It goes without saying that the United States has been utterly battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps worse than any other western country. At the moment, the United States has more than 5.8 million infections and 180,000 deaths*. That says nothing about the tens of millions of unemployed Americans or the hundreds of thousands of businesses who have gone out of work. Unfortunately, until a vaccine is available, it is highly likely that the United States will continue to suffer from this pandemic.
Of course, all of this says nothing about how bad things may still get, with many experts predicting that the country will see another spike of illnesses as colder weather forces more people inside. This could result in a “second wave,” which is commonplace in pandemics. However, this theory has given rise to an important question: How can it be considered a second wave, when the first wave didn’t really end?
What Defines A Second Wave
The term “first wave” and “second wave” are largely nebulous and defy a formal definition. However, there seem to be some rough general agreements about what defines a first and second wave: A significant decline in cases, deaths, and transmission rates over an extended period of time. This decline may cause some to think that the virus had passed and that the worst was over and that precautions were no longer needed. That resulted in a resurgence of cases.
However, generally speaking, most scientists argue that the difference between a first and second wave is largely an argument about semantics at best. Instead, they point to the fact that the United States still has very high rates of transmission, a positivity rate that hovers around 6% and over 1,000 new deaths every day. The fear of this conversation is that it could lead some to think that the “worst” was over – when, in reality, that’s far from the case.
The First Wave Never Ended
After extensive mitigation measures and business shutdowns, there was hope in late May that the worst of the pandemic was over. However, that was not to be the case. Shutdown measures expired, and COVID cases promptly reignited, resulting in new cases (and eventually deaths) accelerating at rates that were greater than when COVID first hit the United States in March 2020.
For a first wave to have ended, the virus would have to be virtually eliminated, death rates hugely reduced and hospital capacity increased across the board. That never happened. Indeed, in many states, just the opposite occurred.
Many states saw massive increases, particularly in the western and southern United States, which had escaped a huge degree of harm in March and April. Florida, Texas, and California recorded massive spikes, with Florida at one point reporting increases of over 10,000 new cases on five consecutive days. These states have since gotten more control over the pandemic by instituting additional shut down measures, but they are still seeing hundreds – if not thousands – of new daily cases.
Indeed, in many states, the pandemic grew significantly worse over the summer, forcing dozens of states to reimplement shutdown measures or put a pause on reopening plans. As of late August, the growth of new cases appears to be slowing, with positivity rates dropping from a mid-summer high of 8.5% to 5.9%. However, summer is starting to wind down, and there are real fears that the virus will reignite in the fall and winter.
Why There Are Such Fears of a Second Wave
Unfortunately, viruses like this tend to grow worse over the colder months. This is for many reasons.
First is obvious: The weather. As a result of declining temperatures, people are more likely to spend time inside. This is a problem when it comes to COVID-19. It seems clear that the risk of transmission significantly reduced outdoors when compared to indoors, and any push of people indoors may result in higher transmission rates and more cases.
Second is simple fatigue. Americans are tired. We are tired of being told to stay in their house. We miss our friends, our families, and our lives from the “before times.” Americans are tired of being told to keep their distance from others, avoid crowds, and use a mask. Of course, that’s irrelevant to the virus. The virus doesn’t care how tired we are – it thrives in certain conditions, and these conditions are likely to worsen as “virus fatigue” sets in.
There is also significant concern over superspreader events. These events – typically defined as large gatherings – can create optimal opportunities for one COVID case to spread and ultimately turn into thousands. Unfortunately, the reopening of many colleges and schools has created tragically perfect conditions for superspreader events to occur on a daily basis, turning these institutions of learning into idea places to further ignite the spread of COVID. This creates incredible problems for our society and makes it clear that the worst may still yet to come.
Are we in the first wave or second? In the United States, most experts think that the first wave dipped, but never really ended and that we are still in the grips of a deadly pandemic. As such, it is safe to say that a second wave – if it will happen – is still on the horizon.
*stats are current as of date article was written