Despite being told for months that the novel coronavirus is unlike anything we’ve dealt with in modern times, it’s still tempting for us to think of it in terms of influenza. (Even though they’re definitely not the same thing.) This makes sense because we’re familiar with the flu, and with flu season, and they seem to give us a way to make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while there are some similarities (like both diseases being particularly dangerous for people in high-risk health categories), the World Health Organization (WHO) wants us to know that COVID-19 is unlike influenza in one major way: it’s not seasonal. We’ve all been riding one big wave, and it’s still cresting.
There’s no such thing as “COVID season”
When the novel coronavirus started spreading in early 2020, some speculated that once warmer weather hit, the outbreak would go away on its own. Sure, it was nice to cling to that little bit of hope, but as epidemiologists and public health experts like Dr. Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, have pointed out, that’s not how COVID works.
In a virtual briefing in Geneva today, Dr. Margaret Harris, a WHO spokesperson, broke it down for us:
“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. Summer is a problem. This virus likes all weather.”
This still won’t be over soon
On top of that, there’s been a lot of talk of different “waves” of COVID-19, similar to what we think happened during the 1918 flu pandemic. This is the idea that once the spread is controlled and dissipates for a period of time, another round of new infections will begin. Because places like New York City—the original U.S. epicenter—have gotten to the point of being able to reopen, it may seem like the infection rate increase in places like Arizona and Florida is this “second wave” we’ve been warned about. But WHO officials want you to know that it’s actually not.
In fact, WHO officials have gone out of their way to make sure that they don’t describe COVID-19 resurgences (like the one currently happening in Hong Kong) as “waves.” There is a reason for this: using the term “waves” makes it sound like the spread of COVID-19 is beyond human control, when at this point we know that concerted, collective action can slow the spread, Reuters reports.
Here’s what Harris said about that in the same virtual briefing:
“We are in the first wave. It’s going to be one big wave. It’s going to go up and down a bit. The best thing is to flatten it and turn it into just something lapping at your feet.”
What can we do?
Even though COVID-19 isn’t seasonal like the flu, that doesn’t mean we should be any less prepared for this year’s flu season. That’s why it’s even more important than ever to get your flu shot this year. As Harris puts it: “If you have an increase in a respiratory illness when you already have a very high burden of respiratory illness, that puts even more pressure on the health system.” In addition, she stresses the importance of continuing public health measures like physical distancing, wearing face masks and avoiding large crowds. (Yes, all of us, and yes, during the summer, too.)
As reassuring as it may be to think of COVID being seasonal or coming in waves, that doesn’t seem to be how this disease works. So settle in, because as Lifehacker’s senior health editor Beth Skwarecki has told us for months, this isn’t going to end soon, herd immunity won’t save us and things will probably get worse.