Coronavirus cases are spiking across the US. Is it a second wave? What we know


Most US states and countries are reopening to some degree. Experts warn that coronavirus infections could begin to increase as a result.

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For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

Health experts have been warning of a possible second wave of the coronavirus for weeks. As confirmed coronavirus cases top 10 million globally and new outbreaks surge across the US and around the world, some doctors and scientists say the second wave is already upon us. But others caution that this recent uptick isn’t evidence of a second wave, that it’s actually still part of the virus’ first pass. 

And then there’s talk of fall. Experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, have said that a second wave could arrive in autumn. Even if that doesn’t come to pass, for example if face mask use and lockdown measures can flatten the curve between now and then, the White House has admitted it’s preparing for the possibility.

Read on for more details about what a second wave of the virus might entail and what the experts say. This story provides an overview of the current discussion, and updates frequently in light of new and changing information provided by health officials, global leaders and the scientific community. It is not intended as a medical reference. 

A second wave of coronavirus cases? The latest news

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Why are there more confirmed coronavirus cases now?

There are several explanations for why coronavirus cases are rising now. A greater portion of the population is being tested, for example, so there are more positive test results in total. However, an analysis by ProPublica in late June demonstrates that the rate of positive results is outpacing the rate of expanded testing, meaning testing alone can’t be blamed for the recent surge. The need for more hospital beds in affected states like California, Arizona and Texas also suggests that the overall caseload is rising in addition to the greater number of positive results.

Loosened lockdown restrictions and social gatherings where people are closer than the recommended six feet could also contribute to new cases. And the virus is now circulating in new populations, for example, 20- to 30-year-olds. Experts believe this all contributes to the rising numbers. 

Could there be another lockdown?

It’s possible. So far 14 US states have either paused or reversed their reopening plans in response to recent surges in coronavirus cases. For example, Texas and Florida — two of the first states to lift lockdown restrictions — recently walked back the reopening of restaurants and bars, which now have had to close their doors for a second time.


Businesses from restaurants to retail are opening, which brings people into closer contact. 

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In other parts of the world that have experienced a surge of coronavirus infections after lifting lockdown restrictions, many such measures have been reinstated. In June, Germany extended its lockdown in North Rhine-Westphalia by a week and the UK is on the verge of locking down the city of Leicester, both due to increases in coronavirus cases.

Until there’s an effective vaccine, it’s possible that different parts of the US and the world will see fluctuating degrees of lockdown as governments adjust their response in the ongoing battle against the coronavirus.

What are the effects of reopening the economy on coronavirus cases?

For public health and medical experts, the correlation seems high, even “totally predictable.” Others posit that in addition to people coming into close proximity, the virus might be “catching up” to populations that had previously been uninfected.

Public health experts have warned that it’s too soon to reopen businesses and resume social activities, such as going to the lake or beach and visiting amusement parks, even with limited capacity. Others have argued that cities must reopen to keep the economy afloat, and that protective health measures will curb coronavirus transmission in restaurants, schools, malls and on planes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also released guidelines to help local governments identify phases for reopening, and interim suggestions for restaurants, schools and industry.

Part of the problem is that the full extent of short- and long-term effects of the coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it causes are still unknown, including how long you may be immune after you recover and if it’s possible to become reinfected. Most experts agree that until we have an effective coronavirus vaccine, the only way to slow the spread of the virus is by taking precautions like social distancingwearing face masks in public and washing hands correctly and frequently.

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Why has the second wave of coronavirus been linked to fall?

Most public health experts — including Fauci and the Director of the CDC Dr. Robert Redfield — have said they anticipate a big uptick to happen this fall or winter.

A new model also suggests an increase in coronavirus-related deaths this September, CNN reported.

Why then? Flu cases tend to drop off during the summer, which has led some health experts to hope COVID-19 cases go down when the weather gets warmer as well. Dr. Amesh Adalja, a pandemic preparedness expert at Johns Hopkins University, told the Los Angeles Times that other coronaviruses don’t fare well during summer months because, once outside the body, both the hotter temperatures dry them out and the ultraviolet light from sunnier weather affects them. 


Different parts of the country are lifting lockdown orders at their own pace, including deciding when to open nonessential businesses.

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study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, however, offers data to suggest that this particular coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, seems impervious to temperature differences and only slightly affected by humidity. Early outbreaks in Mumbai and Indonesia’s struggle to contain the virus highlight how the pandemic is affecting countries across climate zones, including many regions at or near the equator. 

Current cases are soaring in Arizona, where major cities reach triple-digit temperatures in June, as well as rising cases in Florida, also counter the suggestion that heat may suppress the coronavirus’ transmission.

It may be that fall and winter upswings could occur as a result of economies reopening and people coming into closer contact, transmitting the infection anew, but that reasoning is pure speculation and not the result of scientific study. We’ll need to wait to see what actually transpires. 

What’s a ‘second wave’ anyway? Can there be more?

Generally speaking, a “wave” in a pandemic is a period of increasing disease transmission following an overall decline. Currently, although cases of the coronavirus continue to increase in some parts of the US, rates of new infections appear to be declining in the country overall. 

That same mix of upward and downward trends can be seen globally, prompting WHO Executive Director Dr. Mike Ryan to estimate in late May that we are “right in the middle of the first wave.” If and when infection rates have declined across the board, then begin to climb again, that will indicate the next or “second wave.” The longer the pandemic goes on, the more waves are likely to occur.

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A wave might be made of smaller ripples or ‘peaks’

The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t affected all parts of the US in the same way or at the same time. Cities and states went into lockdown and quarantine at different times, and that’s also how the country is starting to get out of it, with different areas easing restrictions in phases and at their own pace.

Some health experts have warned the lack of a unified reopening plan might help spread the coronavirus and could actually fuel a second wave as people travel from the hardest hit areas to places with far fewer infections. Ali Khan, a former CDC official, said a second wave might comprise many simultaneous, smaller outbreaks that, taken together, seem more like a singular wave.

Spikes in new coronavirus cases have already been documented in areas emerging from lockdown. Wisconsin, for example, experienced its biggest single-day increase in new infections and deaths exactly two weeks after the state Supreme Court overturned the governor’s stay-at-home order. Georgia, which was one of the first states to start lifting lockdown orders, is beginning to see an uptick in new cases after several weeks of plateau.

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Could a second wave be worse than the first?

If there is a second coronavirus wave, the severity of the outbreak would depend on multiple factors, including how well people maintain social distancing and how many people wear face masks. The widespread availability of tests might also play a role, in addition to contract tracing for anyone who tests positive. 

For example, a study and computer model developed under Dr. De Kai, a computer scientist with appointments at both the University of California at Berkeley and Hong Kong University, proposes that if 80% of the population wore face masks in public, coronavirus transmission rates would plummet (PDF) to about 8% compared to wearing no masks.

Basically, the more measures there are in place to help reduce disease transmission — and the more effectively those measures are followed — the lower the infection rate may be the second time around, according to the computer model. 

Other factors that could come into play are any potential genetic mutations in the coronavirus that could make it more or less transmissible, the development of an effective vaccine, the development of safe, effective treatments for the COVID-19 disease and the ability to test a large number of the population, even people who don’t appear to be sick.

Perhaps the most pressing questions of all are what a second wave of coronavirus might mean for you. Here’s how we think life will look after quarantine ends as the public braces for a second wave. If you do have to leave the house, here are some practical ways to stay safe when you go out. Finally, don’t unlearn all the good habits you’ve developed during the pandemic — like frequently washing your hands.

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