Will There Be a Second Wave of Coronavirus? Experts Are Concerned

A flattening curve should not be taken as proof that COVID-19 is going away.

Some Americans continue to hang on to the hope that stay-at-home recommendations and orders will be lifted in the next few months, but many health experts have warned that evidence that the COVID-19 curve is flattening in certain areas should not be taken as proof that the coronavirus pandemic is going away. Earlier this month, Robert Redfield, MD, virologist and director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said during a radio interview that the CDC was preparing for a second wave of coronavirus that could arrive in "late fall, early winter"—meaning that new cases could be on the rise again.

"Hopefully, we'll aggressively re-embrace some of the mitigation strategies that we have determined had impact, particularly social distancing," Redfield said.

However, certain state governments are already looking to ease up on lockdown measures following the White House releasing a set of guidelines for "reopening" the country last week—guidelines which Politico pointed out inspired some negative and worried responses from health experts. On Apr. 20, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp gave some types of businesses across the state permission to reopen later this week. South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas are also permitting more movement. As unemployment has skyrocketed during the pandemic, the pressure to stimulate the economy and get more people back to work is certainly strong.

But it could also lead to many more deaths, as history has shown.

The 1918 influenza epidemic that killed more than 50 million people globally occurred in three waves, as the CDC notes. Per History, the second wave of this epidemic was the deadliest, due to the virus mutating and the travel of troops during World War I. Similar but less severe subsequent waves can be seen in later flu pandemics, including the 1957 flu pandemic, 1968 flu pandemic, and the H1N1 flu in 2009. Becoming less vigilant too soon in the U.S. could lead to a second wave of COVID-19.

Woman crossing the street with a face mask on

The Guardian reported on Apr. 8 that Singapore, which had had success in slowing the spread thanks to strict quarantine measures and mass testing, later saw a "sharp rise in new infections," mostly in workers living in tightly packed dorms. NPR reported on Apr. 13 that the Japanese Hokkaido prefecture also endured a second wave a few weeks after lifting its emergency order.

Subsequent waves are extremely likely to hit without a vaccine in place, as Peter Marks, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, told journalists in mid-April. Though it's not yet known whether those who have already had COVID-19 are immune to future infections, Gregory Poland, MD, a vaccinologist and professor at the Mayo Clinic, told USA Today that he predicts that a second wave would infect different parts of the population than the first. "This outbreak has predominantly been on the two coasts," he said. "Wave 2 will be in the interior of the county where there are a lot of susceptible people."

Being that most experts estimate that we won't have a COVID-19 vaccine that can be safely distributed to the public for at least a year, this leaves plenty of time for future waves to sweep the country. And some experts believe it will take even longer. Anthony Fauci, MD, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), made the estimate of 12 to 18 months in a televised cabinet meeting. But Paul Offit, MD, who co-invented the rotavirus vaccine, told CNN that that timeline was "ridiculously optimistic."

Vaccines must be heavily tested before they're unleashed on a mass scale, which takes time. There is also the concern that the virus may mutate often enough that developing a lasting vaccine may not be possible, as a recent New York Times opinion piece explains. Only time and additional research will tell.

The bottom line is that without a vaccine, a second and even third wave of infections is likely in our future. So it's important to continue social distancing, limiting exposure to others, and keeping to essential trips outside the home as much as possible. And for more helpful information on what needs to happen before we can return to normal, here are 6 Things That Need to Happen Before the Lockdown Can Be Lifted.

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