The First Wave Of COVID-19 Is Still Surging

11:42 minutes

a colored graphic design of an outline of the united states colored red and covered with virus particles that had been photoshopped yellow
Credit: CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS/design by Lauren Young

This story is a part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.

The country saw record high numbers of new coronavirus cases this week. While the U.S. federal government debates whether a second wave of COVID-19 is on the way, epidemiologists across the country are saying that, in fact, the first wave isn’t over. Seven states reported record high hospitalizations this week—and some are now reconsidering social restrictions and other safety measures. 

Science writer Ryan Mandelbaum talks to Ira about the rising case numbers, and new research on the role of superspreading events—plus a promising new signal in an Italian dark matter detector.

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Segment Guests

Ryan Mandelbaum

Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer and birder based in Brooklyn, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll talk about how the pandemic is affecting kids, plus their parents and caregivers. But first, this week the US saw a record number of new daily coronavirus cases, beating out a record from April. And those cases are spiking significantly in at least seven states– Arizona, Arkansas, California, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. And all of those states have posted record high numbers of hospitalizations.

On Tuesday, 800 people died in the US. That was the first time deaths have increased since June 7. So what’s going on? What factors are to blame?

Here to dig into the data and share other recent science headlines, Ryan Mandelbaum, a science writer based in New York. Welcome back, Ryan.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Always good to be here, Ira. How’s everything going?

IRA FLATOW: Ryan, like I said, seven states have record numbers of COVID hospitalizations this week. And just this Wednesday, the US had a record number of new cases. So it sounds pretty bad out there. How bad is it?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: It’s bad, Ira. I think this is something that we should have been worried about all along, which is that states are beginning to ease restrictions, but the first wave of cases never stopped plateauing. So I mean we’re still in the midst of this strong first wave, states are opening back up, people are going back outside, and COVID is already back with a vengeance.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s what Dr. Fauci said– Anthony Fauci said– when he was asked about, are we in the second wave? And he said, we haven’t finished the first one. So how are some of these states responding? I say at least in Texas, the governor is urging people to stay home. He sort of did a 180 on this. Any others considering resuming lockdowns?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: As of now, some states are– from what I’ve seen, it’s been more on the local and the county level that cities and towns have been issuing ordinances. But I think that we’re right in the midst of it. So I’m sure we will see some resuming of some of these lockdowns in a moment. But I think that the real question is, how much will people be adhering to the lockdowns, especially in some of these places where people don’t want to wear masks, they don’t want to stop gathering. It’s a very interesting time.

IRA FLATOW: I found it very interesting that some of the newer cases, the cases that we’re seeing, shows that there is a downward trend in the ages of the people who are getting the new cases. Most new cases are happening with people in their 30s.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: You know, it’s interesting. I saw that statistic too. And while there’s obviously some speculation that, oh, the millennials just want to go outside, I think that, in fact, the increase in testing availability is what’s driving down the age. Because the initial set of tests was many of the sickest folks, right? Those who were showing symptoms, and in many cases were older people. And so now that everybody has the availability, we’re going to start seeing that all along there were a lot of perhaps milder cases among younger people.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that if everyone locked down right now– we talked about Texas reversing course, maybe some other states– would that solve the problem?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So the truth of the matter is, Ira, if people really did adhere to the lockdowns, and if there really was perfect social distancing, and people staying home, then we would obviously see a reduction in the cases. The difficulty being that people are not doing that. So it’s hard to know exactly how much time it would take or if it would even happen, but I see people posting on line that they’re angry that they have to wear masks, that they’re angry that they are being told to stay home. I just can’t see a world where people are actually going to do that.

IRA FLATOW: And speaking of this increasing number of spreading cases, it appears that the spread, or a lot of it, may be coming from a relatively small number of people who they call super spreaders, right?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. It seems that between 10% and 20% of the folks who are infected are actually responsible for 80% of the virus’s spread. It’s not clear why there are specific people, but it’s in fact more likely tied to these events, the super spreader events.

Early on, there were conferences, there were funerals, or other large gatherings of people. And if one person came, and if a lot of people were talking, people were singing, then it’s a ripe opportunity for droplets to go into the air and then to further spread. But I guess it’s seems that it’s these super spreader events that seem to be causing quite a lot of the spread.

IRA FLATOW: And then that also you know goes to the question, well, if you want to stay away from a super spreader, you shouldn’t be going into these large groups of people at mass rallies indoors.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah. To me it seems like common knowledge that by now nobody should be going to a big concert, or a big indoor party, or any sort of these events. But with this false hope that we might have left the first wave of COVID, it’s very obvious that people are still going to these events, because of just the huge spike we’re seeing again.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s move away from the pandemic into something we always love to talk about, and that is dark matter news. And it starts with a big vat of XENON in Italy. Tell us about that.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. So the XENON 1 Ton experiment is this huge, one of the most sensitive detectors in the world, and it detected a mysterious signal. So just for those you who don’t know, dark matter is this mysterious stuff that seems to create the gravitational scaffolding of the universe, whose identity we’re just not sure about.

