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Health Experts Worry As Coronavirus Cases Rise At Troubling Rate

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is new concern that the rate of new coronavirus infections may be outpacing vaccinations in this country. According to the CDC, more than 53 million Americans - about 16% of the country's population - are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But new cases are rising at a troubling rate. In many parts of the U.S., states have loosened restrictions. Some have dropped face mask mandates. Dr. Celine Gounder is an infectious disease specialist at NYU and was a member of the Biden administration's COVID-19 advisory board. She joins us now to bring us some perspective on all this. Dr. Gounder, thanks for being here.

CELINE GOUNDER: It's great to be here, Rachel.

MARTIN: On average, the U.S. has reported 65,000 new cases in the last seven days alone. That's according to the CDC. Are we in a fourth surge of the virus?

GOUNDER: Rachel, every time we've seen a plateau in cases - and we had been plateaued at about fifty to sixty thousand cases for a month or so. Every time we've seen a plateau that has been followed by a surge, every time people have traveled more, whether that was the Fourth of July or over Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays and now spring break, we have seen a surge. And now you have the spread of this more infectious, more more transmissible and also more virulent B.1.1.7 variant that first emerged from the U.K. has really thrown a wrench in things and is fueling this surge as well.

MARTIN: So let's talk about that variant. You mentioned the variant that's come out of the U.K. How worried are you about how that starts to affect our transmission rates and our potential recovery?

GOUNDER: Well, you know, another pattern that we've seen is that the U.S. tends to follow Europe about three to four weeks after what's going on in Europe. And what we've seen in the U.K. and throughout the rest of Europe now is that they have had to reinstitute very strict mitigation measures because of this U.K. B.1.1.7 variant. It does spread much more easily from person to person. It causes more severe disease, including in younger people. And so this is part of what we're seeing in places like Michigan, for example, younger people hospitalized with severe COVID. And so that definitely is a bit of a shift here.

MARTIN: So, as you know, many states are starting to ease restrictions. I mean, you point to what's happened in Europe when people have lifted restrictions. Arkansas is the latest state to change its face mask mandate. The governor there, Asa Hutchinson, said he'd continue to wear his when he made the announcement, though. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASA HUTCHINSON: It's important to be courteous to others and to be mindful that we need to protect ourselves and others. And so common sense should govern.

MARTIN: Should govern, but that leaves a lot up to the individual to make that choice. Is common sense enough given the current data?

GOUNDER: Unfortunately not. I think we tend to react in the face of what is happening to us that day or what we're seeing that day, not to what is ahead, what's coming. And unfortunately, every single time that we've had a surge, people have waited too long. And it's not until the deaths start to really shoot up that people have slammed back down on the mitigation measures. And it really is too late by then.

MARTIN: Roughly a third of American adults have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. What should that allow us to do in terms of opening?

GOUNDER: You know, the way I think about this is, you know, if you think of vaccines like a raincoat and an umbrella, that'll keep you dry in a rainstorm. But if you're in a hurricane, even if the vaccines are great, even if that raincoat and umbrella work well, that's not going to keep you dry. And we're really still in a COVID hurricane. Transmission rates are extremely high. And so even if you've been vaccinated, you really do need to continue to be careful, avoid crowds and wear masks in public.

MARTIN: Although, I mean, I have to say, there appeared to be some good news the other day. In an interview on MSNBC, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said their data - and I'm quoting here - "suggest that vaccinated people do not carry the virus." I mean, that's a new and important revelation, right?

GOUNDER: It's not 100%. It's 80% reduction in likelihood among people who've gotten one dose, 14 days after that first dose, and a 90% reduction after two doses. But again, it's a percent reduction. So you're still seeing a lot of transmission out in the community. There is still some risk.

MARTIN: So what guidance do you give people in your own life who have endured now a year of isolation, in many cases? Grandparents desperate to hug grandkids, we've heard that time and again, but just people who want to be with their people, what are you telling them?

GOUNDER: You know, if they've been vaccinated and you're socializing with just one household at a time, I think it is OK to drop the mask when it's grandparents with grandkids. But you really don't want to have people from different households that are not vaccinated mixing together. You don't want to be taking that grandkid to church where they're going to be exposed to people from many different households. And so, you know, I think the most important relationships we can definitely see folks in person.

MARTIN: You're optimistic about the pace of vaccinations, though, at this point?

GOUNDER: I am. You know, we've hit 3 million vaccinations a day some days. We're really making quite a bit of progress. Over 70% of people over 65 have received at least one dose, 50% fully vaccinated. These are some of our highest risk folks.

MARTIN: Infectious disease specialist Dr. Celine Gounder with NYU School of Medicine, we appreciate your context and perspective this morning. Thank you.

GOUNDER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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