“Second wave” of coronavirus: what is it and how long will it last?

July 16, 2020

As Americans continue to try and manage life while fighting off the coronavirus, one question is on a lot of people’s minds: Are we already seeing, or will we eventually see, a second wave of the virus?

Most public health experts have said they anticipate a big uptick to happen this fall and winter. The White House has admitted it’s preparing for the possibility. However, part of that prediction was based on the assumption that the virus would slow down over the summer, and that doesn’t appear to be happening.

Much of the attention aimed at fall has now shifted to concern over the possibility of two potentially lethal viruses circulating at the same time — COVID-19 and the seasonal flu, the latter of which kills around 40,000 people in the US per year. Because of certain overlapping symptoms such as fever and a cough, it may be hard for individuals and doctors to immediately determine which infection you have.

Experts say there’s no official definition of when a “wave” begins or ends but, generally speaking, it pretty much acts like a wave: There’s a spike and then it goes down. A new rise and peak of positive cases would signal the start of another wave.

“It is probably not realistic for the number of new cases to drop to zero, but ideally one would like to see sustained decreases in the number of new cases over time or stability in the number of new cases over time,” said Nicole Gatto, an associate professor in the School of Community and Global Health at Claremont Graduate University in California.

Disease expert Dr. Fauci has a more definitive answer.

“We are still knee-deep in the first wave of this [pandemic],” Fauci said during a July 6 interview on Facebook Live. “And I would say, this

would not be considered a wave. It was a surge, or a resurgence of infections.”

The first wave will end when the rate of positive coronavirus tests drops to “the low single digits,” Fauci said in June. Instead, new cases declined modestly, then plateaued through most of May before starting to spike again in late June, never quite getting low enough. Basically, you can’t have a second wave until cases and deaths from the first wave drop close to zero for a sustained period of time. If cases spike again after that point, that’s a bona fide second wave.

One bright side is that the number of deaths hasn’t gone up as the number of cases have.

South Korean officials, for example, have declared the country is experiencing a second wave as case numbers have begun to surge again after about two months of single-digit infection rates. However, while the World Health Organization has acknowledged the seriousness of these new clusters of cases, the WHO has stopped short of calling it a “second wave.”

As state reopenings take place across the country, more than 20 states are reporting steady increases in new COVID-19 cases on a daily basis, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University. On June 30, U.S. officials broke another record by reporting more than 48,000 new COVID-19 cases across the country, the highest single-day increase thus far. So, if you’re in a state that is still seeing an increase in cases, “it would not be accurate to talk about a second wave,” Gatto said. “What causes those peaks, and whether or not there will be more than one peak, as opposed to one continuous wave, will be human behavior and how humans react to what is going on around them.”

According to Kaiser Health News, there were at least three distinct waves of influenza in 1918 and 1919, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. The pandemic was simultaneous with World War I, and the war is believed to have spread the virus around the globe more quickly than it otherwise would have.

The first wave began in March 1918 and eased by the summer. The second wave came in the fall, followed by a third wave during the winter and spring of 1919.

So what does that mean for us now?

We’ve got to do our part. That’s what that all this means.

State health departments are continuing to pass recommendations onto businesses that are reopening, but experts say it’s crucial for people to exercise best practices while out in public. If you do choose to visit non-essential businesses, remember the following:

Physical distancing: Maintain a 6-foot distance between yourself and all those who do not live with you currently.

Face masks: You should be wearing them when you are outside the home in public spaces, per current CDC guidelines.

Frequent hand washing and sanitation: Be sure to wash your hands before touching your face, and use hand sanitizer when a sink isn’t available.

While you may not feel sick personally, remember to reduce the number and length of exposure to people in closed spaces while keeping a safe distance is very important to keeping others healthy as well.