And so these experiments are looking for it. And what happened was it seems to be an excess of interaction with the electrons in the XENON detector. So now we’ve seen it, but we don’t know what it is.

IRA FLATOW: Does that mean we are seeing possible evidence of the dark matter itself?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s what people are wondering. But right now scientists are devising hypotheses, and testing hypotheses, and then looking to see if there is a match between the two. There are a couple of dark matter type hypotheses that make sense, but there’s also a hypothesis that it could just be a very rare normal event– that it’s just background noise. And so they have to completely rule that out before they can know for sure.

IRA FLATOW: If this really was evidence of dark matter and they could prove that there’s some element or particle, I guess, is what I wanted to say, that is causing this, this would be a revolutionary thing, would it not?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Of course. It would be one of the most important discoveries of all time. But I would say that the data is not quite there yet, where we’d have to really clean up this– understand really what we’re seeing and get to a place where the identity of this mysterious anomaly can be figured out, before we can say that it’s dark matter. It might even be a new particle we’ve never seen before and still might not be the dark matter.

IRA FLATOW: So let’s talk about something very exciting, and move from the very small to the very big, and that is the gravitational wave detectors, that LIGO found something new merging with a black hole. But it’s a weird size?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. So gravitational wave scientists are really excited about this strange signal. It’s just this object that seems to exist in a so-called mass gap. So the lightest known black holes weigh about five solar masses. The heaviest known neutrons stars [? may ?] no more than around 2 and 1/2 times the mass of the sun. But last August, scientists saw a signal of an object that seemed to be in between those– so 2.6 times the mass of the sun approximately.

Now, so is it a neutron star, is it a black hole, or is it some other object that we know we don’t even know what it is? And that’s the question.

IRA FLATOW: Can you use other instruments besides the LIGO to sort of back up the finding?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Well, as of now, there are– in every case that a that a gravitational waves hit the Earth, there’s a slew of telescopes that are then looking to see if they could find light emitted from whatever the source is. Then, on top of that, there is an upcoming proposed experiment, called the LISA satellite, that is a gravitational wave detector in outer space. But that one would be looking at a different sort of paradigm of gravitational waves, from a different kind of object. But it’s just basically regular telescopes for gravitational waves.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s continue on our theme of new things people aren’t quite sure what they are. There is– this is really interesting– a new structure in the same neighborhood as Stonehenge, a big ring of holes in the ground. How big are we talking about there?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: We’re talking about 20 pits that seem to be around 30 feet in diameter and 15 feet deep, which form a 1.2 mile wide circle two miles from Stonehenge. It’s pretty wild. And these pits were discovered using remote sensing with ground-penetrating radar, as well as looking at the magnetic activity, as well as core samples to date the soil inside of these pits.

IRA FLATOW: So we believe, of course, that they must have, at some time, been made by human beings. How do we know that?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So, well, it’s just the arrangement and the appearance of these, as well as they date back to around 4,500 years old, which could have been excavated then by the neolithic people who produced some of the other monuments in this area. And the Salisbury Plain has a number of important neolithic sites. There’s Stonehenge as well as Woodhenge. And this would actually be the largest neolithic monument in England if it was sort of confirmed with further excavation.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Finally, let’s close out, of course, because we are living in these times, with another piece of bad news. Plants can absorb microplastics– how the heck does that work?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So it was this lab experiment that worked on a weed called thale cress. And this thale cress in the lab absorbed these 100 nanometers pieces of plastics up through its roots. And it appeared that these little plastic pieces were in fact blocking the roots or absorbing water and harming the plant development.

So it’s obviously a concern. Nobody wants to hear that our plants are able to absorb microplastics, especially if you think about the fact that plastic is used on farms where our crops are growing. So I wouldn’t rush all the way there yet, because it is ultimately a lab experiment, and there’s the possibility that– we have to see if this would be recreated in nature, as opposed to just in the lab. But even so, nobody wants to hear that our plants are absorbing plastic and that we in turn would be eating plastic.

IRA FLATOW: No, that would be bad news. On the one hand, I’m glad we haven’t found it yet, but on the other hand, I don’t want it to be like an ostrich and say it’s not out there or we should not go look for it.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. I guess the key is just to keep being vigilant and supporting legislation that is reducing plastic, as well as cleaning up the environment more generally. Because it’s up to us to sort of stop the world from going the way of eating credit cards.


IRA FLATOW: Very, very well put, Ryan. Ryan Mandelbaum, a–


–science writer based in New York. Always great to talk with you.


IRA FLATOW: Stay safe. We’ll talk again soon, I hope.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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