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What do the experts have to say about the COVID-19 second wave?

Cooling weather and public messaging play a role, but scientists point to a simple drop in vigilance as the main culprit.

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Photo illustration by Michelle Budge

As temperatures drop and social-distancing discipline lags across the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has surged. According to data compiled by The New York Times, Friday, Oct. 16 brought more than 70,000 new COVID-19 cases, the highest single-day mark since late July. Over the past two weeks, the number of cases has risen by 30%.

The surge has particularly affected the Midwest and Mountain West regions, with Iowa, Nevada, South Dakota, and Idaho among the states with the highest percentage of positive COVID tests. On Monday, Utah health officials reported the third straight day of more than 1,000 new coronavirus cases in the state, causing University of Utah Health to open a “surge intensive care unit.”

The uptick in cases — taken by many as the start of a long-expected “second wave” — brings dangers particular to colder months. Health experts worry about how the virus will interact with other diseases common to the fall and winter, especially the flu. They also point to a common cause, and reason for long-term concern, noting that the surge can be traced to a decrease in public compliance with best practices around the pandemic.

Barret Pritchard, 8, puts on a mask while working at a lemonade stand with his sister in Provo.

Barret Pritchard, 8, puts on a mask while working at a lemonade stand with his sister in Provo on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. When asked how he felt about wearing a mask to school, the third grader said, “I wouldn’t care, I would still be glad that I had friends.” The Utah County Commission will hold meeting Wednesday whether to ask Gov. Gary Herbert to make a mask exemption for K-12 schools in Utah County.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

How the virus surged

Medical experts have worried about the potential for a fall surge from the coronavirus since the pandemic started. Commonly cited predecessors of COVID-19, the 1918 flu and the 2009 H1N1 flu (the so-called “Swine flu”), both followed a pattern of slowing in the summer months before surging again in the fall.

Changes in temperature may be playing a part. Though most health professionals contend that President Donald Trump’s claims the warm weather would make the virus “go away” were overblown, studies have shown that hotter temperatures do in fact slow transmission.

Most, though, point to behavior, not weather, as the primary cause of the recent uptick. Researchers and political leaders around the world have noted a “pandemic fatigue,” a lessening willingness to abide by strict protocols as the months of the pandemic stretch on. “In the spring, it was fear and a sense of, ‘We are all in it together,’” psychologist and stress expert Vaile Wright told The New York Times earlier this month. “Things are different now. Fear has really been replaced with fatigue.”

Alex Azar, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, echoed the sentiment. “People are getting tired,” Azar told NBC News this weekend. “The American people have given so much. We’re seeing mitigation fatigue right now.”

Returning to normal life to a greater degree than is responsible has had dire ramifications, in some instances. Brittany Shammas and Lena H. Sun of The Washington Post recently reported on an outbreak tied to August’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, in South Dakota. “More than 330 coronavirus cases and one death were directly linked to the rally as of mid-September. ... But experts say that tally represents just the tip of the iceberg, since contact tracing often doesn’t capture the source of an infection, and asymptomatic spread goes unnoticed,” they wrote.

Some cite poor behavior modeling and inadequate communication from leaders as accelerants. On Saturday, Dr. Scott Atlas, an adviser to the White House regarding the coronavirus pandemic, tweeted, “Masks work? NO.” Twitter removed the tweet, claiming that it violated its policy against COVID-19 misinformation.

Days earlier, at a televised town hall, President Trump had misrepresented a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study by saying “they came out with a statement that 85% of the people that wear masks, catch it.” Shortly thereafter, the CDC tweeted that “the interpretation that more mask-wearers are getting infected compared to nonmask wearers is incorrect.”


Phlebotomist David Sagae checks a vial of saliva from Salvador Castaneda at an Intermountain Healthcare COVID-19 mobile testing site outside of Orem Community Hospital in Orem on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

How we can get through it

Prominent health figures have asked for greater clarity from leaders. Dr. Anthony Fauci recently called on his fellow scientists and advisers to avoid giving statements slanted toward politically expedient lines of thinking. “Over many years now — through Reagan, through George H.W. Bush, through Clinton, through George W. Bush, through Obama and now even through President Trump — I have had to, more often than you would think, tell people things that they did not want to hear,” Fauci said in a recent interview with Axios. “And I’m still here.”

One contentious topic — beyond the still-ubiquitous battle over mask use — is a potential vaccine. While Azar has suggested its arrival may be imminent, others say unknowns abound. Epidemiologist and virologist Dr. Myron Cohen recently told The New York Times that “There is no magic bullet,” noting that scientists don’t yet know how effective a vaccine might be, if it makes it past testing stages, or how limited its supply will be.

Derek Thompson, who has covered the pandemic for The Atlantic, has called on Americans to resist the temptation to look for a single solution, vaccine or otherwise, and instead focus on measures that weigh carefulness against some semblance of standard life. “We also have to be prepared to accept less-than-perfect solutions, such as rapid tests and masks, to bring society to a sustainable equilibrium of normalcy, rather than toggle between draconian lockdowns and ruinous free-for-alls for another year,” he wrote.

Regardless of their bullishness or pessimism regarding a vaccine, or their closeness to the White House, scientists and doctors have almost unanimously called for a renewed vigilance given the rising numbers of new cases. “My message to the American people: Please practice those three W’s,” Azar told NBC News. “Wash your hands, watch your distance, wear your face coverings when you can’t watch your distance. Stay out of settings where you can’t do those things.”