STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Why are coronavirus cases rising in much of this country? One likely factor is Memorial Day weekend just a few weeks ago when some beaches and boardwalks were packed. People acted in many ways in recent weeks as if life was back to normal. Here's another question what do we do as July 4 approaches? NPR's Allison Aubrey has guided us through the practicalities of the pandemic for months and joins us once again. Allison, good morning.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: How dire is the situation right now?
AUBREY: Well, it's pretty bad. Dramatic increases in cases in many states, and I'd say there's been a topic of debate here, Steve, about how to protect ourselves, and it's about masks. Bottom line here is get with the program, wear one, cover your face. We've seen how this issue has been politicized. Some people see mask mandates as an infringement of personal freedoms. But if you listen to scientists, there is no real debate here. And yesterday, even though the president has not been a top supporter of masking, his secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, had this strongly worded warning on NBC.
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ALEX AZAR: The window is closing. We have to act. And people as individuals have to act responsibly. We need to social distance. We need to wear our face coverings if we're in settings where we can't social distance, particularly in these hot zones.
AUBREY: So a strong statement here from a top administration official. And, you know, until now, it's been a bit of do as I say, not as I do. But this weekend, we saw Vice President Pence in Texas wearing a mask after months of not wearing one in public.
INSKEEP: The president, of course, still hasn't. But now officials around him, people he has appointed to top positions of responsibility, saying wear a mask. But given that there is this - I don't want to say debate, but people have resisted the science here, can we just lay out the science? What's the evidence that masks help?
AUBREY: Sure. Well, let's just look at Illinois. There's been a significant decline in cases there. A face mask ordinance took effect back in May. I spoke to Emily Landon about this. She's an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Chicago Medicine. She says, look, many of the states that have not uniformly mandated masking have seen increases.
EMILY LANDON: The rates in Illinois came down tremendously. But if you look at face covering rules in other states, I would argue that that may be playing a role in a resurgence even though they have had similar phased reopenings to Texas and Arizona, right? The lack of a face covering order in place may be a bigger deal.
AUBREY: So she says if you care about protecting others and yourself, cover your face. Even if you're young and think you're not as vulnerable to serious illness, you could be protecting others.
INSKEEP: Oh, you just touched on another key factor here, Allison. We get the impression that maybe some younger people think that they are not as at risk and they keep getting told you might still carry it to somebody else, but younger people might think differently. Is there any better information about what ages of people are at risk here?
AUBREY: Well, age does play a role. I mean, risk goes up the older you are. But the CDC has a new analysis on the conditions linked to serious illness. Bottom line is people with chronic conditions - and this includes younger people, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, lung disease - they're at higher risk. And how much higher is, actually, Steve, staggering. The latest analysis shows people with these conditions are six times more likely to be hospitalized, 12 more times likely to die from the virus. I spoke to Dariush Mozaffarian. He's a cardiologist and the dean of the nutrition school at Tufts University. And he put these numbers into perspective.
DARIUSH MOZAFFARIAN: If you're 35 and you have one or more of these conditions, you have the same risk of hospitalization as a 75-year-old who doesn't have any of these things. So having these conditions adds 40 years of age, essentially, to your body's COVID risk.
AUBREY: So young adults who have these conditions are at higher risk.
INSKEEP: Well, it sounds like if it's it - sounds like it's important to know your own personal risk here.
AUBREY: That's right. And Mozaffarian says there are things you can do to reduce your risks. It won't happen overnight, but instance with type 2 diabetes, studies show that within six months when people make changes to eat better, exercise, they can reduce their risks and even begin to reverse type 2 diabetes.
MOZAFFARIAN: I'm so frustrated and shocked that we're not talking about this because this is something we can address. I mean, you can address metabolic health with lifestyle and just even small changes to make a difference in health.
AUBREY: Now, this isn't easy because making these changes can be challenging, everything from a lack of access to good health care, lack of access to healthy, affordable foods. But this pandemic, Steve, shines a spotlight on the urgency of also addressing the epidemic of lifestyle diseases in this country.
INSKEEP: You bet. Well, that's a long-term issue. We've got Independence Day in less than a week. What should people do?
AUBREY: I'd say big three to remember - outdoors is better than indoors, being masked is better than not being masked and when you gather, think small groups, avoid crowds. I spoke to physician Aaron Carroll of Indiana University about this.
AARON CARROLL: No one's going to be heading to, like, the ballparks to watch fireworks. No one is going to - you know, there will be no big parades. You know, certainly even when we have backyard barbecues, we're going to have to be worried about, you know, still distancing and being careful and not sharing food and making sure that we all keep ourselves safe. Unfortunately, this is going to be the way it's going to be for quite some time.
AUBREY: And if you're entertaining, tell your guests BYO everything to minimize risks, especially if you're in a hot spot.
INSKEEP: What's the best way for me to know the level of spread and therefore the risk in my community?
AUBREY: Almost every state has a dashboard down to the county level. If you Google COVID-19 dashboard and the name of your state, you'll likely find it. Aaron Carroll says some of the sites that are most helpful have color-coding systems, so green, yellow, red to indicate the level of spread.
CARROLL: There are areas which are doing great and areas which are doing terribly. And you can see whether, you know, testing is getting better, positivity rate is getting better, hospitalizations, ER visits, ICU usage. And so if I get up in the morning and I click on the website and I see five greens, everything is heading in the right direction...
AUBREY: That helps to guide his decision-making whether to go out shopping or out to eat. And wouldn't it be nice if we had this kind of color-coding system delivered in a uniform way for the whole country?
INSKEEP: Wouldn't it be nice? Allison, thanks.
AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey.
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