If preventive measures aren’t taken soon, the U.S. could be on its way to a second major wave of the coronavirus pandemic, warned Juan Gutiérrez, professor and chair of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio on Tuesday morning. 

Gutiérrez joined the San Antonio Report’s Senior Environmental Reporter Brendan Gibbons for a panel during the third annual San Antonio Report CityFest Tuesday to discuss the latest mathematical projections of COVID-19 rates based on current conditions. As winter approaches, Gutiérrez said the United States will likely see an exponential increase in cases if precautions aren’t taken soon.

“This is similar to … the Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” Gutiérrez said. “We have to remember that the second winter, the second wave, was five times deadlier than the first wave.”

Because more people spend time inside when it’s cold, and family members travel and gather for the holidays, the virus will have better conditions in which to spread during the winter, he said. Health officials have found being outside reduces risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Additionally, states that have reopened schools for in-person instruction have all shown an increase in case numbers as well, Gutiérrez said. As more states prepare to resume classes in person, Gutiérrez warned the move might be a catalyst for the second wave.

“One of the main forces behind the transmission of COVID-19 in the community is children,” Gutiérrez said. “Children show no symptoms, yet they are infectious. And when we say children show no symptoms, that’s a gross generalization. There are cases in which children developed symptoms, some of them have even died of this disease.”

As a mathematician who has studied infectious disease models for over a decade, Gutiérrez said the numerical evidence is clear that states and counties with governments that have taken preventive measures have fared better throughout the pandemic. 

Gutiérrez applauded Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff on taking quick actions to enforce regulations during the first wave of the pandemic in March and April. In contrast, President Donald Trump’s Tweet that people shouldn’t be afraid of the virus is “profoundly wrong” and “dangerous,” Gutiérrez said.

At current rates, the U.S. could see an increase of 3 million cases by late November, for a total of 11 million cases, Gutiérrez said. About 10 percent of the U.S. population has so far been exposed to COVID-19, meaning 90 percent have not, he said.

“If 10 percent of the U.S. population has resulted in over 200,000 deaths, then [at a rate of 60 percent before reaching herd immunity] 1.2 million people would have to die within a year of the first occurrence of this disease to gain herd immunity. That is the risk that we’re facing.”

In that scenario, the coronavirus pandemic would become the deadliest event in the country’s history, Gutiérrez said. 

States that have issued consistent messages of precaution and where preventive measures such as masks or implementing work from home orders have been in place – such as in New Hampshire – have overall had lower rates of infection, Gutiérrez added. 

Gutiérrez added he understands people need to open their businesses to make a living; and if restrictions are put in place so businesses can open responsibly, the caseload can still be decreased.

It’s not too late for State officials to act in ways that prevent more loss of life, he said.

“It’s like … you’re driving a car and then you just release the wheel. You can tell … the car is going to crash [if you don’t] grab [the wheel] and keep driving,” Gutiérrez said. “We don’t have to end up there.”

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...