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Former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson -- who has quickly become of one of the key figures in a growing movement questioning the strategy to lock down large sections of the country in response to the coronavirus crisis -- is warning of a “big pivot” in rhetoric from politicians and health officials pushing the strategy.
“Yep, the public health folks, after a month of promising that within two weeks we'd be near collapse, are now making the big pivot to the ‘second wave,’” Berenson tweeted, referring to a new talking point he argues will be used to justify continued restrictions.
He tweeted in response to an Atlantic article -- "Our Pandemic Summer" -- that cited experts who agreed that "life as most people knew it cannot fully return."
"I think people haven’t understood that this isn’t about the next couple of weeks,” one infectious-disease epidemiologist told the outlet. “This is about the next two years.”
The initial sell to Americans about the initial response to the virus was that it would “flatten the curve” -- referring to graphs that showed a predicted aggressive hard spike in infections, hospitalizations and deaths that would devastate the country and overwhelm the health care system.
The argument went that, while stopping the virus spreading overall may prove impossible, a strategy of extreme social distancing could slow that spread, flatten the curve of infections and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.
And so a wave of voluntary closures and mandatory government restrictions that would have been unfathomable to Americans just a few months ago has become part of day-to-day life. Businesses, religious services and schools all shut down with all but essential workers furloughed or made to work from home in parts of the country.
The U.S. now has 639,664 confirmed cases of the virus and more than 30,000 deaths. Now, with indications that the peak may have passed, even in hardest-hit places such as New York, there is a fresh push to reopen the country.
"The data suggests that nationwide, we have passed the peak of new cases. Hopefully that will continue, and we will continue to make great progress,” President Trump said.
Trump has eyed May 1 as the day that restrictions start to be loosened across the U.S. -- although to what extent that happens is up to governors and other local officials.
But some of them are urging caution on reopening the economy and warning of a potential second wave of infections if the U.S. reopens too soon -- which is the phrase Berenson referred to in his skeptical tweet.
"Before we start to relax, there is some troubling news about a second wave," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week. "We don't want the same thing to happen twice."
“We’ve got to make sure that we avoid a second wave at all costs. That would be devastating for our economy,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has come under fire for her state’s stringent lockdown requirements, said this week. “So we’re going to make decisions based on science and having a real strategic phase-in of our economy when it’s appropriate and safe to do.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, on the White House coronavirus task force, has also expressed concern about a second wave of infections in the near future.
“I’ll guarantee you, once you start pulling back there will be infections. It’s how you deal with the infections that’s going count,” Fauci told the Associated Press.
But Berenson is skeptical there has even been a first wave, and has been a strong critic of the models that had their initial predictions significantly downgraded. He has also pointed to evidence that, outside of hot spots like New York, hospitals are not overburdened.
“It is worth remembering in the United States outside of New York City, and possibly New Orleans and Detroit, there has BEEN NO FIRST WAVE. There have barely even been ripples. That's why the hospitals are empty," he tweeted.
Other critics of the lockdown strategy have also questioned the focus on the second wave.
"What do we do when there’s a second wave? And history says there will likely be a second wave," radio host Jesse Kelly, who has focused on the economic devastation the response is causing, tweeted. If the go to response is go hide under your bed, that’s gonna be a problem when this thing pops back up again. We set ourselves on a dangerous road. I hope I’m wrong."
Supporters of those models have said that such predictions did not come to pass because of social distancing measures, but Berenson has argued that those models had a significant degree of social distancing factored in.
But the new emphasis on the need for further restrictions because of a “second wave” locks in with Berenson’s prediction that, even as some of the more dire predictions have not come to pass, those who made them would not backtrack.
“Now we’re in a bad spot because there’s clearly a dangerous political dynamic right now,” Berenson told Fox News last week. “The economy is in freefall, a lot of people are hurting. If we acknowledge what is clearly happening ... the people who made these decisions, I think there’s going to be a lot of anger at them, so they don't want to acknowledge it, so they say 'oh it's the lockdown that saved us.’”
On Thursday, he was more firm in that prediction.
“Seems increasingly clear the people who have been so terribly, hysterically wrong about this - more wrong by the day - are not going to admit their mistakes, much less ask for forgiveness for the damage they've done," he tweeted. "They're just going to yell ‘The lockdowns worked.’”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.