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There is a record number of new COVID cases as well as hospitalizations

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. is now averaging more than 700,000 cases of the coronavirus every day - a record. And the number of people being hospitalized across the country, including young children, is hitting new highs, too. Yet doctors say this surge is different. Many vaccinated people are testing positive, but they are not getting seriously ill thanks to the protection of vaccines.

NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to help sort through the latest.

Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we know hospitalizations from COVID have shot up considerably over the last week. Who is most at risk?

AUBREY: Yeah. Hospital admissions are near or at record pandemic highs. In some states nationwide, about 18,000 people are being admitted a day. That's a 50% increase over last week. And the people who are most at risk are those who are not vaccinated. The CDC says unvaccinated people are 17 times more likely to be hospitalized.

I spoke to Dr. Lance Becker. He's head of emergency medicine at Northwell Health in New York. And he says they see many unvaccinated patients who are very ill.

LANCE BECKER: It is very upsetting to see a person who's made a decision, and now that person pays such a price for it. And we've had people who are dying and had family members say, well, maybe you could vaccinate them right now. And, you know - and they're, like, literally losing their blood pressure and dying in front of your eyes. And you just want to cry. You just want to cry.

AUBREY: You can hear that in his voice, Rachel...

MARTIN: Yeah.

AUBREY: ...Because so many of these deaths are preventable, he says. It's just hard for health care workers to be going through this again.

MARTIN: I mean, what about health care workers? Are more hospitals...

AUBREY: Right.

MARTIN: ...Scrambling to keep them on the job right now because of the surge?

AUBREY: You know, around the country, a lot of health care workers have tested positive. And then they can't come to work for five days or so. Now, because most health care workers are vaccinated, and many are boosted, they're not getting as sick.

I spoke to Dr. Becker about what he's seen over the last several weeks among his staff.

BECKER: Within the emergency department, luckily, thank goodness, no one was hospitalized, but many people were out for several days. About half of those people experienced almost no symptoms at all. They simply tested positive because we were aggressively wanting to ensure the safety of everyone and discovered that people were positive.

AUBREY: So those staffers have to be out during the isolation period. Dr. Becker says he's been able to move staff around and manage just fine. But a bunch of urgent care centers in New York and New Jersey have had to close due to a lack of staff amid this surge.

MARTIN: Allison, from what you have been able to glean from experts, is the U.S. near the peak of this surge?

AUBREY: You know, officials in New York say the state might be nearing a peak now. Numbers have flattened over the last few days in New York. But remember, it was the first region to sort of see this surge. Nationwide, the CDC director has said we have not reached the peak. On Friday, more than 830,000 people tested positive, according to the agency. And that doesn't even include those who used only a rapid at-home test.

I spoke to Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota about what we can expect.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Four weeks ago, I put out a prediction at that time that we would be literally in a viral blizzard for the next eight weeks or more. And I'm sticking with that. I think another four weeks, and we're going to see case numbers peaking and coming down quite rapidly.

AUBREY: Several models suggest a similar kind of quick rise and fall, Rachel. That's what's been seen in South Africa and in parts of the U.K., which has typically been about three weeks ahead of the U.S. during this pandemic. There're some initial indications that the numbers of new cases may have peaked there. And Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the way out of this pandemic is for everyone to get vaccinated and boosted.

MARTIN: I mean, that's what we hear from a lot of world leaders - right? - including President Biden.

AUBREY: That's exactly right.

MARTIN: In this country, I mean, are more people heeding this advice?

AUBREY: You know, heading into the holidays, White House advisers said the pace of vaccinations was accelerating. But so far, only about 35% of people in the U.S. have received a booster. About 66% of eligible people are fully vaccinated. So some states are going back to mass vaccination sites, including Massachusetts, where shots are being given at Fenway Park, the baseball park, again. In Oregon, the state health authority has opened drive-in sites - no appointments needed. And in Illinois, state agencies are setting up mobile booster clinics. Many sites offer shots to both adults and kids.

MARTIN: Let's talk about kids. There's been a pretty significant rise in hospitalizations among children, right? What can you tell us?

AUBREY: Yeah. About 825 kids are being admitted to the hospital per day with COVID right now. This is a 40% increase compared to the prior week, so that's pretty significant. But keep in mind, more than 300,000 kids have tested positive in a single week amid this surge. I've spoken to several pediatricians who say, in the ER, most kids coming in for treatment end up being released rather than admitted. And some kids come in for treatment for something other than COVID, but then turn out to be positive for the virus.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky addressed this on Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We are seeing a rise in hospitalizations, both because they are coming in with COVID, but also because they're screening in for COVID. And so I would say we don't yet - have not yet seen a signal that there is any increased severity in this age demographic.

AUBREY: She says they are watching the data closely. And she adds, it is clear that kids are more likely to end up hospitalized if they are unvaccinated.

MARTIN: How many kids in the country have been vaccinated so far? Do we know?

AUBREY: Yeah. Only about 25% of 5- to 11-year-olds have received their first dose of the vaccine. Among older kids, about 54% of 12- to 17-year-olds are now fully vaccinated. And the rates really vary widely from state to state. I'll point out, some of President Biden's former COVID advisers say that the U.S. is going to need near-universal vaccination to get to the point where COVID is manageable and kind of predictable from year to year.

Among them, Dr. Zeke Emanuel says this may require mandates in school.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZEKE EMANUEL: One reason we have great response to things like, you know, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus shots is that we have mandates. You have to be vaccinated to go to school.

MARTIN: Right.

AUBREY: Yeah. He argues COVID vaccines should be the same after they're fully approved - be tough to pull off. You know, many states have already moved to prevent these mandates, so this is likely to be a fight going forward.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey.

We appreciate you, Allison. Thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you very much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.