COVID News Round-Up: Vaccination Progress, Booster Shots, Travel : Short Wave Nationwide, almost 65% of adults have had at least one vaccine shot, but vaccination rates vary significantly depending on the state. NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey gives us the latest on the country's vaccination progress: which states are on track (and which are not), new research about why it's important teenagers get vaccinated, and what we know about the possibility of booster shots.
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COVID News Round-Up: Vaccination Progress, Booster Shots, Travel

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COVID News Round-Up: Vaccination Progress, Booster Shots, Travel

COVID News Round-Up: Vaccination Progress, Booster Shots, Travel

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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EMILY KWONG, HOST:

Hey, everybody. Emily Kwong here. Around 63% of adults in the U.S. have now gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Remember, President Biden set a 70% goal by July Fourth, but rates very significantly from state to state - and new data underscoring just how important vaccination is for 12- to 17-year-olds. We'll talk about all of that and touch on the possibility of future vaccine booster shots today on the show. It's a quick COVID news roundup with NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey and me. This is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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KWONG: OK, so I've got NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey with me. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi, Emily. It's great to be here.

KWONG: So as we mentioned earlier, President Biden set a goal to get 70% of adults in the U.S. vaccinated with at least one shot by July Fourth. So, Allison, where are we with that?

AUBREY: Well, about a dozen states have already reached the goal. In Vermont, more than 80% of people eligible for vaccination have had at least one shot. All of the New England states have surpassed the goal, as well as Washington, Hawaii, New Jersey, New Mexico, Maryland and California.

KWONG: Shoutout Maryland, my current home.

AUBREY: Excellent.

KWONG: So where in the country is vaccination not as prevalent?

AUBREY: Yeah, there are multiple states where rates remain significantly lower, some under 50% or near 50%, and these states are not likely to meet the goal. These include Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Wyoming, and health officials say these places are vulnerable. Here's CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We have pockets of this country that have lower rates of vaccination. I worry that this virus is an opportunist and that where we have low rates of vaccination are where we may see it again. And so really, the issue now is to make sure we get to those communities as well.

AUBREY: There's obviously been so much progress, Emily. I mean, daily cases of the virus are down to just about 13,000 a day nationwide. Back in January, there were up to 250,000 cases a day, so that's more than a 90% drop.

KWONG: Yeah.

AUBREY: And Dr. Walensky says meeting the 70% vaccination goal everywhere would go an extraordinarily long way to ensure community protection.

KWONG: Yeah, it would. So, Allison, let's talk about some recent success in Latino communities in boosting vaccine rates.

AUBREY: Sure. The CDC data shows that about 28% of those who got their first vaccine over the past two weeks are Hispanic or Latino. Now, this demographic group represents about 18% of the U.S. population, so this is encouraging.

KWONG: Yeah, it's very encouraging, 28% is a lot. So what could be driving this trend?

AUBREY: Well, I spoke to Leydy Rangel of the UFW Foundation about what they're doing. They work with farmworkers, many who are Hispanic or Latino, and she says hesitancy hasn't been as much of an issue as access. So this has improved. Her group has helped organized pop-up vaccination clinics at churches, community centers, sometimes in tandem with food distribution sites to make it more convenient.

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LEYDY RANGEL: I think that the increase of vaccinations amongst Latinos that we're seeing is really stemming from the hard work that organizers and Latinos are doing on the ground and knocking on doors of farmworker families. That really is a big step in the right direction.

AUBREY: She says one focus now is to talk to families about the benefits of vaccinating children 12 and up, a lot of work to do to get rates up among this age group.

KWONG: Speaking of children, we heard throughout the pandemic that kids are not as vulnerable to the virus. But a new analysis from the CDC showed that the illness can be serious in older kids, right?

AUBREY: Yeah, cases of hospitalizations are pretty rare among children and all adolescents.

KWONG: Yeah.

