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The U.S. Isn’t in a Second Wave of Coronavirus – The First Wave Never Ended

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The U.S. Isn’t in a Second Wave of Coronavirus – The First Wave Never Ended
A crowd of people congregate along Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, Florida on June 26, 2020, amid a surge in coronavirus cases. CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP / Getty Images

By Melissa Hawkins

After sustained declines in the number of COVID-19 cases over recent months, restrictions are starting to ease across the United States. Numbers of new cases are falling or stable at low numbers in some states, but they are surging in many others. Overall, the U.S. is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases a day, and by late June, had surpassed the peak rate of spread in early April.


When seeing these increasing case numbers, it is reasonable to wonder if this is the dreaded second wave of the coronavirus – a resurgence of rising infections after a reduction in cases.

The U.S. as a whole is not in a second wave because the first wave never really stopped. The virus is simply spreading into new populations or resurging in places that let down their guard too soon.

Seven day rolling average of number of people confirmed to have COVID-19, per day (not including today). This chart gets updated once per day with data by Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins university doesn't provide reliable data for March 12 and March 13. Johns Hopkins CSSE Get the data

To Have a Second Wave, the First Wave Needs to End.

A wave of an infection describes a large rise and fall in the number of cases. There isn't a precise epidemiological definition of when a wave begins or ends.

But with talk of a second wave in the news, as an epidemiologist and public health researcher, I think there are two necessary factors that must be met before we can colloquially declare a second wave.

First, the virus would have to be controlled and transmission brought down to a very low level. That would be the end of the first wave. Then, the virus would need to reappear and result in a large increase in cases and hospitalizations.

Many countries in Europe and Asia have successfully ended the first wave. New Zealand and Iceland have also made it through their first waves and are now essentially coronavirus-free, with very low levels of community transmission and only a handful of active cases currently.

In the U.S., cases spiked in March and April and then trended downward due to social distancing guidance and implementation. However, the U.S. never reduced spread to low numbers that were sustained over time. Through May and early June, numbers plateaued at approximately 25,000 new cases daily.

We have left that plateau. Since mid-June, cases have been surging upwards. Additionally, the percentage of COVID-19 tests that are returning positive is climbing steeply, indicating that the increase in new cases is not simply a result of more testing, but the result of an increase in spread.

As of writing this, new deaths per day have not begun to climb, but some hospitals' intensive care units have recently reached full capacity. In the beginning of the outbreak, deaths often lagged behind confirmed infections. It is likely, as Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease specialist said on June 22, that deaths will soon follow the surge in new cases.

Different States, Different Trends

Looking at U.S. numbers as a whole hides what is really going on. Different states are in vastly different situations right now and when you look at states individually, four major categories emerge.

  1. Places where the first wave is ending: States in the Northeast and a few scattered elsewhere experienced large initial spikes but were able to mostly contain the virus and substantially brought down new infections. New York is a good example of this.
  2. Places still in the first wave: Several states in the South and West – see Texas and California – had some cases early on, but are now seeing massive surges with no sign of slowing down.
  3. Places in between: Many states were hit early in the first wave, managed to slow it down, but are either at a plateau – like North Dakota – or are now seeing steep increases – like Oklahoma.
  4. Places experiencing local second waves: Looking only at a state level, Hawaii, Montana and Alaska could be said to be experiencing second waves. Each state experienced relatively small initial outbreaks and was able to reduce spread to single digits of daily new confirmed cases, but are now all seeing spikes again.

The trends aren't surprising based on how states have been dealing with reopening. The virus will go wherever there are susceptible people and until the U.S. stops community spread across the entire country, the first wave isn't over.

What Could a Second Wave Look Like?

It is possible – though at this point it seems unlikely – that the U.S. could control the virus before a vaccine is developed. If that happens, it would be time to start thinking about a second wave. The question of what it might look like depends in large part on everyone's actions.

The 1918 flu pandemic was characterized by a mild first wave in the winter of 1917-1918 that went away in summer. After restrictions were lifted, people very quickly went back to pre-pandemic life. But a second, deadlier strain came back in fall of 1918 and third in spring of 1919. In total, more than 500 million people were infected worldwide and upwards of 50 million died over the course of three waves.

It was the combination of a quick return to normal life and a mutation in the flu's genome that made it more deadly that led to the horrific second and third waves.

Thankfully, the coronavirus appears to be much more genetically stable than the influenza virus, and thus less likely to mutate into a more deadly variant. That leaves human behavior as the main risk factor.

Until a vaccine or effective treatment is developed, the tried-and-true public health measures of the last months – social distancing, universal mask wearing, frequent hand-washing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces – are the ways to stop the first wave and thwart a second one. And when there are surges like what is happening now in the U.S., further reopening plans need to be put on hold.

Melissa Hawkins is a Professor of Public Health, Director of Public Health Scholars Program, American University.

Disclosure statement: Melissa Hawkins receives funding from USDA.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

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It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

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The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

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And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

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