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Former CDC Official Warns Of 2nd COVID-19 Wave: Most Americans Are Still Susceptible

A coronavirus awareness sign around the U.S. Capitol encourages social distancing.
Michael Brochstein
Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media/Getty Images
A coronavirus awareness sign around the U.S. Capitol encourages social distancing.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., officials have been warning about the prospect of a second wave. Some even say additional COVID-19 spikes in the country could be worse than the first wave.

Dr. Ali Khan, former director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says he is confident that a second wave will happen. That's because, he says in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, the vast majority of people in the U.S. are likely still at risk of contracting the virus.

He says a second wave might be described as a mountain range rather than a big peak. "Even though we call it a pandemic, it's really multiple hundreds of different outbreaks in the U.S. going on at the same time," he says. "A lot of separate outbreaks will feel like sort of a second wave coming."

Khan says the implementation of additional protocols is necessary to minimize the risk of a second wave via community transmission. These include ramping up testing and contact tracing as well as a continued adherence to public health practices such as washing hands, social distancing and wearing masks.

Even as President Trump pushes to reopen the economy and states begin to relax stay-at-home orders, Khan says that "it's important to recognize that we haven't canceled the pandemic."

"We just are able to reopen because we've got a better sense on the availability of health care resources within our community," he says. "We're sort of plateauing our cases, and we're hoping that we'll slowly start to decrease our cases."

Interview Highlights

On what the second wave will look like

This is a brand-new virus. It's a good time to remind people that 90% of America is probably still susceptible. And if you weren't on the East Coast, you might think, "Oh, this wasn't so bad." ... And that's why there's this concern about a second wave of seeing additional spikes in cases, especially in large metropolitan areas that were relatively spared during the first fight in the United States.

On how to minimize risk as states begin to relax restrictions

We will be washing hands; we will be wearing masks; we will be continuing to social distance, but what's most important is we need to continue to decrease community transmission. So we need to continue to work on efforts to make it less likely for any of us to get infected. ... And so we need to make sure we have testing in America. We need to find those cases. We need to isolate them. We need to do the contact tracing. And we need to make sure we're quarantining people. ... And that's currently not happening as much as it should. So we're testing about 250,000 people a day right now. We should be testing 350,000 to 700,000 people a day right now.

We need to combine that with good protocols in all sorts of settings where we're likely to have higher risk — for schools, for example, that are going to be opened, other large businesses, warehouses. We are already seeing this obviously in prisons and meatpacking places, etc. And we need to make sure health care is protected, health care workers are protected.

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David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.