If We Get a Second Wave of Coronavirus, Here's When to Expect It — and How to Stay Safe

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues, but parts of the US are already reopening some workplaces and businesses. That means that the issue of a "second wave" of coronavirus cases is one we've been hearing a lot about. What's happening, explained Stanford infectious-disease doctor Dean Winslow, MD, is that case counts are leveling off in certain parts of the country, particularly in places that put social-distancing control measures in place early like the Northeast. "The concern is that if we relax these measures too soon, what we might see is a second wave in the fall," he told POPSUGAR. CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, has confirmed that this is a possibility.

Why the fall? A number of reasons, according to Dr. Winslow.

  • Flu-like illnesses tend to be seasonal. "Most of the time, seasonal flu lasts one season," Dr. Winslow said. "You start seeing cases in October, November, and then by March, April, early May, the number of cases of seasonal flu is dramatically decreased."
  • A similar pattern has occurred in past pandemics. In the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, case counts "declined very significantly in the summer of 1918," Dr. Winslow said. But in the fall, a second wave of the outbreak proved even deadlier, exacerbated by displacement and overcrowding after the end of World War I.
  • We stay inside more during the fall and winter. The virus spreads most easily in close, indoor spaces.
  • Some schools are reopening. As some schools resume, the virus may spread in classrooms and homes, with students potentially transmitting it to their families.

Despite these speculations, that summer decrease in case numbers never materialized in the US, at least not in a nationwide manner. Areas like the Northeast have improved after a difficult spring, but other regions, like the South and Midwest, have only seen their case numbers rise through the summer. (Here's more on why the coronavirus continued to spread during the summer.)

That being said, there is still potential for a second wave, both in places that have been able to reopen and in areas that have worsened. It's unclear whether a potential second outbreak could be more deadly than the initial one, Dr. Winslow said, but there are a few ways to work the odds in our favor.

First and foremost, as states continue their attempts to reopen, Dr. Winslow said it's a good idea to continue following some precautionary measures. "We may still want everyone to wear cloth face masks while they're out in public," he said, especially when it's impossible to maintain six feet of space between individuals. (Here's where to buy a fabric face mask and how to make your own.) You should also continue washing your hands frequently, with soap and for at least 20 seconds.

Looking more broadly, Dr. Winslow added that large gatherings (think major spectator sports events or concerts) will have to hold off on resuming. "We'll want to start reopening slowly, and keep at least some of the other restrictions in place while we do it," Dr. Winslow said. These guidelines are even more important considering the looming possibility of a "twindemic" — the overlapping of COVID-19 with flu season in the winter.

Keep these recommendations in mind, but also remember to follow and stay up to date with your local social-distancing guidelines. Complying with that protocol is the best way to stem the ongoing pandemic as we head into the fall.

POPSUGAR aims to give you the most accurate and up-to-date information about the coronavirus, but details and recommendations about this pandemic may have changed since publication. For the latest information on COVID-19, please check out resources from the WHO, CDC, and local public health departments.