As the United States approaches 1 million COVID-19 deaths, cases and hospitalizations have begun to rise again, deaths are poised to creep up again, and the nation is on the verge of another rise.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
America confronts staggering statistics – one million people in the United States killed by COVID-19. We will try to understand it emotionally in a moment, but the virus continues to spread, which is why we first turn to NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thank you for being with us.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.
SIMON: And one more increase – again, we hear, just to emphasize the point of how terribly expensive this pandemic has already been.
STEIN: Yes, Scott. Unfortunately, that is true. The number of people getting the virus has risen again now in weeks. And the number of true infections is probably far higher than the official numbers, as so many people test themselves at home or, you know, do not test at all. Just think about it, Scott. Doesn’t it seem like everyone around you is catching COVID these days?
SIMON: Well, a lot of people, yes.
STEIN: I talked about this with Dr. David Dowdy. He is an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins.
DAVID DOWDY: The number of cases has almost tripled since the end of March. Over the last two weeks, we have seen, on average, around a 50% increase in the number of reported cases. It is north, south, east and west. So we are in the middle of, frankly, a wave of cases.
STEIN: And it’s not just infections that are rising. The number of people getting so sick that they end up in the hospital is also rising again. And the number of people dying every day has stopped falling. It is plateau after steady decline for months and may even start to rise again, especially in some parts of the country.
SIMON: Why is this happening, Rob?
STEIN: You know, Scott, it’s a combination of factors. One is that an even more infectious omicron subvariant, which is even better at sneaking around the immune system, is taking over. At the same time, the protection people get from being vaccinated is declining, and people are just less careful – you know, not wearing masks, traveling more. Here is Dr. David Rubin at PolicyLab in Philadelphia.
DAVID RUBIN: It was not only the journey around the holidays and the spring holidays, but it was also the end of the transit mandates. And I think – subsequently, I think we’ve seen a lot of the return of big spring meetings – not the smaller assemblies, but, you know, bals, you know, parties, sporting events, etc., which are now completely revealed.
STEIN: … to let this incredibly infectious omicron subvariant spread like crazy.
SIMON: Rob, how bad do you think it’s going to be?
STEIN: Well, Scott, no one really knows for sure, but the hope is that it can be quite modest compared to previous hikes and short-lived, because the immunity people still have from so many people catching omicron this winter and from all the people who have been vaccinated. Here’s Lauren Ancel Meyers at the University of Texas at Austin.
LAUREN ANCEL MEYERS: Our projections suggest we’re in the middle of a small wave, you know, something that looks more like a bump than a mountain.
STEIN: It may subside at the end of the month. So even the people who are hospitalized do not seem to get as sick as with previous increases. You know, fewer people need oxygen or intensive care, for example. So the hope is that even if many people get the virus, the hospitals will not be overwhelmed again and the deaths will not shoot up again.
SIMON: What about this summer and next fall – next winter, for that matter?
STEIN: Well, you know, it’s possible that there’s going to be another hike this summer, especially in the south, just like in the last two summers. And the experts are really worried about the fall and winter, where they expect another big wave, because immunity will have waned even more by that time, and people will take inside again due to the colder weather. So the federal government is preparing for yet another major vaccine campaign for the fall and trying to figure out which new version of the vaccine would make the most sense for people to try to minimize how much more the global pandemic will take.
SIMON: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein – Rob, thank you very much.
STONE: Of course, Scott.
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