Pandemic Reality Check: Where We Are And Where We're Headed : Short Wave Throughout the U.S., the pandemic is still raging. And with cooler weather and the height of flu season ahead, an already dire situation could get much, much worse. On today's show, a pandemic reality check. Short Wave's Maddie Sofia and Emily Kwong talk about how we got here and how we should all be thinking about the holidays and the coming winter.

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Pandemic Reality Check - Where We Are. Where We're Headed.

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Pandemic Reality Check - Where We Are. Where We're Headed.

Pandemic Reality Check - Where We Are. Where We're Headed.

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Maddie Sofia here with SHORT WAVE reporter Emily Kwong. Hey, Kwong.


SOFIA: So I know we've all been paying more attention to the election these last few days. But the pandemic is still raging. Hospitals in Wisconsin are at 87% capacity.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Wisconsin hospitals have more COVID-19 patients than ever. And there's fear the health care system will be overwhelmed.

SOFIA: An official with the University of Wisconsin-Madison health system told a local news station that staffing is the big issue. They might have to start reaching out to recent ICU retirees for help.


JEFF POTHOF: So now, you know, our COVID unit that has three wings, we were using one. We're now using all three of them. We've exceeded the capacity in our COVID ICU.

KWONG: The situation isn't much better in El Paso, Texas. At the university medical center there, a month ago, there were a couple dozen patients with COVID-19. As of last week...


GABE GUTIERREZ: This hospital broke another record of daily COVID patients here, more than 200.

KWONG: They've set up isolation tents outside the hospital, more beds at the local convention center. There's even an overnight curfew.


GUTIERREZ: Tonight, critical COVID patients are being airlifted from El Paso to other cities in Texas.

SOFIA: And in Utah, some hospitals are preparing for what are called crisis standards of care, basically rationing ICU beds because there are just too many patients.


KATRINA EMERY: My patients have told me that they are lonely and scared - lonely because, many times, we don't speak the same language, scared because they can't breathe and scared that they may never experience life outside the hospital walls.

SOFIA: At a public briefing late last month, University of Utah Health ICU nurse Katrina Emery tried to get people to understand what COVID patients and the people caring for them are going through.


EMERY: This isn't sustainable. And we're exhausted. These seven months have been challenging for me, my colleagues, my patients, their families and our communities. This hasn't been easy for anyone. But all I ask is that you do what you can to protect yourself, protect me and protect our communities. Thank you.

SOFIA: Right now, it is distressingly easy to find similar stories from all over the country. In the U.S., COVID-related hospitalizations are up 67% compared to this time last month.

KWONG: And even if the hospital where you live isn't talking about rationing care, things could still get much worse. The U.S. is now seeing more new diagnosed cases each day than at any point in the pandemic so far - a seven-day average of about 87,000 cases per day as of when we're recording this. That's compared with the previous high of about 67,000 cases we averaged in late July.


SOFIA: And that's with fall just barely underway. And the height of the flu season is still to come, which will make hospitals even more crowded.

KWONG: So today, a pandemic reality check. We're going to talk about how the situation got so dire and how we should all be thinking about the holidays and the coming winter.

SOFIA: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


SOFIA: So first, let's talk about why cases are rising. Just to get this out of the way, it's not just because we're doing more testing than we were doing back in the summer...

KWONG: Yeah.

SOFIA: ...Although, we are. In many states, our rates of positive tests are, again, increasing.

KWONG: So it's not as simple as we're doing more tests so we're finding more cases.

SOFIA: Right. The coronavirus has made its way to places that were somewhat spared during the early months of the pandemic. New cases are growing most quickly in some rural areas of the country.

KWONG: Yeah. As of last week, the Midwest now has more cases per capita than the Northeast and South did during the summer. And while the raw number of cases there might not be as high, in some of those areas, they don't have the medical infrastructure to deal with a big surge in patients.

SOFIA: And then there's just the factor that time is playing. I mean, a lot of the country has been reopened for a while now - businesses, college campuses. So we're seeing the effects of that. And, you know, we're months and months into this. So pandemic fatigue is setting in.

KWONG: Yeah. The World Health Organization was actually able to show pandemic fatigue happening in Europe. Basically, people are less likely to seek out information about the pandemic now. And most importantly, they're starting to return to riskier behaviors. And, of course, there are people who have and continue to not take this pandemic seriously at all.

SOFIA: Which is extremely dangerous because at the same time, we're finding out this virus is more contagious than we originally thought. Like we've talked about on the show before, there's growing evidence that this coronavirus spreads via tiny particles in the air called aerosols.

KWONG: All year we've been talking about six feet of distance, right? Maddie and me, (laughter) we don't come within six feet of each other.

SOFIA: Yeah.

KWONG: But aerosols can travel further than that. They can hover and spread through the air almost like smoke.

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, it's not a perfect analogy, but if you think about the difference between someone smoking outdoors and someone smoking in a little room with no ventilation, way more smoke lingers in the air indoors for way longer.

KWONG: Which is why, as an expert in our episode last month pointed out, ventilation is key.


KIMBERLY PRATHER: You know, ventilation, really, is just so important. And sometimes, in some places, that's just a matter, you know, opening the door and opening the windows.

