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WHO warns of 'immediate second peak' if restrictions eased too soon; global cases near 5.5M

An employee wears a face shield and face masks at the Matsuya Ginza department store, which partially reopened Monday in Tokyo. Photo by Keizo Mori/UPI
An employee wears a face shield and face masks at the Matsuya Ginza department store, which partially reopened Monday in Tokyo. Photo by Keizo Mori/UPI | License Photo

May 25 (UPI) -- Amid a rash of countries and regions the globe over moving to reopen their economies and lift their people out from under lockdown measures, the World Health Organization on Monday warned there could be an "immediate second peak" of the coronavirus before there is a second wave.

With infections on the decline, countries such as Japan, New Zealand and Britain on Monday announced further easing to restrictive measures imposed months earlier when their number of coronavirus cases surged.

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However, Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Programme, responded to a reporter's question concerning scenarios of a second wave, stating the world is still in the middle of the first wave of infections with cases still increasing.

"Right now, we're not in the second wave, we're right in the middle of the first wave, globally, and if we look at the data from Central and South America, for Africa, for South Asia and for many other countries, we're still very much in a phase where the disease is actually on the way up," he said during a televised press conference.

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Since the virus emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan early December and then spread the globe over, former epicenters, such as Europe and Asia, have seen daily infections decline to low numbers.

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While Ryan said those countries should be applauded for containing and suppressing the virus the percentage of people in those nations who have been infected is low meaning many more are still susceptible to the disease.

A second wave, he explained, follows when a virus, once having rampantly spread, slows before resurging several months later. Concerning COVID-19, he said countries need to be cognizant it can "jump up at any time."

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"We cannot make assumptions that just because the disease is on the way down now that it's going to keep going down and we're going to get a number of months to get ready for a second wave," he said. "We may get a second peak in this wave."

A second peak has occurred during previous pandemics, he explained, urging European, North American and Southeast Asian countries to continue public health, social surveillance, testing and other measures as well as implement a comprehensive strategy to prevent "an immediate second peak" in cases.

Discussions over a possible second wave can be had later in the year, he said.

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Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical COVID-19 lead with the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, added that all countries need to be on "high alert" against the virus.

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"Let us be perfectly clear: All countries need to remain on high alert here," she said. "All countries need to be ready to rapidly detect cases -- even countries that have had success in suppression. Even countries thave have seen a decline in cases must remain ready."

Based on studies of the virus, a large portion of the population remains susceptible to it, meaning if it finds an opportunity to start an outbreak, it will, she said.

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The warning came as the number of global infections climbed to 5.5 million on Monday.

Health experts at Johns Hopkins University have tallied 5,494,287 coronavirus patients as of late Monday, with the United States reporting by far the highest number of infections at more than 1.6 million.

Japan, with 16,581 cases and 820 deaths, according to its health ministry, has been experiencing a decline since a peak in mid-April, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday lifted a state of emergency in Tokyo.

The prime minister also declared an end to the emergency in Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures, as well as Hokkaido, about a week earlier than expected. He declared the emergency in Tokyo on April 16 in response to climbing coronavirus cases and deaths.

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At its peak, Japan was reporting about 1,000 confirmed new cases in a day, but that number has dwindled.

"Recently, new infection cases have fallen below 50 for the entire nation," Abe said, "and what was once nearly 10,000 hospitalized cases -- that has now fallen below 2,000.

"The lifting of the emergency does not mean the virus is gone or infections are down to zero. Our battle against the virus will continue."

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that starting early June thousands of shuttered shops, department stores and shopping centers may resume business.

The prime minister said from June 1 outdoor markets and car showrooms may reopen if they can ensure COVID-19 guidelines are met and all other non-essential retail may open their doors to the public on June 15, his office said in a release.

Shops, such as supermarkets and pharmacies, have been open during the pandemic.

"I want to give the retail notice of our intention that they too can get ready," Johnson said in a press conference.

The announcement came as the British Department of Health and Social Care reported 261,184 confirmed positive cases of the virus after recording 1,625 new patients in the previous 24 hours. Nearly 37,000 have died from the virus in the country.

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In Palestine, the government also announced Monday it would be ending its lockdown amid falling coronavirus numbers.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, there have been 602 cases of infection with zero new cases recorded on Sunday and nine on Saturday.

The lifting of lockdown measures permits industry to resume after the Eid holiday and churches and mosques to reopen from Tuesday with social distancing practices in place, Arab News reported.

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the limit on gatherings will be expanded to 100 people by the week's end.

"We want to get our economy moving quickly without losing the gains we have made to date," she said during a news conference.

The archipelago nation has been one of the fastest to bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic through issuing strict lockdown measures in mid-March, which have since been slowly eased.

Currently at level 2, the second-lowest of its four-level lockdown measure, New Zealand has permitted gatherings of up to 10 people, but staring Friday that limit will be upped to 100, Ardern said.

Ardern said the government will regularly adjust restrictions to allow for more activity when medical advice permits it. New Zealand moved to level 2 on May 14.

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The New Zealand Ministry of Health has reported 1,154 cases of COVID-19 and 21 deaths with 15 new cases this month.

Ardern said its drop in cases despite easing of restrictions runs counter to what other countries have experienced and that is due to New Zealanders following the rules to maintain social distancing.

The expanded limit on gatherings, she said, will still prevent large concerts but more events can occur from noon Friday when the measure goes into effect.

"These changes are good news for business and for those who look to plan larger gatherings," she said. "It's another step in renormalizing life as we continue to stamp out the virus."

In neighboring Australia, schools in New South Wales and Queensland reopened Monday with their premiers encouraging people to continue to work from home if possible to relieve pressure on the transit system.

"I am very pleased that the system hasn't been overwhelmed," NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said during a press conference.

Australia, like New Zealand, has fared better than most countries amid the COVID-19 pandemic, recording 7,109 total cases and 102 deaths from the virus. The ministry of health reported four new cases in the past 24 hours.

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Oceania nations have so far fought off the worst of the pandemic with stringent lockdown measures, recording 8,726 cases and 123 deaths, according to worldometers.info.

World moves to reopen amid COVID-19 pandemic

Visitors wear face masks as they tour the Whitney Museum of American Art as it reopens on September 3. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

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