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WHO Warns Of A 'Second Peak' In Countries That Reopen Too Quickly

An aerial view shows people gathered in painted circles on the grass encouraging social distancing last week at Dolores Park in San Francisco.
Josh Edelson
AFP via Getty Images
An aerial view shows people gathered in painted circles on the grass encouraging social distancing last week at Dolores Park in San Francisco.

The world's top health officials are warning that there could be a "second peak" of coronavirus infections during the current outbreak, separate from a second wave expected in the fall. As cases decline, officials worry that some countries are lifting restrictions too quickly — the U.S. among them.

What's key to understanding the different patterns emerging around the globe is recognizing that "this coronavirus is not the flu," said Dr. Margaret Harris, a member of the World Health Organization's coronavirus response team.

"A lot of people have put what I'd call a 'flu lens' on their expectations. They keep on thinking it's seasonal," Harris told NPR's Morning Edition.

"But if you look around the globe, we've got countries in the middle of their summer and autumn having large, large outbreaks. So we're not seeing a seasonal pattern. What we are seeing is indeed, when people ease too quickly, that they do then see a rise in infections. So we certainly don't say you have to be in lockdown, but we are saying ease carefully."

Here are excerpts from the interview:

What are you advising the U.S. and other countries to do to prevent a second peak?

First of all, know your transmission. Of course, the U.S. is a huge country. You've got many, many different states, communities, cities experiencing very different transmission. ... Therefore, of course, they need to pace it according to what's really going on. So how do you know that? You have to be testing. You have to be tracking. And you have to have very clear eyes on what's happening with the transmission in your community so that you can pick your moment.

President Trump has threatened to pull U.S. funding for the WHO or just leave altogether. Given those tensions, are you concerned that the U.S. is not heeding the advice or the guidance from the WHO?

The U.S. is a fantastic partner, and the U.S. has got extraordinary depths of great scientific expertise. Now, these sort of tensions obviously are a concern. And we do not want to have the U.S. leave. We know the world benefits enormously from the public health leadership and the role the U.S. has always played. And we hope that will continue.

New Zealand's prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, recently celebrated that the country currently has no one in the hospital being treated for COVID-19. And then you look at the U.S., which is perhaps going to suffer a second peak in the current outbreak. What is the state of affairs right now when you take a broad look at the global impact of this pandemic?

We're really seeing very, very large outbreaks in many parts of the world. In fact, last week, every day we recorded the largest number of new cases that we had seen. One of the issues is when people see their particular outbreak coming down, they go, "Well, that's done, done and dusted." But that is not the case. Certainly, countries like New Zealand have shown what can be done with very clear communication, very clear structure, very clear decisions on what to do when and how, and its very, very strong commitment by everyone in the community.

Listen to the full interview at the audio link above.

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Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.