KWONG: That's Kimberly Prather. She's an atmospheric chemist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.


PRATHER: You know, just having clean air is really the best thing you can do. Where I live in San Diego, you know, we're in a good position. We can also move activities outdoors. That's another thing that we also encourage.

KWONG: But with colder temperatures ahead of us in many parts of the United States, shorter days and more people moving indoors, ventilation will only become more important and more difficult.

SOFIA: And that comes as the CDC has just revised the definition of what it considers a close contact or contact that puts you at a higher risk of catching the virus from an infected person. The old definition of a close contact was less than six feet for more than 15 minutes at a time. Now it's for 15 minutes total in a 24-hour period. Basically, those 15 minutes don't have to happen all at once.

KWONG: And that's a big difference.


NORAH O'DONNELL: So your Thanksgiving will look different this year?

ANTHONY FAUCI: My Thanksgiving is going to look very different this year.

SOFIA: That's Dr. Anthony Fauci in an interview from last month. And he talked about how things are about to get even harder. With cases rising in almost every state and more and more people in hospitals across the country, we're now approaching peak flu season. That means even more people will be needing hospital care.

KWONG: It's kind of a perfect storm because, at the same time, the holidays are coming up. And we just turned the clock back. So it's darker earlier. People are going to want to travel and be inside with other people, which Anthony Fauci said could lead to even more outbreaks.


FAUCI: That is, unfortunately, a risk when you have people coming from out of town, gathering together in an indoor setting. It is unfortunate because that's such a sacred part of American tradition, the family gathering around Thanksgiving. But that is a risk.

KWONG: Fauci said the only way to ensure a low-risk Thanksgiving is - if you're gathering, it should only be if you are really certain that no one is infected, so if you've all recently tested negative or, even better, the family you're meeting don't have any real interaction with anybody other than you and your family. Fauci said that's why he and his wife won't be seeing their three children for Thanksgiving.


FAUCI: They would all have to go to an airport, get on a plane, travel with public transportation. They themselves, because of their concern for me and my age, have decided they're not going to come home for Thanksgiving even though all three of them want very much to come home for Thanksgiving.

SOFIA: And, yeah, I mean, if you're wrestling with this right now in your own family, it's a hard decision to make after a year where so many of us have already lost so much time with our families.

KWONG: Yeah.

SOFIA: I mean, for maybe, like, the third time in my life, I won't be going home for Thanksgiving. We're going to do, like, a little Zoom-call toast.

KWONG: I mean, I'll be with my partner's family. But they're within driving distance. And we're isolating for two weeks beforehand. So that - you know, keep the family safe.

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, silver lining for a Zoom Thanksgiving, I do get to leave whenever I want.

KWONG: (Laughter).

SOFIA: You know what I mean? Like, boom, I'm done with my family, push of the button - drunk at home already in my pajamas. You know what I mean?

KWONG: Very like you to find the silver lining in this situation.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

KWONG: I mean, this is what public health officials are begging people to do right now - you're kind of a model citizen - to remember the long game, remember to do the things that we know will help, as hard as it is, and to just remember the stakes as you're making these decisions.


NGOZI EZIKE: This is a difficult race when you can't actually see the end point. And I'm sorry that that's the message I have for you. Nevertheless, I'm asking you to fight the fatigue. Fight the urge to give up on social distancing.

SOFIA: Just listen to the public health director in Illinois, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, at a public health briefing last month, when you could almost hear her looking at the winter ahead.


EZIKE: Today, we are reporting 3,874 new cases for a total of 36,433 confirmed cases since the start of this pandemic. Excuse me, please.

KWONG: Dr. Ezike told NPR after this video got passed around the Internet...


EZIKE: Three-hundred and sixty-four thousand, thirty-three cases since the start of this pandemic.

KWONG: ...That she heard from so many people who are also feeling overwhelmed right now. And she's hoping that at least it helps others understand the reality of what is happening in our country right now.


EZIKE: It's been difficult to get the message across to everyone. But I'm hoping that, eventually, just with days, people will understand that tomorrow still needs to be written. And each of us gets to be an author and use our authorship to create a story not of continued doom, but of actually turning this pandemic around.

SOFIA: We have to turn this thing around together. Right now, more than 232,000 people are confirmed to have died in the U.S. As of when we're recording this, Wednesday, an average of 847 people are dying every day.

KWONG: And we should say, public health experts think deaths are probably still being undercounted because of things like inaccurate cause of death reporting. And then there are indirect deaths caused by the pandemic to think about, too.

SOFIA: Those issues are not going away. And while the virus is out of control right now, it does not have to be that way. Wear masks. Only travel when you have to. And this doesn't mean that you have to be totally alone all winter. It just means it might have to be pared back.

KWONG: Yeah. Find small groups in which to socialize, outdoors when you can, and bring fresh air indoors when you can't - all the stuff we've been talking about for months. While you can't control what other people do, you can control your own behavior. And that is what will make all the difference this winter.


SOFIA: This episode was produced by Brent Baughman. It was edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Ariela Zebede. I'm Maddie Sofia.

KWONG: And I'm Emily Kwong. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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