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June 22, 2020

We’re seeing a lot in the news about “second waves” today. Who might be having one, whether we might have one, whether we believe in them. Two news stories suggest that South Korea and Australia are having a second wave. Some reports say that we might face one in the fall. Still others say there isn’t one. This strikes me as a term badly in need of definition.

The trouble is that “second wave” is more a convenient metaphor than a scientific term. We see it used for the influenza pandemic of 1918 which peaked in March, then faded away in the summer only to come back worse than before in the fall. There is no rule that says COVID-19 has to follow the same pattern. It might just smolder, to switch to another metaphor. Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who postulated three possible patterns for COVID-19 in April, now sees the pandemic’s behavior as more of a “forest fire.”

Unfortunately, the very phrase “second wave” has become inflammatory. Financial analysts use it as a possible scenario when they speculate on what the market might do over the next six months. Politicians use it to imply that the epidemic is/is not under control. Epidemiologists must be in despair. “Second wave” is a descriptor, not something you believe in or don’t believe in like the tooth fairy. So as a descriptor, how is it used right now?

South Korea describes an outbreak in Seoul as a second wave because it flared up in a new area and started with the May holiday. The article about Australia refers to a possible second wave in Melbourne, where a flare-up of new cases have occurred. Later they use the terms “hot spot” and “spike” which may be more appropriate. Generally the term “second wave” is used for a situation where the number of new cases had gone down and everyone feels safe for a few weeks until new cases crop up and increase exponentially into an epidemic that may be worse than the first one. This is the way we apply it to the Flu Pandemic of 1918.

Los Angeles Times, 11 Oct. 1918.

It’s a relative term, similar to the way we talk about earthquakes. Earthquakes happen all the time, most of them only detectable by instruments. Noticeable foreshocks and aftershocks may be quite strong, even knock down buildings, and which quake is the main event may not be clear until the series of quakes is over.

Reasons for a second wave, if there is one, might have more to do with nature than with politics. A random mutation that works to the virus’s advantage, or cooler temperatures that render the virus more communicable, or changes in human behavior, such as staying indoors due to cold and rainy weather.

As of today, cases are rising worldwide especially in India and Brazil. States where cases are up include California, Arizona, Texas, Florida. While outbreaks and flare-ups continue to occur, it seems reasonable to say that we are still in the early phases of a new viral disease that began to spread around the world in February and March. If the number of cases goes down for a few weeks and then starts to increase rapidly, that would be the second wave. Or we might just continue to have a fluctuating but constant number of cases.

We may not be able to define the pattern as waves, smoldering embers or something entirely different for several years. But when the next outbreak comes, this will be our standard.

This is History’s Edge.

Today’s Notable Headlines

“There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave,’ “ Op-Ed by Mike Pence, WSJ, June 16, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/there-isnt-a-coronavirus-second-wave-11592327890

 “No second wave of coronavirus: U.S. White House adviser Kudlow,” Health News, June 22, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-kudlow/no-second-wave-of-coronavirus-u-s-white-house-adviser-kudlow-idUSKBN23T1W9

“South Korea says it is battling ‘second wave’ of coronavirus,” World News, June 22, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-southkorea/south-korea-says-it-is-battling-second-wave-of-coronavirus-idUSKBN23T10M

“Fears of second virus wave in Australia’s second city,” AFP. June 21, 2020. https://news.yahoo.com/fears-second-virus-wave-australias-second-city-051751756.html

“Osterholm: Forget waves, this pandemic is a ‘forest fire,’ “ Health Care, June 22, 2020. https://www.bizjournals.com/twincities/news/2020/06/22/osterholm-interview-covid-19-forest-fire.html

Other articles referenced:

“Coronavirus ‘second wave’ debate ‘misses the whole point,’ experts say,” ABC News, June 18, 2020. https://abcnews.go.com/Health/coronavirus-wave-debate-misses-point-experts/story?id=71312024

“Why the World Worries About a Covid-19 ‘Second Wave,’ “ Bloomberg, April 23, updated June 17, 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-24/why-a-second-wave-of-covid-19-is-already-a-worry-quicktake

“COVID-19: The CIDRAP Viewpoint,” April 30, 2020. “Part 1: The Future of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons from Pandemic Influenza.” https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/sites/default/files/public/downloads/cidrap-covid19-viewpoint-part1_0.pdf

Why am I doing this?

The coronavirus pandemic will be indelibly written on our memories just as the Great Depression or the Battle of Britain left their mark on past generations. It is my intention to journal the events of these days from three perspectives: as a retired medical technologist, a historian (Ph.D., 2014), and an ordinary person living through an extraordinary crisis.

You are on History’s Edge.

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