A MARTINEZ, HOST:
As the world heads into a third pandemic winter, officials in the U.S. are bracing for what could be one more COVID surge. So are the hints of another wave starting to emerge? NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now.
Rob, we've been hearing warnings about another potential wave for a while now. What's the latest?
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: So, you know, A, no national surge has started yet. The number of people getting infected, hospitalized and dying has just been kind of percolating along at what some epidemiologists have been calling a high plateau and now even seem to be trending down a bit. But there are some hints that the country could be approaching a new surge. The first possible storm clouds are appearing in Europe.
Infections have been rising in countries like the U.K., France, Germany. I talked about this with Michael Osterholm at the University of Minnesota.
MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: In the past, what's happened in Europe often has been a harbinger of what's about to happen in the United States. So I think the bottom-line message for us here in this country is we have to be prepared for what they are beginning to see in Europe.
STEIN: In fact, some say the U.S. is already starting to see early hints of what could be coming soon.
MARTINEZ: Hints? Oh, no. What kind of hints?
STEIN: Well, first of all, the levels of virus being detected in wastewater are up slightly in some spots in the Northeast, like in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maine. Now, the CDC says it's too soon to know if that means anything, but infections and even hospitalizations also appear to have ticked up in some places.
Dr. David Rubin runs the PolicyLab in Philadelphia, which tracks the pandemic.
DAVID RUBIN: We're seeing the northern rim of the country beginning to show some evidence of increasing transmission - upstate New York, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, where hospitalizations are rising again. We're also seeing the Pacific Northwest, Washington and Oregon in particular, start to change and some of those mountain regions start to change as well, too. The sort of winter resurgence is beginning.
MARTINEZ: All right. So if this winter resurgence is really beginning, how bad could it get?
STEIN: You know, A, assuming no dramatically more dangerous variants suddenly emerges, no one thinks this winter surge will get anywhere near as bad as the last two in terms of severe disease and deaths. I talked about this with Jennifer Nuzzo, who runs the pandemic center at Brown University.
JENNIFER NUZZO: We have a lot more immunity than we did last winter. Not only have people gotten vaccinated, but a lot of people have now gotten this virus. In fact, some people have gotten it multiple times. And so that does build up in the population and reduce overall our risk of severe illness.
STEIN: But scientists are watching a menagerie of new omicron subvariants that appear to be even better at dodging our immune systems and could help drive a new surge. And Nuzzo says another really important factor is how many people are up to date on their vaccinations, including getting one of the new omicron boosters.
MARTINEZ: Well, how's that going?
STEIN: You know, A, not great. Only about 7 1/2 million people have gotten one of the new bivalent omicron boosters, even though the shots have been available since Labor Day, and more than 200 million people are eligible. I talked about this with William Hanage at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
WILLIAM HANAGE: Seven and a half million sounds like a lot, but this is a country of hundreds of millions. So there's a hell of a lot more people who could be protected, which is wild. It's really crazy.
STEIN: Because that protective wall of immunity people have is fading just as colder weather and holiday travel might bring a new wave of COVID.
MARTINEZ: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks.
STEIN: Sure thing, A.
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