MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:
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SOFIA: Maddie Sofia here. So some promising news when it comes to the pandemic here in the U.S. - more than 61 million people are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. And we've been able to regularly administer more than 3 million shots a day. But here's the not-so-good news. In at least 20 states, reported cases are on the rise again. So today, we talk with NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey for a quick, little COVID news roundup. We're talking vaccines, travel and the possibility of a fourth wave. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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SOFIA: Hey. NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey is here with me now. Welcome, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hey there, Maddie. Good to be here.
SOFIA: OK, so in more than 20 states, COVID-19 cases keep rising. Allison, what's going on? What explains some of this increase?
AUBREY: You know, I think the virus is still circulating widely at a time when only about 23% of the adult population is fully vaccinated. I mean, the good news is that the pace of vaccinations has really picked up, and the supply has, too. The CDC says 208 million doses of the vaccine have been delivered. But the bottom line, Maddie, is states have loosened restrictions. People are out and about. I mean, most older people are now protected. More than...
AUBREY: ...Seventy-five percent of people 65 and up have received at least one dose of vaccine. But a lot of people are still vulnerable to the virus.
Here's former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb. He spoke on CBS's "Face The Nation" over the weekend.
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SCOTT GOTTLIEB: What we're seeing is pockets of infection around the country, particularly in younger people who haven't been vaccinated and also in school-age children. If you look what's happening in Michigan and Minnesota and Massachusetts, for example, the infection is changing its contours in terms of who is being stricken by it right now.
AUBREY: You know, another factor, Maddie, is that air travel is the highest it's been since the start of the pandemic.
AUBREY: I mean, nearly 1.6 million people boarded a plane on Friday. That's still well below what you would have expected pre-pandemic but the highest since the pandemic began.
AUBREY: And if you look at Florida, in particular, the destination of many spring-break travelers, there is not only a steady increase in cases. There's also an increase in the number of people infected with B.1.1.7, which, you know, we've talked about a lot, that variant first identified in Britain that is much more contagious and, recent evidence shows, also more virulent.
SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, does all of this point to a fourth surge, Allison?
AUBREY: You know, a lot of experts say so. Now, surge is not a technical term. But, at least, it is very factual to say there is an uptick after a plateau. And that's concerning. If you look at hot spots, there's some repeat of the pattern we saw last year, you know, increases in the Northeast and the upper Midwest, followed by increases in the Sun Belt states.
That's how Michael Osterholm sees it. He's the director of this center called the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy that's at the University of Minnesota. He was on "Meet The Press."
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MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: We're now, I think, in that cycle where the upper Midwest is just now beginning to start this fourth surge. And I think it was a wake-up call to everyone when Michigan reported out 8,400 new cases. And we're now seeing increasing number of severe illnesses, ICU hospitalization in individuals who are between 30 and 50 years of age who have not been vaccinated.
AUBREY: So, you know, I think this is just a reality check, Maddie. The pandemic is not over.
SOFIA: Absolutely. OK, so despite this rise in cases, the CDC has changed its guidance on travel to be more open. What are the details there?
AUBREY: Sure. Well, the new guidance is really an acknowledgement that people who are fully vaccinated should be - and certainly, probably want to be - able to return to some activities.
SOFIA: And real quick here, Allison, the CDC considers people to be fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose in a two-dose-series vaccine like the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine like the Johnson & Johnson.
AUBREY: Yeah. That's exactly right. And CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who has talked about her own concerns of what she described as impending doom given the rise in cases and hospitalizations, says it's important to remain cautious. I mean, the way I think about this, Maddie, is that the future is not written, right?
AUBREY: I mean...
AUBREY: ...The extent to which cases continue to rise depends a lot on our choices. Will people continue to wear masks and avoid crowds? I mean, Dr. Walensky says if you do these things, if you're cautious and you're fully vaccinated, it can be low risk to travel.
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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: For example, fully vaccinated grandparents can fly to visit their healthy grandkids without getting a COVID-19 test or self-quarantining, provided they follow the other recommended preventive measures while traveling.
AUBREY: Now, for people who are not yet fully vaccinated, The agency continues to recommend against all nonessential travel. So clearly, getting more people vaccinated as quickly as possible is the ticket. It's so important.
SOFIA: Yeah, and one big question still with the vaccines is, you know, do we know how long protection will last? And will people need boosters along the way?
AUBREY: You know, the latest data released by Pfizer shows that six months after getting the second dose, people in the Pfizer clinical trial remained more than 90% protected against symptomatic COVID-19.
SOFIA: OK, that's good.
AUBREY: But beyond that, it is just not clear at all. I've spoken to a lot of infectious disease experts about this. I spoke to Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel at the University of Pennsylvania about this. He said, you know, it could end up being similar to a flu shot.
EZEKIEL EMANUEL: The durability of the vaccine, how long immunity lasts, is something we just don't know about. And we're going to have to monitor it carefully. But if it's like the flu vaccine and we need it every year, I think that's something we can handle. And I think we'll have to figure out how to make it much more routine for all American adults to get the vaccine.
AUBREY: You know, another possibility, Maddie, is that there will be occasional boosters or a one-time booster to protect against variants. And this is something that vaccine makers are watching very closely. And the NIH is actually planning a trial to test a version of the Moderna vaccine designed specifically to protect against the variant that first emerged in South Africa. Now, this trial is going to include about 215 adults or so. They'll be from four cities, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Nashville, Seattle. And Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that the current vaccines do offer what he called adequate protection against this variant, the South African variant. But there's just still a lot to learn here.
SOFIA: OK, Allison, the last thing I wanted to touch on is that there's been some encouraging news on the effectiveness of the vaccine in teenagers, right?
AUBREY: Yeah, well, Pfizer says that it's trial in 12- to 15-year-olds suggests the vaccine is nearly 100% effective in this age group.
AUBREY: I spoke to one of the volunteers in the study - she's in high school - Josie Deburr (ph). She lives in Cincinnati. You know, I talked to her about her initial apprehension when she first signed up to participate.
JOSIE DEBURR: I was definitely scared about it because, you know, it's a new thing. But I think it's important that we all get it because it's the whole herd immunity thing. If enough people get vaccinated, it's not going to be able to spread around and keep infecting people at the rate it is.
AUBREY: You know, in talking to Josie Deburr, she's just really eager to get back to something that seems like normal. She's just back for in-person learning. And the reason why she and everyone else wants a return to normalcy is that high school just kind of feels weird. She says it's way better to be back in school. You know, you're no longer on Zoom, where people can turn off their cameras and not engage. So she likes that. But she says it's just a little odd. For instance, in order to stop that chaotic bunching in the hallways, there's a rule you have to always turn right. So there is one-way traffic. So it's one of the little things that she's hoping can return to normal.
SOFIA: I love it. I love it. All right, Allison Aubrey. Thank you so much for this COVID-19 roundup and nostalgia for high school, I'll be honest.
AUBREY: Oh, yes. The hallway, right?
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SOFIA: This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Jane Greenhalgh and Viet Le and fact checked by Rasha Aridi. I'm Maddie Sofia. And you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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