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Coronavirus Pandemic Update: What Is Happening And What Can Be Done About It?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

During this pandemic, there have been waves of coronavirus infections in different parts of the country. Well, today, it's hard to overstate how bad things are across the U.S. We are talking about an exponential rise in infections and hospitalizations, and it's everywhere. Only one state had a decrease in average daily new cases over the last week. Joining us with the latest about what's happening and what could be done about it are NPR health correspondents Allison Aubrey and Rob Stein. Good to have you both back here.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: Rob, let's start with you. Bring us up to date on how bad things are right now.

STEIN: Well, you know, every day just seems to bring more bad news, unfortunately. More than 100,000 new infections have now been reported every day for more than a week now. More than 143,000 were reported just yesterday, and that's a new record. So it looks like the surge is accelerating. And the number of people who are so sick from COVID that they are in the hospital keeps hitting all-time highs, too. More than 65,000 people are now hospitalized, and hospitals are at capacity or close to capacity in lots of places. They're running short on doctors and nurses. And the number of people dying every day just keeps mounting. More than 1,500 died yesterday.

So public health experts are warning that we have to do something. We have to do something fast to try to turn this around, or this winter could be just terrifying. But the good news, Ari, is that, you know, we know what can work; we just have to finally do it.

SHAPIRO: Right. I mean, it's shocking how silent the White House has been in the middle of all of this. But President-elect Joe Biden is talking a lot about his plans to address this pandemic. Allison, I know you've been in touch with his team. What does he have in mind?

AUBREY: You know, we already hear the president-elect laying the groundwork for mask mandates nationwide. And he doesn't need to wait, Ari, until he's sworn in to start working on this. He has made it very clear that his team will work with governors and mayors to work towards this end. So state leaders have been given a heads up - this is the president-elect's goal. And we'll likely hear Biden repeat what he has been saying - that masks save lives.

SHAPIRO: Now, Rob, the guidance on how masks work and who they protect has shifted a little bit, so catch us up on the latest. And also, are there other steps people should be taking, too?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. The CDC is now emphasizing that masks don't just protect other people; they protect you, too. And, you know, if everybody finally started wearing one, they could save tens of thousands of lives. And, you know, everybody wants to avoid the kind of big lockdown we had in the spring. And the thing is, that's still possible. There are more targeted kinds of closures that could be done that focus on the places where the virus spreads the most.

In fact, some new research just came out a couple days ago looking at 10 big cities around the country. And it found that something like 70% of infections incur in places like restaurants and gyms and, you know, grocery stores. But you don't necessarily have to shut them down. Just by limiting capacity to, say, 20% or 25% could cut infections by, like, 80%. I talked about this with Serena Chang at Stanford, who helped do this research.

SERENA CHANG: There are a number of things that we can do that would make a very big difference. So the good thing is that you don't have to go all or nothing.

STEIN: But, you know, Ari, we probably have to make some tough choices, like what's more important - keeping bars open or schools open? You know, skip those big family gatherings and holiday parties to save lives because we need to cut infections if we want those schools to be open.

SHAPIRO: Given the numbers, Allison, does it seem likely that we're going to have stricter restrictions coming?

AUBREY: You know, we have seen a hodgepodge of new restrictions - everything from San Francisco shutting down indoor dining, restrictions on nonessential businesses in cities from New Jersey and Maine to El Paso, Texas. And given the surge, Chicago has issued a stay-at-home advisory that Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced today. But the patchwork of restrictions is not enough - that's what many public health officials say. This is a nationwide problem, but there's no nationwide strategy. And what Biden's team is saying is that this will change. His plan is, really, to work with scientists to establish clear guidelines and metrics for when to open and close businesses and schools, when to restrict capacity - so a much more coordinated approach.

SHAPIRO: I've got to ask. We got good news this week about a vaccine. And once that's widespread, things could start returning to normal. So, Rob, does this positive news mean maybe the winter and spring don't look as bleak as they might?

STEIN: Well, you know, for sure, the news about the vaccine is promising, and the first doses could be available by the end of the year. But the reality is, it's going to take months - probably many months - before any vaccine is widely available and lots of people can get the two doses that they're going to need. And we just can't, like, wait for that. Even if we get a vaccine, it's not like, boom, the virus is just suddenly gone. We're still going to have to learn to live with this virus. So we're probably going to have to keep doing some version of the mask-wearing and the social distancing for a while. And we're still going to need more testing and contact tracers and isolating infected people to keep the virus under control.

SHAPIRO: So, Allison, what does Biden say about a vaccine and its distribution?

AUBREY: You know, his plan calls for something that governors have been asking for. Some governors have been asking for an investment in vaccine distribution and education. Just before the election, I spoke to Vivek Murthy. He's now leading Biden's coronavirus task force. He told me one of the obstacles here is mistrust. We know polls show that many people say they'd be hesitant to get a coronavirus vaccine.

VIVEK MURTHY: There will have to be an investment meeting (ph) in building public education campaigns to help people understand more about a vaccine.

AUBREY: So the Biden team is proposing investing billions of dollars in a vaccine manufacturing and distribution plan.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR science and health correspondents Allison Aubrey and Rob Stein. Thank you.

STEIN: You bet, Ari.

AUBREY: Great to be here. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.