When health experts warn about the possibility of the United States suffering a “double whammy” with coronavirus, they are likely referring to two COVID-19 waves: the first wave (which has recently taken a turn for the worse in many Sun Belt states) followed by a possible second wave later this year in the fall and the winter. That’s how the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918/1919 behaved: it was brutal during the spring but even more brutal when a second wave killed millions in the fall and the winter. But in a July 15 article for The Atlantic, journalist Ed Yong describes a different type of double whammy scenario: one in which the U.S. continues to be battered by COVID-19 while a separate coronavirus emerges and inflicts widespread misery.
“I first worried about the possibility of a double pandemic in March,” Yong writes. “Four months ago, it felt needlessly alarmist to fret about two rare events happening simultaneously. But since then, federal fecklessness and rushed reopenings have wasted the benefits of months of social distancing. About 60,000 new cases of COVID-19 are being confirmed every day, and death rates are rising. My worry from March feels less far-fetched. If America could underperform so badly against one rapidly spreading virus, how would it fare against two?”
When reporters speak of “the coronavirus pandemic,” they are specifically referring to the COVID-19 pandemic — which, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, had killed more than 579,500 people worldwide (including over 136,400 in the U.S.) as of early Wednesday morning, July 15. But as Yong explains in his article, COVID-19 is only one of the many coronavirus diseases that has existed. SARS and MERS were among the coronaviruses that killed people well before COVID-19.
“Many countries are on high alert for such viruses, primed by their COVID-19 ordeal in the same way that East Asian countries were primed at the start of this pandemic by their previous run-ins with SARS and MERS,” Yong observes. “But waning global solidarity is a problem…. Having failed to lead the best-prepared nation in the world against one pandemic, Donald Trump has made it more vulnerable to another. He has, for example, frayed international bonds further by trying to pull the U.S. out of the World Health Organization.”
Yong asserts that if a new coronavirus separate from COVID-19 “begins to spread,” there is “an optimistic scenario” in which “the new pathogen finds it harder to move around an alert world, is rapidly detected wherever it arrives, and fizzles out because cautious citizens have their guard up.” But such an “optimistic scenario,” Yong stresses, would require strong international cooperation. And Yong notes that a “second” coronavirus pandemic — one involving a disease other than COVID-19 — “would further tax the same resources that the U.S. has already failed to adequately marshal for COVID-19. Hospitals would also struggle. In many states, emergency rooms and intensive-care units are filling up. A second virus wouldn’t need to be that severe to push them beyond their capacity, deplete the shrinking supply of protective equipment, or create a logistical nightmare.”
Long before COVID-19 emerged in China in late 2019, Dr. Anthony Fauci (who is part of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force) warned that a deadly pandemic could inflict misery around the world. And some politicians encouraged pandemic preparedness, including former Vice President Joe Biden — who, on October 25, 2019, warned, “We are not prepared for a pandemic. Trump has rolled back progress President Obama and I made to strengthen global health security.”
We are not prepared for a pandemic. Trump has rolled back progress President Obama and I made to strengthen global health security. We need leadership that builds public trust, focuses on real threats, and mobilizes the world to stop outbreaks before they reach our shores. https://t.co/1qqpgayUEX
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) October 25, 2019
Lauren Sauer, who specializes in disaster preparedness at Johns Hopkins, told The Atlantic, “All the resources we would normally use to detect potential viruses of concern have been redirected for COVID-19….. Say we had pandemic flu and COVID at the same time. You have two groups of people who need to be sorted and separated.”
According to Sauer, “All the people with preparedness jobs have turned into COVID responders. Things are getting dropped.”