STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Is it possible that the calamity of the pandemic has finally peaked? Some researchers think so. The number of new cases has begun to drop. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is on the line. Rob, good morning.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Got to say, it doesn't feel like a peak.
STEIN: Yeah, yeah. You know, that's because things are still really bad right now. You know, lots of people are still getting infected, sick and dying. But if you look carefully at the numbers, the daily infections look like they hit a high about a week or so ago, depending on how you crunch the data. And since then, it looks like the number of people catching the virus every day has finally started falling. Here's one of the researchers I've been hearing this from, Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington.
ALI MOKDAD: Yes, we have peaked in terms of cases. And then we're coming down, slowly. This is very good news, very good news.
STEIN: Because it could mean the U.S. has finally turned the corner on this nightmare. In fact, it appears the number of people flooding into hospitals has peaked nationally, too, which means the number of daily deaths could start falling next.
INSKEEP: Do experts agree that this improvement over a very brief period is durable?
STEIN: So, you know, there are skeptics about whether the pandemic really peaked. The CDC, for example, isn't quite ready to officially declare the pandemic has peaked. And even those who think the pandemic has peaked say there are some important caveats about this. First of all, there are still hot spots around the country where infections are still rising. And there are some big ifs about what happens next. The virus could surge again if the sluggish vaccination campaign doesn't really start to ramp up and if people let down their guard again.
I talked about this with Caitlin Rivers. She's an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins.
CAITLIN RIVERS: Often what we see is a sort of cyclical pattern where things worsen, and so people stay home more. They are more vigilant about wearing masks. They skip the restaurants or the get-togethers. But as things improve, people relax a little bit and incorporate some of those risky behaviors again. And things can again accelerate.
STEIN: You know, and some experts think people need to be even more careful, you know, more mask wearing, better mask wearing, especially if those, you know, contagious variants lurking out there right now, you know, are a real threat.
INSKEEP: What's the third of those big ifs?
STEIN: So the third one is probably the most terrifying - those new variants. There's that U.K. one that's already here. There's the one from South Africa, Brazil. Others are emerging in the U.S. If any of them take off before enough people get vaccinated or, you know, God forbid, outsmart the vaccines, then all bets are off. I talked about this with Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown School of Public Health.
ASHISH JHA: I think this is a really substantial threat. The experience from the U.K. and Ireland and other countries that have seen this is it can very quickly reverse all of the gains and make things dramatically worse. So I'm very, very worried about this variant.
STEIN: But, you know, Steve, if none of these awful ifs come true, things could continue to get better and life could slowly start to return to something much more like normal by the summer.
INSKEEP: I guess we're at least moving in that direction for a few days...
STEIN: That's right.
INSKEEP: ...And we'll see what happens. Rob, thanks so much.
STEIN: Sure thing, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.
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