Health experts are expressing growing dread over what they say is an all-but-certain second wave of deaths and infections that could force governments around the world to clamp back down, just as lockdowns loosen.
“We’re risking a backslide that will be intolerable,” said Dr Ian Lipkin of Columbia University’s Centre for Infection and Immunity.
Around the world, German authorities began drawing up plans in case of a resurgence of the virus.
Experts in Italy urged intensified efforts to identify new victims and trace their contacts.
And France, which has not yet eased its lockdown, has already worked up a “reconfinement plan” in the event of a new wave.
“There will be a second wave, but the problem is to which extent. Is it a small wave or a big wave? It’s too early to say,” said Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus unit at France’s Pasteur Institute.
In the US, with about half of the states easing their shutdowns to get their economies restarted, and mobile phone data showing that people are becoming restless and increasingly leaving home, public health authorities are worried.
Many states have not put in place the robust testing that experts believe is necessary to detect and contain new outbreaks and many governors have pressed ahead before their states met one of the key benchmarks in the Trump administration’s guidelines for reopening, a 14-day downward trajectory in new illnesses and infections.
Dr Lipkin said he is most worried about two things: the reopening of bars, where people crowd together and lose their inhibitions, and large gatherings such as sporting events, concerts and plays.
Preventing outbreaks will require aggressive contact tracing powered by armies of public health workers hundreds of thousands of people strong, which the US does not yet have, he said.
Worldwide the virus has infected more than 3.6 million people and killed over a quarter of a million, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Experts agree the figures understate the dimensions of the disaster because of limited testing, differences in counting the dead and concealment by some governments.
The US has recorded more than 70,000 deaths and 1.2 million confirmed infections, while Europe has reported more than 140,000 dead.
….gloves, gowns etc. are now plentiful. The last four Governors teleconference calls have been conclusively strong. Because of this success, the Task Force will continue on indefinitely with its focus on SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN. We may add or subtract people ….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 6, 2020
This week, the researchers behind a widely cited model from the University of Washington nearly doubled their projection of deaths in the US to about 134,000 through to early August, in large part because of the easing of state stay-at-home restrictions.
President Donald Trump, who has pressed hard to ease the restrictions that have throttled the economy and thrown more than 30 million Americans out of work, retreated on Wednesday over White House plans revealed a day earlier to wind down the coronavirus task force.
He tweeted that the task force will continue meeting indefinitely with a “focus on SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN”.
Underscoring those economic concerns, the European Union predicted the worst recession in its history.
And the US unemployment rate for April, which comes out on Friday, is expected to hit a staggering 16%, a level last seen during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In hard-hit Italy, which has begun easing restrictions, Dr Silvio Brusaferro, president of the Superior Institute of Health, urged “a huge investment” of resources to train medical personnel to monitor possible new cases of the virus, which has killed about 30,000 people nationwide.
He said that contact-tracing apps, which are being built by dozens of countries and companies, are not enough to manage future waves of infection.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after meeting the country’s 16 governors that restaurants and other businesses will be allowed to reopen in the coming weeks, but that regional authorities will have to draw up a “restriction concept” for any county that reports 50 new cases for every 100,000 inhabitants within a week.
Lothar Wieler, head of Germany’s national disease control centre, said scientists “know with great certainty that there will be a second wave” of infections.