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Despite More Vaccinations, Pockets Of COVID-19 Cases Increase

NOEL KING, HOST:

We're starting this week with mixed news about the coronavirus. Around 2.5 million people are getting vaccinated every day in the U.S., but also every day there are 55,000 new cases of COVID diagnosed here, cases arising in parts of New York and Michigan. And some European countries are back on lockdown. NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us, as she often is on Mondays. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Let's talk about the lockdowns. They're happening in some European countries, and often that precedes lockdowns in the U.S., at least in certain parts. Could we see that happen here?

AUBREY: You know, right, France, Italy, Poland all have some lockdown measures, and Germany may tighten restrictions, too, due to this rise in cases. Now, the worry, as you point out, is that the surges in the U.S. have tended to follow the surges in Europe in the past. Earlier in the pandemic, the former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb says he does not see that happening this time. He says compared to countries in Europe, a much higher portion of the population in the U.S. has now been vaccinated here, and many people have some natural immunity, too, because they've already had COVID.

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SCOTT GOTTLIEB: We're talking about some form of protective immunity in about 55% of the population. So there's enough of a backstop here that I don't think you're going to see a fourth surge. I think what you could see is a plateauing for a period of time before we continue on a downward decline.

AUBREY: And how long this plateau lasts and the extent to which there's an uptick in some places also depends on people's behavior and how quickly restrictions are relaxed.

KING: Well, people's behavior is certainly an issue. We've had reporting this morning from Miami Beach - spring breakers getting a little bit out of control, not wearing masks. We know not everyone is taking precautions. What concerns does that ignite for public health officials?

AUBREY: Sure. I mean, as these new contagious variants circulate, you know, it's even more important to speed up vaccinations now. And the U.S. is making progress. About 82 million people in the U.S. have now received at least one dose of the vaccine. That's about 32% of the adult population. But Dr. Fauci has said that it is not time to declare victory yet or let our guards down.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: I'm concerned that if we pull back in our enthusiasm for the fact that vaccines are rolling out and things look good, if we pull back prematurely, that would really set us back in all the things that we're trying to do.

AUBREY: And he says this means people should remain cautious. We've heard it all before, Noel, but stay masked, avoid crowds for a bit longer, including if you are on spring break.

KING: Are we seeing the pace of vaccinations pick up?

AUBREY: Yes. About 2.5 million shots are being administered a day. There's also more efforts to assist people in hard-to-reach communities - I mean, from community health centers, the megasites. And to reach essential workers, there's an effort by Tyson Foods, for instance, which operates in a lot of rural communities, to bring the vaccine directly to their employees. I spoke to Shane Kolle. He's at the company's facility in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Together with local public health officials there in Iowa, they arranged a vaccination day right across the street from the facility to make it really easy for people.

SHANE KOLLE: It feels like a million pounds have been lifted off our shoulders. We were able to do just shy of 1,100 team members in a time frame from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. We obviously have not mandated it, but through education and availability, it was the right thing to do for our team.

AUBREY: He says he is encouraged by the number of employees who've opted to get the vaccine, and he says it can help everyone feel safer.

KING: So maybe suggesting that vaccine hesitancy is decreasing. This is something we've talked about a lot. We know that there were two particular groups of people, pregnant women and people of childbearing age - early on, many in these groups were hesitant about getting the vaccine. What do we know about how safe it is at this point for these groups of people?

AUBREY: Well, there's new research on this, actually. One study included about 115 women who were pregnant or breastfeeding. Researchers found that the vaccine works really well. It led to roughly the same level of antibodies as found in the general population. A small number of those participants delivered their babies. And researchers were also able to analyze umbilical cord blood. They did find antibodies there, and they say the babies may also get protection through breast milk. So this is reassuring, good news for people of childbearing age.

KING: And let me ask you about schools. So the CDC has changed its guidance, saying that kids should maintain 3 feet of social distancing, not 6. Have some districts moved to that standard yet?

AUBREY: Yes, and some have moved to the standard earlier. In the Danville, Ind., area, for instance, I spoke to Ashton Brellenthin of the Danville Community School Corporation that is near Indianapolis. She says they switched to the 3-feet distancing policy last October.

ASHTON BRELLENTHIN: In school, our students are wearing masks almost the entire day. They're washing their hands. They're using hand sanitizer. They're doing all the things they're supposed to be doing. And since we switched to the 3 feet, we really haven't seen an increase in any of our cases.

AUBREY: She says the 3-foot policy enables them to have more kids in the classroom, and many people and many parents say that's beneficial.

KING: And no increase in cases, which is anec-data (ph), of course. Are all school districts doing this, 3 feet instead of 6?

AUBREY: No, many schools have planned for hybrid approaches to reopening, and some teachers unions around the country have pushed to maintain this 6 feet of distancing. I spoke to Judy Styer of the Framingham Massachusetts Schools, who says there's still some concern there about whether shifting to 3 feet is safe at this point.

JUDITH STYER: We're hoping to maintain 6 feet to the extent that we can because that is part of the agreement that we have made in our collective bargaining discussions. And so we're trying to keep it between 3 and 6 feet as much as possible.

AUBREY: She says there will be points in the day that this is a challenge, but that's the goal.

KING: And then lastly, President Biden's relief plan allocates $10 billion for testing and screening in schools. Is that money out there yet? Are schools using it yet?

AUBREY: Well, yes. And there have already been some pilot programs up and running - in the Seattle area, for instance. In Seattle, they're using the Abbott BinaxNOW test. It takes about 15 minutes to get a positive or negative. I spoke to Dr. Amanda Jones of the Seattle Children's Research Institute, who's helped to oversee the effort as it gets underway.

AMANDA JONES: So a student would come to the testing site, take a sterile swab. So it's just very simple. It's less than an inch into the nostrils. And the advantage of these rapid tests is that you can very quickly identify people who are positive and send them home so that you can prevent infection transmission at schools.

AUBREY: And she says, given just how many people are symptomatic, Noel, the hope is that you catch it in students who really don't even know that they are infected. Now, I spoke to the company that makes this test, Abbott. They say they are ramping up manufacturing, are at the point where they can make 50 million tests per month, and the test costs about $5 per test. So we'll likely see this in more school settings.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks so much for your reporting, Allison. We appreciate it.

AUBREY: Thank you, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARMS AND SLEEPERS' "UNSHIELD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.