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Despite Increased Vaccinations, COVID-19 Cases Remain High

NOEL KING, HOST:

We have mixed news on coronavirus as we start the week. More than 61 million Americans are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and almost 4 million people are being vaccinated every day at this point. But in more than 20 states, cases keep rising.

NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us to explain. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What's going on in these 20 states?

AUBREY: You know, the virus is still circulating widely at a time when only about 23% of the adult population across the country is fully vaccinated. The good news is that the pace of vaccinations has really picked up - the supply, too. The CDC says 208 million doses of the vaccine have been delivered. But bottom line, Noel, states have loosened restrictions. People are out and about. I mean, most older people are now protected. More than 75% of people 65 and up have received at least one dose of the vaccine. But millions of younger people are still vulnerable to the virus. Here's former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who spoke on CBS yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS BROADCAST)

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-aged children. If you look at 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: And another factor - air travel. It's at its highest since the pandemic began. Nearly 1.6 million people boarded a plane on Friday. And if you look at Florida, the destination of many spring break travelers, there's not only a steady increase in cases there, Noel, but also an increase in the number of people infected with B.1.1.7, the variant first identified in Britain that is much more contagious.

KING: Can we then categorically say we are in the middle of a fourth surge or headed toward one?

AUBREY: Well, a lot of experts say so - or at least there is an uptick after a plateau. Now, if you look at the hot spots, there's some repeat of last year with increases in the Northeast, the upper Midwest, followed by the Sun Belt states. That's how Michael Osterholm sees it. He's the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He spoke on "Meet The Press" yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

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 yesterday when Michigan reported out 8,400 new cases. And we're now seeing increasing number of severe illnesses, ICU hospitalizations, in individuals who are between 30 and 50 years of age who have not been vaccinated.

AUBREY: So this is just really a reality check, Noel. The pandemic is not over.

KING: I want to go back to something you said about air travel and more and more people getting on planes. Despite the fact that the pandemic is not over, that cases are rising, the CDC changed its guidance on travel to be more open. What did they change exactly?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, the new guidance is an acknowledgement that people who are fully vaccinated should be able to resume some activities. Now, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who has talked about her own concerns of impending doom, as she's described it, given the rise in cases and hospitalizations, says it's very important to remain cautious. I mean, the future is not written here, Noel. The extent to which cases continue to rise depend on our choices, you know, whether people continue to wear masks and avoid crowds. But Walensky says if you do these things - if you're cautious and you're fully vaccinated - it is low risk to travel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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: Though for people who are not yet fully vaccinated, the agency continues to recommend against all nonessential travel. So getting more people vaccinated as quickly as possible is really the ticket. It's so important.

KING: And I know you've been digging into the big question of how long the vaccines last. And it - will it be like the flu shot, where we need boosters every year?

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, 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. So that is encouraging, reassuring. But beyond that, it's just really not clear.

I spoke to Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania about this. He said 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 is that there will be an occasional booster to protect against variants. This is something vaccine-makers are watching closely. And the NIH is planning a trial to test a version of the Moderna vaccine that is specifically designed to protect against the South African variant. The trial will include about 215 adult volunteers in four cities. That includes Atlanta, Cincinnati, Nashville and Seattle. Now, Dr. Anthony Fauci has said the vaccine is being used right now appear to offer adequate protection, as he's called it, against this variant. But there's still a lot to learn.

KING: And even though it is still mostly older people who are getting the vaccine, there's been some good news on the effectiveness of how it works in teenagers, right?

AUBREY: That's right. Pfizer says it's trial in 12- to 15-year-olds suggests the vaccine is nearly 100% effective in this age group. I spoke to one of the volunteers in that study, Josie Debrewer (ph). She lives in Cincinnati. I talked to her about the importance of the findings and about her initial apprehension when she first signed up to participate.

JOSIE DEBREWER: 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: So she, too, sees the urgency of getting people vaccinated as quickly as possible.

KING: And we'll thank Josie for her service.

AUBREY: That's right.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thanks for yours.

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