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Health officials say a rise in COVID cases looks more like a ripple than a wave

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The number of new COVID cases has been creeping up again as omicron subvariants circulate around the country. At the same time, the CDC is fighting a legal battle over the authority to require masks on planes, trains and buses. NPR's Allison Aubrey is back with us this morning. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK. Let's start with the grim stuff first. Cases are on the rise; by how much?

AUBREY: Well, the U.S. is averaging about 40,000 to 50,000 confirmed cases a day. That's about a 50% increase this month. But it's nowhere near the winter highs - I mean, really small potatoes by comparison. The upticks are attributable to spring travel, the great unmasking. We can talk about - more about that in a minute. The most notable increases have been on the East Coast from D.C. up through Pennsylvania, New England. But the rise in cases seems to be petering out, really trailing off. Here's Dr. David Rubin of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He's been tracking the situation in the Northeast.

DAVID RUBIN: I think it's been more of a ripple than a true wave. When you look at what's the impact been on hospitalizations, it's been fairly mild. There's been some uptick for sure around hospitalizations. But the Northeast, I think we would anticipate, would start showing significant improvement over the next week or two.

AUBREY: So he's pretty optimistic about the outlook.

MARTIN: OK. That's the Northeast. What about the rest of the country?

AUBREY: Lots of regions have seen a little spring ripple; in the Midwest - Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota have seen more cases; out west in Oregon; in the southeast in Florida. But, you know, big picture, Rachel, the scientists at the CDC who look for early warning signs of significant upticks by tracking wastewater tell me what they see now looks pretty reassuring. Here's the CDC's Amy Kirby.

AMY KIRBY: In previous surges, we've seen it starting in an area like the Northeast and then spreading across the country. We have not seen that kind of spread happening over the last few weeks. So we don't see anything that looks like the evidence of a new surge coming. These are very modest increases.

AUBREY: So another pretty encouraging forecast. And deaths from COVID have continued to fall pretty significantly.

MARTIN: All of which is good news. But, you know, Allison, the scientists have been hopeful before.

AUBREY: That's right.

MARTIN: The virus has proven very wily. There have been all kinds of surprises. Is their optimism different this time?

AUBREY: You know, of course, it's unpredictable. It could happen again. No one knows the future. But as people have gained more immunity, we're just more resilient as a population given this combination of vaccination - 82% of eligible people have had a COVID vaccine - and immunity through infection. You know, there's been this open question about how much immunity people have after getting sick with COVID. And a new study by researchers at the University of Chicago found that among unvaccinated people, getting COVID led to some pretty durable protection on par with the immunity people get from vaccination. I talked to one of the authors, Dr. Jessica Ridgway, about the study.

JESSICA RIDGWAY: I still definitely would recommend, you know, that everyone be vaccinated, but I think it can provide some comfort for folks who, you know, have had COVID, that there is some additional protection that they have against reinfection.

AUBREY: The study was done before the omicron surge, so there were likely more reinfections amid omicron. But bottom line, it's more evidence, they say, that this combination of infections and vaccinations is bolstering immunity across the population.

MARTIN: OK. Well, with that, let's talk about the great unmasking, as you have dubbed it. The bump in cases in the Northeast appears to be leveling off, as you noted, even decreasing. But let's talk about Philadelphia. Does this explain why that city lifted its mask mandate just a few days after it was reinstated?

AUBREY: Yeah. I mean, officials there in Philadelphia pointed to a decline in hospitalizations, justifying an end to mandatory masking. And really, ever since the ruling by a federal judge in Florida led to this abrupt end to masking on planes and other transportation hubs one week ago, there's really been confusion. I talked to epidemiologist Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota about whether lifting mandates at a time when so many people were not really following them has had much of an impact one way or another.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: The challenge we have is what is actually happening in most instances is that people are using face cloth coverings, which are largely ineffective. They wear them under their nose, which is like, you know, closing three of the five doors on your submarine. So in a sense, the mandate really has had very little impact.

AUBREY: Because people just weren't following it very well.

MARTIN: Right. But even so, there's still value in continuing to wear a mask if you're a person who, for whatever reason, is still trying to be careful, right?

AUBREY: Absolutely. If you're a person who is vulnerable because of underlying health conditions or age or you're concerned about your own health, wearing a mask that's well-fitted, a KN95 or an N95 mask, can help protect you. I talked to Dr. Judy Guzman. She's an infectious disease pediatrician in Oregon, and she says even at this point, people should be encouraged to mask up if they want, if they need protection. If you're wearing a high-quality mask, there's still benefit, even if the people around you are not masking, which at this point is many people.

JUDY GUZMAN-COTTRILL: Masking is such a simple way to decrease transmission risk. So I have a teenage daughter with a history of an autoimmune disease. She still wears a mask all the time at school. She still wears a mask when we go to the grocery store. And so there are a lot of people out there who are still trying not to get COVID.

AUBREY: And they want to feel supported at school or out in the community if they choose to mask up.

MARTIN: In the meantime, Allison, the Justice Department is appealing that decision out of Florida, a Florida judge's choice to strike down mask mandates on planes and other public transit. Where does that stand?

AUBREY: At this point, getting the decision reversed so that a mask mandate could go back into effect on planes or transportation hubs is very unlikely. It was set to expire next week anyway. What's more important now, legal experts tell me, is preserving the CDC's power for future decisions. I spoke to Matthew Lawrence - he's a law professor at Emory University - about what the Florida district court's decision did.

MATTHEW LAWRENCE: The district court judge reinterpreted the law to take away CDC's power to say the CDC could not impose a mask mandate, no matter how important it is, no matter if there's another wave, no matter whether there's another pandemic. And the really important thing about the case now is just clarifying that CDC has the power given it by Congress and the Public Health Services Act.

AUBREY: To impose a mandate in the future when the agency deems that it is necessary to protect public health.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thanks as always. We appreciate you and your reporting.

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

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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.