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Health officials worry omicron variant may be much more transmissible than delta


COVID-19 hospital admissions are again climbing in the United States and not a little bit. In fact, over the last two weeks, there's been about a 23% rise nationally. This climb is particularly significant in the Northeast and the Great Lakes regions. That's because of the delta variant, which is continuing to circulate. And we don't even know yet how severe the omicron variant will be, although it is also spreading. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us, as she does so many Mondays. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So I guess if we look at the - if we want to forecast the next few weeks, one reliable place to start is what has been happening the last couple of weeks, since this disease builds on itself. What has been happening?

AUBREY: Well, it's taken less than two weeks since the first omicron infection was detected here to find it in 25 states. Early data suggests omicron is at least twice as infectious as delta. And in the U.K., cases are doubling every two to three days. So in another month, 50% of COVID cases could be from omicron. I spoke to Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington, who is working on new projections. He says if you look at this quick spread in the U.K., it's a warning signal of what we could see in the U.S.

ALI MOKDAD: Everything the U.K. has been through, we have seen it here three weeks later. So we need to be very careful and take it seriously. Even if the new variant is less severe, the fact that it's going to infect more people, we're going to overwhelm our hospitals in winter in the United States.

AUBREY: So he's concerned for what may be coming. But remember; delta right now is still circulating here with about 120,000 new cases a day. Some states, including Maine, Pennsylvania, already have hospitals stretched thin.

INSKEEP: Allison, we're getting into a series of anniversaries, of the second anniversary of this pandemic. There have been several waves. I know people have become more cautious, less cautious, maybe more cautious again. Are people masking up and getting their booster shots this time?

AUBREY: You know, I mean, if you look at New York, they just brought back mask mandates. Other places may follow suit. But without mandates, Steve, new survey data suggests a lot of people just seem to be kind of done with this all. Remember; last spring we were all told, if we get vaccinated, masking won't be needed. Now with omicron spreading, many - (inaudible) unvaccinated, the situation has changed yet again. But this doesn't seem to be resonating with everyone. I spoke to David Lazer of Northeastern University. He's co-director of the COVID States Project.

DAVID LAZER: We do seem to have what may be a perfect storm this winter. We still have these very infectious versions of COVID floating around, but we're not really seeing in our data a hint of a spike in mask-wearing or avoidance of crowded places. Behaviors are still very relaxed.

AUBREY: He says there are regional differences. In Utah, for instance, about 35% of people say they're masking. In Maryland, it's a little more than 60%. There are also generational differences - older people more likely to mask than younger. And, Steve, the partisan differences - (inaudible) divisions that can really threaten public health.

INSKEEP: Yeah, and what you hear about this virus may depend on which media you consume. Nevertheless, the Biden administration has been encouraging people to do a little bit more of what they were already doing - do some more masking, get vaccinated if you haven't, get boosted if you haven't. Is that messaging working?

AUBREY: Well, the administration has pointed to a high number of vaccinations - 12 million shots given over the last week or so, including more than 7 million boosters. You know, what's becoming clear, Steve, is that vaccinated people may be at risk of infection from omicron. And even if they don't get severely ill - say they're young, and they're healthy - this variant could - if it spreads more here, could keep moving through the population and hit vulnerable people again. That's why Dr. Anthony Fauci keeps talking up boosters, which he says shore up protection. He spoke on ABC yesterday.


ANTHONY FAUCI: The somewhat encouraging news is that preliminary data show that when you get a booster - for example, the third shot of an mRNA - it raises the level of protection high enough that it then does do well against the omicron, which is again another reason to encourage people who are not vaccinated to get vaccinated but, particularly, those who are vaccinated to get boostered because that diminution in protection seems to go way back up again.

AUBREY: You know, for now, people are still considered fully vaccinated after two shots or after the single shot of J&J. But Dr. Fauci says they are continuing to evaluate this. And plenty of infectious disease experts say the definition should change to include a booster shot.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's really interesting. That would, in effect, make the booster required for those who are in a situation right now where they're required to get vaccinated.

AUBREY: That's right.

INSKEEP: Now let's talk about who is eligible for boosters. We reported last week that 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds are eligible for the first time for boosters. What about kids younger than 16?

AUBREY: Yeah, younger children are not eligible for boosters, but, Steve, there's still a lot of work to do to persuade more families with children 5 and up to start the vaccination process. One disappointment for pediatricians and the administration is that vaccines among young children have stalled a bit. The COVID state survey data shows this. And right now only about 1 in 5 children are vaccinated. Dr. Fauci addressed this yesterday.


FAUCI: I mean, certainly, statistically, children do not get as severe disease as the adults. But if you look at the number of cases, well over 2 million children from 5 to 11 have been infected. There have been over 8,000 to 9,000 hospitalizations and well over a hundred deaths. So it's not only good for the health of the child but also to prevent the spread in the community.

INSKEEP: Just to underline that argument, he's saying that the odds of your kid getting really severely sick from coronavirus are not that great, but there is a chance, and the kid may spread the disease to other people.

AUBREY: That's right.

INSKEEP: Allison, before you go, I want to ask about one other thing. We're getting into the flu season here. What complications does that cause, that we're facing both COVID and flu?

AUBREY: Well, I mean, the CDC (inaudible) right now points to cases rising a bit. Now, typically, the worst of flu happens later, in January and February, but they've seen a bunch of cases on college campuses so far. And the CDC tells me they're starting to see a pickup in the type of influenza A that in prior years has been associated with more hospitalizations. This is happening at a time when fewer Americans have gotten a flu vaccine compared to previous years. So they say it is not too late to get a flu shot. It will protect against the strain that is out there now. So that's what you should do if you want to be protected against it.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us many, many Mondays (laughter), as she has something like a hundred times during this pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYMBYC SYSTYM'S "1000 ARMS") 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.
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.
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