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Almost 1 million Americans have died from COVID-19

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

America confronts a staggering statistic - a million people in the U.S. killed by COVID-19. We'll attempt to grasp that emotionally in a moment, but the virus is continuing to spread, and so first, we turn to NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks for being with us.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And yet, another surge - again, we hear, just to emphasize the point of how terribly costly this pandemic has already been.

STEIN: Yes, Scott. Unfortunately, it's true. The number of people catching the virus has been rising again now for weeks. And the number of true infections is probably way higher than the official numbers, since so many people are testing themselves at home or, you know, not testing at all. Just think about it, Scott. Doesn't it seem like everyone around you is catching COVID these days?

SIMON: Well, a lot of people, yes.

STEIN: I talked about this with Dr. David Dowdy. He's an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins.

DAVID DOWDY: The number of cases has almost tripled since the end of March. Over the past two weeks, on average, we've seen about a 50% increase in the number of reported cases. That's north, south, east and west. So we're in the midst, honestly, of a surge of cases.

STEIN: And it's not just infections that are surging. The number of people getting so sick that they're ending up in the hospital is rising again, too. And the number of people dying every day has stopped falling. It's plateaued after steadily falling for months and may even be starting to rise again, especially in some parts of the country.

SIMON: Why is this happening, Rob?

STEIN: You know, Scott, it's a combination of factors. One is that an even more contagious omicron subvariant that's even better at sneaking around the immune system is taking over. At the same time, the protection people got from getting vaccinated is wearing off, and people are just being less careful - you know, not wearing masks, traveling more. Here's Dr. David Rubin at the PolicyLab in Philadelphia.

DAVID RUBIN: It wasn't just the traveling around the holidays and spring break, but it was also the ending of the transit mandates. And I think - subsequently, I think, we've seen a lot of return of springtime large gatherings - not the smaller gatherings, but, you know, proms, you know, parties, sporting events, etc., that are now fully unmasked.

STEIN: ...Letting this incredibly contagious omicron subvariant spread like crazy.

SIMON: Rob, how bad do you think it's going to get?

STEIN: Well, Scott, no one really knows for sure, but the hope is it could be fairly modest compared to previous surges and short-lived because the immunity people still have from so many people catching omicron this winter and from all the people who have gotten vaccinated. Here's Lauren Ancel Meyers at the University of Texas at Austin.

LAUREN ANCEL MEYERS: Our projections suggest that we're in the middle of a small surge, you know, something that looks more like a bump rather than a mountain.

STEIN: That could subside by the end of the month. So even the people who are being hospitalized don't seem to be getting as sick as in previous surges. You know, fewer people are requiring oxygen or intensive care, for example. So the hope is that even if lots of people catch the virus, hospitals won't get overwhelmed again and deaths won't shoot back up big time.

SIMON: What about this summer and next fall - next winter, for that matter?

STEIN: Well, you know, it's possible there will be another surge this summer, especially in the South, like in the last two summers. And the experts are really worried about the fall and winter, when they do expect yet another big wave because immunity will have waned even more by then, and people will be heading back inside because of the colder weather. So the federal government is gearing up for another big vaccine campaign this fall and scrambling to figure out which new version of the vaccine would make the most sense for people to get to try to minimize how much more the global pandemic will take.

SIMON: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein - Rob, thanks so much.

STEIN: Sure thing, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.