AUBREY: But CDC Director Walensky said on Friday she was concerned about a new study that found hospitalization rates, after dropping over the winter, had increased among 12- to 17-year-olds this spring. She says teens who get vaccinated will not only protect themselves but will also bolster protection in the community. And that's really important. The Pfizer vaccine has been available to kids 12 and up since last month. Moderna plans to seek FDA authorization this month for 12- to 17-year-olds. I spoke to the president of Moderna, Dr. Stephen Hoge, about the timeline and about its clinical trial underway in even younger children.

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STEPHEN HOGE: Our goal is to try and get the vaccine authorized in those populations by the fall. And you got to be a little bit careful there because you want to de-escalate the dose. You want to find the right dose for a 2-year-old or a 5-year-old. And it's probably not the same dose that we give to our teenagers or adults. And that process is ongoing, but we're on track and enrolling very quickly.

AUBREY: Now, ultimately, it is, of course, up to the FDA to review the data and authorize the vaccine for use in these age groups.

KWONG: Super, super interesting. OK, Allison, pivoting now to the future of the vaccine and vaccinations. There's been a lot of talk recently about booster shots. Will we need them? And if so, when?

AUBREY: You know, it's a bit too soon to know for sure. But there is research underway to determine this. There's really two reasons why people might need boosters. The first is to extend immunity when it starts to wane. Now, the National Institutes of Health has launched a clinical trial to test whether a booster shot of the Moderna vaccine will do this. Will it increase antibodies? Will it lengthen protection against the virus? So they're going to test this in people who are fully vaccinated with any of the three authorized vaccines. There will be 12 trial sites around the country. And the participants will be followed through for one year.

KWONG: Gotcha. OK. And you said earlier there are two reasons to get a booster shot. And I'm guessing the second reason has to do with protecting against emergent strains - right? - that could evade the current vaccines.

AUBREY: That's exactly right. And currently, there is a clinical trial to test a version of the vaccine Moderna developed specifically to work against the Beta variant. That's the one that was first identified in South Africa. It's also possible to modify the vaccine to target other strains, and it's sort of the benefit of the mRNA technology. Now, so far, the evidence suggests that current vaccines offer good protection against the variants documented in the U.S. So it really is at this point a bit unclear which boosters may be needed or when. I spoke to Dr. Dan Barouch about this. He's the director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

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DAN BAROUCH: We know that immune responses do decline over time. But what we don't know is just how fast they're going to decline over, say, a one-year period. So at this point in time, I think the jury is still out as to whether we'll need a booster this fall or this winter.

KWONG: And finally, Allison, with many aspects of our pre-pandemic life resuming, people are on the move. They're on the go. But let's not forget, masking remains in place in certain settings.

AUBREY: Yes. For instance, masking is required through September 13 at airports and on planes. But frankly, travelers are really getting mixed messages, I have to say. I mean, airlines are serving drinks and snacks again. And clearly, people are taking off their masks to eat and drink, you know, on airplanes, in the airport where restaurants are open, bars are open. So if you do plan to travel, be prepared. I mean, I traveled last week, and airports are very busy. Middle seats are open to booking. So you got to expect there are going to be people on either side of you. We're just going to have to get accustomed again to sitting so close to strangers. I'll point out, in recent days, TSA screeners have screened up to 1.9 million air travelers a day. By comparison, the same time last year, there were about 400,000 people traveling a day. The U.S. isn't quite back to pre-pandemic volume when it comes to travel but getting closer. So if you're venturing out and this includes airplane travel, be patient.

KWONG: This is excellent advice. I'm going to get on a plane soon myself. So thank you, Allison, for this reporting and bringing it to the show.

AUBREY: Absolutely. Good to be here.

KWONG: This episode was edited by Jane Greenhalgh and Viet Le, produced by Rebecca Ramirez and fact-checked by Rasha Aridi and Indie Cara (ph). I'm Emily Kwong, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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