Authorities around the world are drawing up plans in case of a resurgence of the virus.
As Europe and the U.S. loosen their lockdowns against the coronavirus, health experts are expressing growing dread over what they say is an all-but-certain second wave of deaths and infections that could force governments to clamp back down.
“We’re risking a backslide that will be intolerable,” said Dr. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity.
Elsewhere around the world, German authorities began drawing up plans in case of a resurgence of the virus. Experts in Italy urged intensified efforts to identify new victims and trace their contacts. And France, which hasn’t yet eased its lockdown, has already worked up a “reconfinement plan” in the event of a new wave.
“There will be a second wave, but the problem is to which extent. Is it a small wave or a big wave? It’s too early to say,” said Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus unit at France’s Pasteur Institute.
In the U.S., with about half of the states easing their shutdowns to get their economies restarted and cellphone data showing that people are becoming restless and increasingly leaving home, public health authorities are worried.
Many states have not put in place the robust testing that experts believe is necessary to detect and contain new outbreaks. And many governors have pressed ahead before their states met one of the key benchmarks in the Trump administration’s guidelines for reopening ― a 14-day downward trajectory in new illnesses and infections.
“If we relax these measures without having the proper public health safeguards in place, we can expect many more cases and, unfortunately, more deaths,” said Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy with the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington.
Cases have continued to rise steadily in places such as Iowa and Missouri since the governors began reopening, while new infections have yo-yoed in Georgia, Tennessee and Texas.
Lipkin said he is most worried about two things: the reopening of bars, where people crowd together and lose their inhibitions, and large gatherings such as sporting events, concerts and plays. Preventing outbreaks will require aggressive contact tracing powered by armies of public health workers hundreds of thousands of people strong, which the U.S. doesn’t yet have, Lipkin said.
Worldwide the virus has infected more than 3.6 million people and killed over a quarter-million, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University that experts agree understates the dimensions of the disaster because of limited testing, differences in counting the dead and concealment by some governments.
The U.S. has recorded over 70,000 deaths and 1.2 million confirmed infections, while Europe has reported over 140,000 dead.
This week, the researchers behind a widely cited model from the University of Washington nearly doubled their projection of deaths in the U.S. to about 134,000 through early August, in large part because of the easing of state stay-at-home restrictions. Newly confirmed infections per day in the U.S. exceed 20,000, and deaths per day are running well over 1,000.
In hard-hit New York City, which has managed to bring down deaths dramatically even as confirmed infections continue to rise around the rest of the country, Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that some states may be reopening too quickly.
“My message to the rest of the country is learn from how much effort, how much discipline it took to finally bring these numbers down and follow the same path until you’re sure that it’s being beaten back,” he said on CNN, “or else if this thing boomerangs, you’re putting off any kind of restart or recovery a hell of a lot longer.”
A century ago, the Spanish flu epidemic’s second wave was far deadlier than its first, in part because authorities allowed mass gatherings from Philadelphia to San Francisco.
“It’s clear to me that we are in a critical moment of this fight. We risk complacency and accepting the preventable deaths of 2,000 Americans each day,” epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers, a professor at Johns Hopkins, told a House subcommittee in Washington.
President Donald Trump, who has pressed hard to ease the restrictions that have throttled the economy and thrown more than 30 million Americans out of work, pulled back Wednesday on White House plans revealed a day earlier to wind down the coronavirus task force.