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Researchers Fear A 2nd Wave Of COVID-19 In China


There are now more than 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases around the world. Here in the U.S., Dr. Deborah Birx with the White House Coronavirus Task Force says Americans need to try harder to comply with the social distancing guidelines.


DEBORAH BIRX: I can tell by the curves and as it is today that not every American is following it. And so this is really a call to action.

MARTIN: Part of that call to action is likely to involve wearing face masks. A White House official tells NPR that the Trump administration is preparing to recommend that people wear face masks in public if they live in areas with clusters of cases. As the U.S. expands guidelines to flatten the curve, Chinese officials say the number of cases of COVID-19 there is near zero. NPR's global health and development correspondent Jason Beaubien talks with us now about that. Hi, Jason.


MARTIN: So six weeks after China faced the peak of the outbreak there, things seem to be getting better. Is that right?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, definitely. You know, China has - they're in a precarious situation. They've driven their numbers down to close to zero. Yet they still have a large portion of the population that's susceptible to the virus. The virus is still circulating at a low level. They've had travelers who've come back and reintroduced the virus. So while China is sort of looking to reopen its economy - and it has started to reopen its economy - it's doing it very cautiously. And there's good reason for that. Here's Kylie Ainslie. She's a researcher and analyst at Imperial College London.

KYLIE AINSLIE: We are very aware that there could still be a second wave in China. That is possible.

MARTIN: A second wave. So there's a fear that after all of this, another outbreak could flare up there.

BEAUBIEN: Absolutely. And it's a reasonable fear except that Ainslie and her colleagues - you know, they haven't yet seen that happening.

MARTIN: So how come? Why is it not happening yet?

BEAUBIEN: Well, at least in part it's because the Chinese are still keeping restrictions in place. They're still monitoring for the virus very closely. The Chinese haven't come right out and said how they plan to move out of this lockdown phase. But what researcher Ainslie and others are seeing is that in areas that had less COVID-19, people are being allowed to move around more freely and sooner. And that seems to be the strategy.

Officials slowly are dialing back the restrictions one area at a time so that if a flare-up does occur, it could be caught easier. And then in other areas, they're tightening the restrictions. For instance, you know, they're banning - they just banned foreign nationals from entering the country last week.

MARTIN: So when exactly was the peak of the outbreak in China?

BEAUBIEN: It was the second week of February. So it's been six weeks now.

MARTIN: Right. So is that what we could be facing here in the U.S.? I mean, after we get through the worst of this, it could be another six weeks before things start to reopen and these stay-at-home orders get lifted?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. Unfortunately, some people are telling me that it looks like it might be even longer here in the U.S. You know, China was very aggressive in tracking down people who may have been exposed. They quarantined the contacts in these special centers outside their homes. You know, China's been able to impose mandatory lockdowns on millions and millions of people.

I was talking to Ben Cowling. He's an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. And he says one problem facing the U.S. is that there are many different outbreaks that might peak in the U.S. at different times here.

BEN COWLING: So it's possible that New York could be coming out of lockdown, having gotten the numbers to a low level. But there are other cities where they're just having a lot more infections. And the worst-case scenario is that infections are kind of bouncing around the U.S. And so, you know, the lockdown is relaxed. And then infections come back. And then you have to lock down again. Nobody wants that to happen. So really, it's an urgent question to figure out, what's the best way to suppress transmission across the whole of the U.S.?

BEAUBIEN: And this suppression phase is where China is at the moment. You know, they've gotten through the worst of it. They've brought cases down to practically zero. But they can't let their guard down. And so the U.S. is going to also have to try to figure out that, how do you...


BEAUBIEN: ...Go through the suppression phase?

MARTIN: All right. NPR global health and development correspondent Jason Beaubien. Thank you.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.

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