Is There A Second Wave Of Coronavirus In The U.S.? : Short Wave America is still stuck in the first one. Maddie and Emily examine how the idea of a 'second wave' of coronavirus might have taken hold.

NPR science correspondent Nurith Aizenman's report on why the first wave isn't over.

Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.
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There Is No 'Second Wave'

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There Is No 'Second Wave'

There Is No 'Second Wave'

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Maddie Sofia here with SHORT WAVE reporter Emily Kwong. Hey, Kwong.

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: Hey, Maddie.

SOFIA: Well, Kwong, it's another Blursday in 20-Schmumblebum (ph).

KWONG: Here we are. Today, we have an important message to share with you because, apparently, a few people out there need to hear it, which is that when it comes to this coronavirus...

SOFIA: ...There...

KWONG: ...Is no...

SOFIA: ...Second...

KWONG: ...Wave.

SOFIA: Oh, thank God. I feel so much better. That does it. That's the whole show. Thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE. I'm Maddie Sofia. This episode was produced...

KWONG: All righty. Well, clearly, this is going to require some explanation. We're not going to leave you there because for a few weeks now, you might have heard the exact opposite - that there is a second wave.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Also, the plunge on Wall Street, the worst day for stocks in three months as fears grow of a second wave of COVID-19.

KWONG: The second wave thing started because in a lot of places, the numbers of new coronavirus cases are going up. And it's not just from more testing. In a lot of states, the rates of positive tests are increasing, too.

SOFIA: But for the U.S. to be entering a second wave would have to mean that the first wave has already come and gone. That's how waves work. You know what I'm saying? And it hasn't.

KWONG: But it's important to keep a handle on where we really are in this pandemic. So today, we'll explain why we are not in a second wave.

SOFIA: And maybe scream into some pillows as we wonder how people got that idea in the first place. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: So looking back on it now, there might have been a turning point when people started thinking we were through this first wave - Memorial Day weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

ANDERSON COOPER: So, Dr. Fauci, just finally, what's your message to Americans going into Memorial Day weekend? What precautions should they be taking?

ANTHONY FAUCI: You know, Anderson, it depends on where you are.

SOFIA: It was the unofficial start of summer. A lot of states were beginning to reopen.

KWONG: Even Dr. Anthony Fauci of the White House Coronavirus Task Force said people should enjoy it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

FAUCI: Hopefully, the sun'll be out. We'll be having people who want to get out there and get fresh air. You can do that.

KWONG: But the most important thing Fauci said at the time is that people still needed to do all the stuff public health officials have been urging them to do for months.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

FAUCI: Go out. Wear a mask. Stay 6 feet away from anyone, so you have the physical distancing. And go out. Go for a run. Go for a walk. As long as you're not in a crowd...

SOFIA: So you know I love me some Dr. Fauci. We all do. But it might come as a shock that some of our fellow Americans were not watching the Fauch when he said that on CNN at 8:30 on a Thursday night.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Many Americans are out and about on this Memorial Day, visiting newly reopened businesses and trying to get a taste of summer.

KWONG: Like we said, that weekend coincided with a lot of states beginning to reopen. A lot of people went to the beach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Scenes from the unofficial kickoff to the summer showing many Americans not practicing social distancing measures.

KWONG: Cell phone data from the time showed more Americans moving around, leaving their homes than they had in the weeks before.

SOFIA: Now, this was all the week before the U.S. crossed a grim threshold of 100,000 confirmed deaths from the coronavirus. But it already seemed like people were ready to forget about the pandemic.

KWONG: That also happened to coincide with officials at the White House and public health leaders being way less visible. We played you Anthony Fauci on CNN before Memorial Day. By one count, that was 1 of only 4 times he was on cable news the entire month.

SOFIA: And that's the thing. Like, that's a huge change from March and April. Like, that sort of thing matters having public health officials constantly in front of you with consistent messaging. You know, that's important.

KWONG: And all of these factors we're talking about add up to a picture of the pandemic that seems more abstract to a lot of people. But here are the honest numbers. April 10 was the peak average of new daily cases in the U.S. We were seeing around 31,000 new cases a day then about a month later in mid-May, that number had dropped to 22,000.

SOFIA: And now another month after that, the number hasn't really changed. If anything, over the last week, it looks like the number of cases are starting to climb back up again. If it helps you to visualize this, go to our episode notes, where there's a link to some reporting by our colleague Nurith Aizenman. In her story, you can see a chart of new cases that basically looks like we climbed up a steep hill in March.

KWONG: Then gradually, since April all the way through May and into June, we have been walking down a very slight ramp. And that chart is weighted heavily by a big improvement in New York and New Jersey. Those places were hit really hard. New York state alone accounts for more than a quarter of all deaths in the U.S.

SOFIA: So if you look away from New York and New Jersey, for pretty much the rest of the country, no big decline - no end of the first wave. It is still here.

KWONG: And in most places, states are opening up even more. States like Arizona, Florida and Texas are seeing a big rise in cases that line up pretty closely with those states opening a few weeks ago. Now, the White House has said all along that governors and local leaders can decide how that happens. And that means that masks are not required everywhere, even though we know they cut down on respiratory droplets that spread the virus. Some states only offer recommendations for businesses as they reopen instead of requirements that can actually be enforced.

SOFIA: I mean, there was an Onion headline about this that said "City Enters Phase Four Of Pretending Coronavirus Is Over."

KWONG: Yeah.

SOFIA: It's funny in, like, a I want to cry - I'm sobbing all the time because it's true kind of way. You know what I mean? And pretending the virus isn't here is not going to keep more people from getting sick or even dying. Just listen to the mayor of Austin, Texas, Steve Adler, speaking to NPR this past week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STEVE ADLER: It's at the beginning of what looks like a surge to us. Our confirmed cases are up 90% this week over last week. Our new hospital admissions - up 58%. Hospitalized patients - up 50%.

KWONG: Adler has been fighting for the ability to require masks in Austin. Ultimately, it's the Texas governor's call, but this past week, the governor finally signaled that mask wearing could be enforced in city businesses. This is a win for Adler, but as he's talked about before, the mixed messaging on masks is a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ADLER: People are confused. They just don't know at this point if it's really important to wear face coverings or not because I think they're feeling like they're getting mixed messaging, not only from state leadership but from national leadership.

SOFIA: I mean, masks have become this political thing - right? - instead of an easy public health measure you can take to keep people safe, like washing your hands. It's in that arena. You know what I mean? And I swear, Kwong, if washing your hands becomes political, I quit. I quit science.

KWONG: So Mayor Adler in Austin basically said, look. Without clear messaging about the virus and a clear strategy with enforceable guidelines, we are only as safe as our neighbors decide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ADLER: I think we can open up or at least try to open up parts of the economy if people would just wear the face coverings. I know it's inconvenient. I know it's hot. I know it's a nuisance. I know it's all of those things. But - and it's hard to do, and people don't like it. But at the same time, our community has to decide just how much we value the lives of folks in our community that are over 65 and older. We have to decide how much we value the lives of the communities of color that are suffering disproportionately because of this virus.

SOFIA: We have to do all the things we can do to keep each other safe and continue to do so well past the point where it might feel necessary.

KWONG: And based on everything we know about this virus, how it spreads, what it does to people of all ages and how deadly it is, unless everyone is safe, no one is.

SOFIA: Nicely put, Kwong. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go scream into a pillow.

KWONG: Today's episode was produced by Brent Baughman, edited by Viet Le and fact checked by Maddie Sofia. I'm Emily Kwong.

SOFIA: And I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening. Back tomorrow with more SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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