The director of the World Health Organization's program overseeing health crises warned Tuesday that countries that rush to reopen their economies risk immediately causing a massive increase in coronavirus infections and deaths.
Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO's Health Emergencies Program, addressed the incorrect assumption that once a country's Covid-19 cases begin to decline, the first wave of the pandemic is on its way out and governments will have several months to prepare for a potential second wave in the fall.
In addition to preparing for another wave of outbreaks later this year, Ryan said that public health officials and governments "need also to be cognizant of the fact that the disease can jump up at any time."
"We cannot make assumptions that just because the disease is on the way down now it is going to keep going down and we are [getting] a number of months to get ready for a second wave," said Ryan. "We may get a second peak in this wave."
Although people across the U.S. and parts of Europe have begun to venture out into public life and governments have ordered shops and restaurants to reopen, giving the impression the danger is lifting, Ryan pointed out that the world is still in the middle of the first wave of the global pandemic, with cases rising in Africa, South Asia, and Central and South America.
In Europe and North America, where cases currently appear to be on the decline, officials must "continue to put in place the public health and social measures, the surveillance measures, the testing measures, and a comprehensive strategy to ensure that we continue on a downwards trajectory and we don't have an immediate second peak," Ryan said.
“We may get a second peak in this wave, this happened during pandemics in the past.”
The WHO’s Dr Mike Ryan warns of a second peak - not necessarily a second wave – of coronavirus cases. He adds, we need to be cognizant that the disease can “jump up at any time”. pic.twitter.com/P1uxTzJbZV
— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) May 26, 2020
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All 50 U.S. states have at least partially reopened, and states which have implemented the most conservative reopening plans are set to end stay-at-home orders by early June.
States including Arkansas, Maryland, and West Virginia have seen their infection rates increase since reopening large parts of their economies in recent weeks.
In European countries including the U.K., France, and Denmark, cases have begun to go down, but Ryan warned leaders in those countries to remain vigilant as well.
On Twitter, writer and activist Richard Seymour said governments are "pretty determinedly leading us into the second peak."
The government is pretty determinedly leading us into the second peak, by insisting on reopening schools and businesses so soon.
WHO warns of 'second peak' as it drops hydroxychloroquine trial | Coronavirus outbreak | The Guardian https://t.co/MYBjcAlKYD
— Richard Seymour (@leninology) May 26, 2020
Ryan noted that during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, the world saw three waves over a year and a half. Most U.S. deaths took place during the second wave in the fall of 1918, and public health experts placed blame for the high death toll on government officials who were reluctant to impose quarantines during the less deadly first wave.
As of Tuesday, more than 98,000 Americans have died of Covid-19, and the worldwide death toll has surpassed 346,000.