As Vaccinations Continue, COVID-19 Cases Plateau. Is Progress Stalled?
SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
A record 2.9 million Americans got COVID-19 shots in their arms on Saturday alone. That is 20% more than the previous daily record, according to White House senior adviser Andy Slavitt. And this trend means more and more people are asking an important question. If I have been fully vaccinated, what activities are safe to do? The CDC is working on guidelines to answer this important question. Meanwhile, an increasing number of Americans expect a return to something like normal within the next six months. But for now, public health officials say it's important to stay the course and remain vigilant.
NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to sort through all of this. Good morning.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.
DETROW: So this decline in new cases hit a plateau last week. What does that tell us about the current situation?
AUBREY: You know, Dr. Fauci suggests that we're kind of in a holding pattern. He pointed out there are still about 60,000 new cases a day. There are contagious variants. But there's also good news. He said on CBS "Face The Nation" that more than 2 million vaccine shots are being given every day. About 23% of adults have received their first dose. But he said now is not the time to return to life as normal.
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ANTHONY FAUCI: Every day that goes by that we keep the lid on things will get better and better because you have more and more protection not only of individuals, but of the community. So we're going in the right direction. We just need to hang in there a bit longer.
AUBREY: There's even more research now to show that when people stay masked, new cases continue to decline. Dr. Fauci says this is not forever, but it's the best strategy for now.
DETROW: Yeah, and we should just emphasize that this guidance to stay vigilant applies to everyone equally, shot or no shot, because there are so many people who are just tired of being away from their families and friends, and they're getting pretty anxious now that they've had their shots.
AUBREY: Yeah. Well, people who are fully vaccinated can feel more comfortable knowing they have immunity to ease up some. As you mentioned, the CDC is in the process of finalizing some guidance on what exactly is safe for vaccinated people. We are expecting that this week.
I've talked to a lot of infectious disease experts about how they're navigating this in their own lives. Dr. Josh Sharfstein of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says if you're fully vaccinated, meaning you've gotten both doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine - two weeks after this, you should feel some new freedom. He says both of his parents are now vaccinated.
JOSH SHARFSTEIN: My parents really, really have wanted to see their young grandkids in person. And they've sort of waved at them outside, but now they're going indoors, and they're - you know, they gave them a hug for the first time in a long time. They were still wearing masks, but it really meant a lot to the kids and to them, and it gave my parents a sense that, you know, we're on the right track here.
AUBREY: You know, on the other hand, he says there are activities that are still off-limits. His dad loves going to baseball games. For now, big crowds are not a good option. And I know, Scott, many people are asking, well, why should I get the shot if I can't go back to normal? I mean, the reason he can't go back to normal yet is that there's still lots of people who have not been vaccinated. And though the risk appears to be very low, it's possible that vaccinated people could get the virus and spread it. Scientists are still evaluating this. That's why it's going to take some time for things to feel normal-ish again.
DETROW: So just like so many other things in this pandemic, it's not about you specifically. It's about the people around you.
AUBREY: That's exactly right.
DETROW: OK, so let's talk about something else. There has been so much of a focus on inequities in who is being vaccinated. Why are there lower vaccination rates in some communities of color, especially given the increased supply of shots and so many policies in place trying to address this very disparity?
AUBREY: You know, probably multiple reasons for this. Joshua Sharfstein analyzed the inequities in the state of Maryland by looking at vaccination rates in different counties, and he says it's reflective of a national problem.
SHARFSTEIN: African American residents of Maryland are about half as likely as white residents to be vaccinated so far. And it certainly reflects a pretty serious inequity, considering that African Americans are actually more likely to get sick and more likely to die from COVID.
AUBREY: He said several factors may explain it - the chaotic rollout that was very fragmented. Some people just don't have the time to spend hours online finding an appointment, especially people working multiple jobs. So he says more could be done to support communities where there may be more hesitancy and less access.
DETROW: So let's move to yet another big hurdle here. You have pointed out the CDC says about 23% of adults have received at least one or more doses, but public health experts say we need 75% to 85% of the entire population vaccinated for herd immunity, and there is still no vaccine authorized for children. What is the latest thinking on when this could be available for kids?
AUBREY: You know, just yesterday, Dr. Fauci said hopefully high school kids could be vaccinated in the fall. Pfizer is already approved - the Pfizer vaccine is already approved for 16-year-olds and up. But for younger children, vaccine-makers still need to assess efficacy, safety, what dose is sufficient. So the data is still needed. It looks like 2022 would be the earliest, perhaps next winter. In the meantime, schools have other strategies to keep kids safe, including having fewer kids in the classroom, staggering arrivals and departures, and masking.
DETROW: We're talking about a lot of positive trends here, but there are still a lot of headlines about more contagious variants, and they're still freaking a lot of people out. How concerned are public health officials about all these variants?
AUBREY: You know, there are a lot of variants out there, and all the vaccine-makers are looking at how they would retool the vaccines to be effective against multiple emerging strains. At the moment, the one that seems to be most prevalent here in the U.S. is the strain from the U.K. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on CBS yesterday that the strain accounts for about 40% of infections in Florida, 30% in California. And he says it could crowd out other variants from South Africa, from Brazil, but it is more contagious.
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SCOTT GOTTLIEB: That's going to probably cause infections to tick back up. I don't think we're going to see another surge of infection this spring, but we might see a plateauing before we see continued declines again.
AUBREY: So, you know, another reason to remain cautious. I mean, even in states that have lifted mask mandates, Scott, many places will still require people wear them. A spokesperson for the retail chain Target told me that they will continue to require masks for all guests and employees, including vaccinated people, per the CDC guidance.
DETROW: Allison Aubrey, thanks so much.
AUBREY: Thank you, Scott.
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