Second wave vs. second peak: What’s the difference?

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The general public has been wondering about what constitutes a second wave and a second peak of a pandemic since the Health Department of the country mistakenly announced that we are currently in one.

According to Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program, there are no specific definitions for classifying a second wave or a second peak of coronavirus.

However, he explained some differences between both:

A second wave is when “a number of cases rises and it falls down to a very low or detectable level.”

“There’s a period of time in which there’s very low or no activity, and then the disease returns in a large way. That’s what we see with seasonal influenza,” Ryan said.

A second peak is a different concept — one that “many countries are facing now,” Ryan said.

“When they’ve come off the peak of the first wave, but they haven’t reduced the disease down and they’re in a steady state where they’re struggling to reduce the incidence of the disease, and then they get a second peak,” Ryan said. During a second peak, community transmission is still occurring, he added.

“You may have a second peak within your first wave. And then you may have a second wave. It’s not either or,” Ryan warned.

“The second peak depends on how good, how strong and how effective the control you have over the disease at this present moment. If you start to experience a second peak, then the chances are that the disease is spreading in a way that you have not got full control over that,” Ryan said.

Ryan added that sometimes when countries get better at testing, their number of cases often goes up.

To gauge if this is part of a second wave or peak, Ryan said look for these markers: “It’s very important at that time to look at things like hospitalizations and deaths. If you start to see hospitalizations going up, that’s not because of testing.”

Equally important, Ryan said countries should be watching for clusters in places where transmission is very low.

“When you’re down to a very low level of disease, and you see a cluster, you have to jump on the cluster. You have to take the cluster seriously, because you want to avoid that second peak, you want to avoid going back into community transmission.”