% effective (weak vaccine) would require coverage of 55–94% to suppress the epidemic in these states. A vaccine that is 80% effective (moderate vaccine) would only require 32–57% coverage to suppress the epidemic. In contrast, if face mask usage stops completely (scenario 4), a weak vaccine would not suppress the epidemic, and further major outbreaks would occur. A moderate vaccine with coverage of 48–78% or a strong vaccine (100% effective) with coverage of 33–58% would be required to suppress the epidemic. Delaying vaccination rollout for 1–2 months would not substantially alter the epidemic trend if the current non-pharmaceutical interventions are maintained. Conclusions: The degree to which the US population can relax social distancing restrictions and face mask use will depend greatly on the effectiveness and coverage of a potential COVID-19 vaccine if future epidemics are to be prevented. Only a highly effective vaccine will enable the US population to return to life as it was before the pandemic.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2295-2302
Number of pages8
Issue number16
StatePublished - Apr 15 2021


  • COVID-19 vaccine
  • Face mask use
  • Social distancing
  • Vaccine coverage
  • Vaccine effectiveness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Medicine
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Veterinary
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Infectious Diseases


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