Even as the United States begins to slowly recover from the onslaught of the novel coronavirus, experts are already warning of a second wave in the fall.
In early May, many midwestern states are reopening their economies on rapid timetables while coastal states like California and New York take small, cautious steps of progress. It’s impossible to predict the behavior of coronavirus cases in response to relaxed social distancing guidelines, but many experts believe it will ultimately lead to a surge of COVID-19 cases as summer comes to an end.
Dr. Nicholas Christakis, Md, PhD, MPH, is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, Internal Medicine and Biomedical Engineering at Yale University. “In the fall, I think there is at least a 75% chance it will come back with a second wave as it did in 1918 and 1957 pandemics,” he predicted. “I don’t know that it will be deadlier, but there will be a second wave and we will have to prepare ourselves for it.”
Though not all medical experts agree on the exact chances of a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall, here’s what we know so far.
Why Will We Be Vulnerable to Infection in the Fall?
According to Mayo Clinic COVID-19 expert Dr. Gregory Poland, the fall poses a triple threat for human health amid the coronavirus crisis. Though we benefited from the fact that the initial outbreak of COVID-19 occurred in February, after the worst of influenza season had passed, that won’t be the case in the fall.
“Rather, we will have, in an overlapping fashion, influenza epidemics and COVID-19 recurrence occuring.” That’s an especially concerning problem since the symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are nearly identical. The demand on the medical system may once again overwhelm local hospitals and doctors as patients seek to determine the source of their illnesses and receive treatment.
Three Potential Scenarios
The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) published a report in early May 2020 which laid out three possible scenarios for the next 18 to 24 months. Unfortunately, the worst-case scenario of the three provided is also the one that researchers suggest is most likely.
In its first scenario, CIDRAP predicts repeating, smaller waves of infection throughout the summer, fall, winter, and following spring. Those waves would create a lower but continual number of infections in the United States before finally diminishing after 18 to 24 months.
In its second scenario, CIDRAP depicts an intense second wave of COVID-19 infections developing this fall. During this potential second wave, CIDRAP believes the wave of infections would peak even higher than they have in March and April, forcing the U.S to reinstitute mitigation measures like lockdowns.
CIDRAP’s final scenario suggests the pandemic would shift into a “slow burn” of ongoing transmission and new cases without any major spikes.
Overall, the report authors note, “There is no crystal ball to tell us what the future holds and what the ‘end game’ for controlling this pandemic will be.”