FARGO — Coronavirus' long-term effect remains unknown, and public health officials cannot say when we might return "normal" routines, but an infectious disease expert at North Dakota State University explains the facts and forecasts medical professionals agree upon.

Health care services in countries like Italy have become overloaded with patients suffering from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus that first emerged in China in December 2019.

But public health officials highlight North Dakota's central location in the country and low population, as some of the reasons citizens living in the upper Midwest may be ahead of the spread of the virus.

"We're ahead of the curve," said Dr. Paul Carson, an NDSU professor and infectious disease expert. "We don't have the volume that the coasts are seeing."

He insists we cannot let our guard down with social distancing.

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"As we've seen now in Hong Kong, who kept it in control in the first place, they started relaxing things," he described. "Letting people travel a bit more, there's people kind of going out to the night clubs again ... and now they've got a bunch of cases."

Despite the measures enacted by government officials, more cases are expected to be discovered in North Dakota and Minnesota. To keep our health care systems from becoming overwhelmed, Dr. Carson believes the timing is key.

"If you can stretch that (the number of cases) out over weeks to months rather than it all happening within two to three weeks," he said. "Then yes, I think we can handle that."

But when asked about the long-term effects of COVID-19, Carson said patients who have been hospitalized with the disease could develop what's called Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome.

"That's a pattern of damage where the lung gets injured, real leaky, fluids kind of build-up, and that's why they need a lot of help and support through it," Dr. Carson explained. "Then that resolves. A percentage of people with that, from whatever cause, probably including coronavirus, may get some scaring in their lungs afterward that may make some diminished pulmonary function after that. But it remains to be seen how often that happens with this yet."

When asked when we could go finally back to "normal", Carson said that remains to be seen. More humid weather could help prevent germs from sticking around in the air as long.

"I think there's reason to believe summer could bring some relief to this," he said. "Not make it go away, but make it better."

Once a vaccine is developed and released, coronavirus may finally stop disrupting everyday life, Carson said. This is a process that can take between 12 and 18 months. This time period is needed to carry out clinical trials and make sure the vaccine has no severe side effects.

"What takes time is then doing the human studies to prove that it's not only effective but that it's safe," he explained.

The other area of uncertainty is the "attack rate," which measures the frequency of death in patients, and how many people in a population become infected.

"Twenty experts giving you 20 different predictions on that, from very low to very very high," he said. "The real answer is no one knows."

In the meantime, he urges everyone to take this seriously.

"I still hear some attitudes like this is not that much different from the flu," he said. "It is different than the flu. The mortality rate for this is about 10 times higher, and we don't know the full potential of the attack rate yet."