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The Delta Variant Forces The Trajectory Of The Pandemic Up Sharply


How much does life have to change in this latest phase of the pandemic? It's a big question raised by news of the past few days. Though people have seen the delta variant of the coronavirus coming for months, this does seem to be the moment when it has burst fully into public consciousness. More cases are being reported day after day. An internal CDC report showed just how contagious delta can be. And people who may have acted as if the pandemic was really over have to recalculate. So we spend the next few minutes putting it all into perspective. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein begins our coverage. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And let's start with the facts. What do the numbers show?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, Steve, it doesn't look good, unfortunately. The trajectory of the pandemic is shooting up so sharply because infections are rising in every state right now. And, you know, nationally, more than 100,000 new cases were reported in a single day on Friday. That's the first time that's happened in almost six months. Hospitals are filling up again. Deaths are mounting. You know, Steve, it kind of feels like we're all strapped back into our seats on the roller coaster again, gripping the sides of the car as it starts rocketing up, wondering just how scary it's going to get this time.

INSKEEP: You said infections rising in every state, but is this the same everywhere?

STEIN: Well, you know, the worst is still concentrated in central states like Missouri and Southern states like Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas. In fact, Florida reported more than 21,000 cases in a single day on Friday.


STEIN: That's one of the worst days in that state since the pandemic started. But if you look at the map, hot spots are burning all over, from Massachusetts to California. I talked about all this with Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington. He's been tracking the pandemic since the beginning.

ALI MOKDAD: You know, Rob, I get frustrated. Sometimes I feel like I need to cry. I mean, it just has been very difficult to see what's happening in the United States. It's so sad.

STEIN: Sad because all this was, really, totally preventable if more people had just gotten vaccinated. The only possible good news is this resurgence is roaring back so much sooner and ferociously than anyone expected that it may peak earlier, too, perhaps for a month or so.

INSKEEP: Oh, there is some hope from other countries like Britain, where the surge has already faded after a couple of months.

STEIN: Yeah. Right.

INSKEEP: But nevertheless, we're in it now, so how are people responding?

STEIN: So, you know, we're seeing a flurry of new mask mandates in places like Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Nevada, and even vaccine mandates. Private companies like Facebook, Google, Disney and Walmart are starting to require at least some employees to get vaccinated; so are more universities and colleges. The Biden administration says federal workers and contractors have to disclose their vaccination status. If they don't or they aren't vaccinated, they have to wear masks and get tested regularly. Public health experts are welcoming all this, although some wish both the CDC's new mask guidance and the federal vaccine requirement was tougher. Here's John Moore at Weill Cornell Medicine.

JOHN MOORE: We have to kick butts to get arms sticked. I mean, we just - you know, butts need kicked so arms get sticked. I mean, we have to get, one way or another, more vaccines into more arms.

STEIN: Because, you know, even though we now know that vaccinated people can still catch and spread the virus, the vaccines are still really good at keeping people from getting really sick and dying and so are really the only way we're going to get ahead of this. And we are seeing some signs that, finally, vaccinations are picking up again. Vaccinations are climbing in at least a dozen states now, especially in some of the hardest-hit states with the lowest vaccination rates. For example, Louisiana gave more than 17,000 shots in a single day on Friday.

INSKEEP: I've been a part of conversations where people who already got their shots are asking, should I go get more shots? Should I go get another vaccine? Should I get a booster?

STEIN: Right.

INSKEEP: And they're following news from places like Israel, where they're doing that for some vulnerable people. What's likely to happen here?

STEIN: You know, so most of the experts that I've been talking say - to about this say the U.S. is probably heading in that direction, especially for people with weak immune systems and possibly other vulnerable people like the elderly. But for the moment, they're saying it's still just too soon. Here's Dr. Robert Wachter at the University of California, San Francisco.

ROBERT WACHTER: As an individual, it's a perfectly reasonable decision to say, you know, if I had a chance to get a booster today, I might want it. But as a society and as public policy, should we endorse that today? And the answer, I think, is no.

STEIN: And the reason is doctors and pharmacists aren't supposed to give boosters until federal officials sign off on it, and they're still sorting through the evidence. And it also raises a lot of ethical questions like, you know, would giving boosters take vaccine away from someone who hasn't even gotten their first or second shots, which is still what we really need to be doing right now the most, both in this country and around the world.

INSKEEP: Although some people are going out and getting that extra shot anyway, it seems.

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. You know, we're hearing stories like that, and I spoke to one young man the other day who did just that. His name is Trevor Achilles. He's 27 and lives in Charlottesville, Va. He got his first two Pfizer shots in the spring. But he takes immune-suppressing drugs because he had a kidney transplant, and he works as a dishwasher in a restaurant.

TREVOR ACHILLES: I am terrified of COVID, and I will do anything and everything in my power to make sure that I don't get sick.

STEIN: He finally did get a shot from a Moderna - a Moderna shot from a second pharmacy, and he felt so much better afterwards. But, you know, all the experts that I've been talking to say people really shouldn't be doing that; they should be patient and wait for federal officials to make sure this is safe and necessary.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks.

STEIN: You bet, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.