TORONTO — Coronavirus cases worldwide may be “one big wave” rather than a series of multiple waves, according to a doctor with the World Health Organization, but other experts are casting doubts on these sorts of analogies.
“It’s going to be one big wave,” WHO spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris said during a press conference Tuesday.
“It’s going to go up and down a bit … the best thing is to flatten it and turn it into just something that is lapping at your feet. But at the moment, first, second, third wave, these things don’t really make sense and we’re not really defining it that way.”
For months, health officials in Canada and around the world have described COVID-19 cases in “waves” and encouraged the public to help “flatten the curve” ahead of an anticipated “second wave” this fall. Describing pandemics in multiple waves dates back to the Spanish flu of 1918, when more than 50 million people died during three distinct waves.
A century later, Harris says this pandemic may be different.
“People are still thinking about seasons. What we all need to get our heads around is this is a new virus and … this one is behaving differently,” she said.
July has been a record-breaking month for new cases of COVID-19 worldwide, driven by surges in the U.S. and Brazil. Canada’s caseload has generally trended downward, but the country has yet to completely flatten its curve.
Canada’s current trajectory resembles a sharp wave that peaked on May 3, with 2,760 new cases, and has seen a second, more gradual bump in July.
But some health experts are pushing back against the practice of describing the pandemic in waves, either as “one big wave” or multiple consecutive waves. Dr. Michael Curry, an emergency physician in Delta, B.C., and a clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, is encouraging a wait-and-see approach.
“I think we should stay away from any wave characterizations until we can look at this retrospectively,” Curry told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview Wednesday.
“We know that this could rapidly change, and there is no fixed pattern of how pandemics play out.”
Curry acknowledged that the pandemic remains a fluid situation, and that all it takes to spark another surge is one case. But he says too much emphasis has been placed on comparing COVID-19 to influenza, which follows a seasonal pattern, when in fact the two viruses are quite different.
“Whenever we’re dealing with a new station, whether it’s in health of economics, we always try to relate it to previous situations. So with COVID-19, it’s an infectious viral infection, and we’ve always tried to relate it to influenza,” he said.
“We keep thinking it’s the flu when it’s not the flu, and we don’t even understand why the flu has that seasonality.”
He compares attempts to characterize the trajectory of COVID-19 as similar to trying to predict a peak in the stock market.
“You don’t know if the stock market has peaked until after it has peaked, otherwise we’d all be very rich,” he said.
Using “second wave” to describe the anticipated rise in cases this fall may be a helpful tool for public messaging, but some doctors say it’s more of a communications strategy than an accurate scientific measure.
“There’s nothing so precise about it. It’s more just a helpful communication tool,” Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health, law, and political science at York University in Toronto and director of the Global Strategy Lab, told CTVNews.ca in an earlier interview.
Waves or not, the important thing is to employ effective public health strategies to clamp down on cases, said Dr. Eleanor Fish, an immunology professor at the University of Toronto.
“Whether it’s one big wave or second and third waves or cluster outbreaks ….(the) key is to be prepared with rapid testing and contact tracing to blunt transmission in communities,” Fish said.
As of Wednesday, Canada has recorded 115,470 cases of COVID-19 and 8.917 people have died. More than 6,000 cases are considered active.
With files from CTV’s Jackie Dunham
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