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The Delta Variant Raises A Lot Of Question About The Latest COVID Surge


After a steep decline, coronavirus cases are once again on the rise thanks to the fast-spreading delta variant. New daily cases are up by nearly 70% in just a week. And hospitalizations and deaths are rising as well. The increases are concentrated in places with low vaccination rates. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to discuss. Allison, sounds like big increases. Can you help put us in - put those things in perspective?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Sure. The U.S. is averaging about 30,000 new cases a day. This is far fewer than the 200,000 or so cases back in the winter. But it's triple the number of cases compared to just June. So there are significant increases in states, as you say, with low vaccination rates, including Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned yesterday on CNN that the rise in hospitalizations and deaths that are largely preventable may continue.


VIVEK MURTHY: I am worried about what is to come because we are seeing increasing cases among the unvaccinated in particular. And while if you are vaccinated, you are very well protected against hospitalization and death, unfortunately, that is not true if you are not vaccinated.

AUBREY: In fact, 97% of people hospitalized now with COVID are unvaccinated. I mean, there are instances where fully vaccinated people are getting infected, so-called breakthrough cases. But they tend to get much less sick. And CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has said this has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated.

MARTÍNEZ: So a combination of unvaccinated people and the delta variant are causing these surge in cases?

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, the delta variant is about 225% more transmissible than the original coronavirus strain. So when this variant finds pockets of unvaccinated people, it just spreads so much more quickly. Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb spoke on CBS yesterday about what this means in the coming weeks and months.


SCOTT GOTTLIEB: This variant is so contagious that it's going to infect the majority - that most people will either get vaccinated or have been previously infected or they will get this delta variant. And for most people who get this delta variant, it's going to be the most serious virus that they get in their lifetime in terms of the risk of putting them in the hospital.

AUBREY: He says this variant just can't be underestimated. And that's why there are yet again more pleas to the roughly 30% of adults who have yet to be vaccinated in the U.S. to go ahead and get the shots.

MARTÍNEZ: So many people remain hesitant. Yet, at the same time, millions of people who were eager to get vaccinated at the first opportunity that was back in the winter are now wondering, when can I get a booster?

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, there's no decision yet on boosters. But at a White House briefing on Friday, adviser Jeff Zients said that the administration is ready for the possibility of boosters if and when the science shows they're needed. Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that the CDC and FDA are getting as much data as they can, including tracking the levels of immunity and people enrolled in the vaccine clinical trials to see if the immunity is waning. There's also a study underway to test a kind of mix-and-match approach that could work for boosters. They're giving a shot of the Moderna vaccine as a booster to people who originally got any of the three authorized vaccines, including the J&J or Pfizer. I spoke to Robert Atmar. He's a professor of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine. He's helping lead the study.

ROBERT ATMAR: What we want to figure out is, what kind of reactions do people have when they get a booster dose? And do they generate a good immune response both to the original coronavirus strain but also to the variants of concern?

AUBREY: Again, no booster strategy yet. But it could be that boosters could be recommended for some portion of the U.S. population, such as older adults above a certain age and people who are immune-compromised.

MARTÍNEZ: So meantime, as the delta variant continues to surge where I'm at here in LA County - that was the first day of mask mandates indoors. So Allison, what are the chances of this becoming more widespread?

AUBREY: Well, you know, local public health officials have the flexibility to do this, to reinstate a mask mandate. Though, this is very, very unlikely to happen nationally. Lots of public health experts tell me, you know, as a personal health choice, it makes good sense to stay masked up in crowded indoor settings because it is still possible for fully vaccinated people to become infected. I spoke to Dr. Sage Myers. She's an emergency department physician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She points out masking can help protect children, too.

SAGE MYERS: We're expecting or unvaccinated children to continue to wear those - wear their masks. And helping them to feel more comfortable takes us doing it, too. And so I definitely will wear my mask when I'm with my 11-year-old, who can't be vaccinated yet, who has to have her mask on, even if it's a situation that, as a vaccinated person, I may otherwise have been able to not wear it.

AUBREY: It's a simple way to stay protected.

MARTÍNEZ: It's a no-brainer. And speaking of kids, it's summer camp season. And there have been a spate of outbreaks tied to camp. So what's the best advice to keep kids safe?

AUBREY: Yeah. Well, there have been reports of camp outbreaks in many states, including Texas, Illinois, Florida, Missouri, Kansas. Doctor Sage Myers is also a medical director at a sleep-away camp where, she says, the risks can be higher than at a day camp because kids are bunking together, just - they're in close quarters more. So she says more precautions may be needed.

MYERS: We are testing prior to arrival, encouraging families to quarantine their children for the days prior to going to camp, definitely between five and seven days of quarantine and keeping them away from other contact with other people. And so camps really need to be on top of that and even minor symptoms. Kids have to quarantine and be tested to ensure that they aren't the start of a spread.

AUBREY: And this is especially true for the under-12 crowd that can't be vaccinated yet.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thanks a lot.

AUBREY: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.