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Things To Consider When Visiting Elderly Relatives Amid Coronavirus Crisis

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nearly 120,000 people have died in the U.S. from COVID-19, and about 20 states are currently seeing an increase in cases. Given this rise, public health officials are warning people to be more vigilant as they're out and about. And another question - is there a safe way to visit Grandma and Grandpa and other elderly relatives or friends this summer? NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us to help answer those questions. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So let's start with something that President Trump said. He was at this rally in Tulsa, Okla., over the weekend, and he commented that he had wanted to limit coronavirus testing to keep the case numbers low. What has been the reaction to that? That would obviously be a very controversial thing.

AUBREY: (Laughter) Right. Well, a White House spokesperson said the president was joking when he made that comment, yet some Democratic lawmakers say the administration has yet to fully distribute all the funds allocated for testing. And that aside, if you look back, it is clear that a lack of testing capacity early on did make it hard to know who was infected, right? I mean, I'd say the issue remains politicized because now that testing is more widely available, Trump administration officials say, well, the rise in cases being documented now, it's just a reflection of increased testing; doesn't necessarily mean the virus is on the rise.

MARTIN: Is there any truth to that? I mean, is the increased testing giving us more cases?

AUBREY: No, it's not the case. I mean, all you need to do is look at the hospitalizations. In Texas, for instance, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has increased nearly every day this month. In Houston, the CEO of Houston Methodist, physician Marc Boom, he says there are now more than two times as many people hospitalized compared to Memorial Day. He says the trend line is concerning.

MARC BOOM: This is not a testing issue. I mean, I can unequivocally state that the numbers of tests that have been positive are up very dramatically over the last three weeks. We've let our guard down. We've gotten too lackadaisical. And if we don't change that very rapidly, we could be in trouble in about three weeks.

AUBREY: He says what's notable is that it's now some younger people being admitted with COVID-19 to the hospital. That's compared to what they saw in March and April with older patients.

MARTIN: Why? Just because older people have been taking the precautions and staying home and younger people haven't?

AUBREY: I think that's one explanation. And Boom says many people seem to get the impression that everything was back to normal.

BOOM: People really then breathed a sigh of relief, kind of opened up, did everything out there, threw caution to the wind. And I think we're starting to pay the price for it. People really have to change their behaviors now, or we're going to all regret it.

AUBREY: Because young people are much more likely to survive the virus when they get it. And so far, he says, the death rate among these recent patients seems lower. That's just a preliminary look. But remember - most transmissions are thought to happen in households. So a young person can bring the virus home, spread it to older, higher-risk people in the home.

MARTIN: So Allison, you told us about Texas. Another hotspot right now is Phoenix, Ariz. Tell us what experts are saying there.

AUBREY: Well, there is a significant increase there, too. And that, again, cannot be explained by increased testing. I spoke to Aaron Carroll about this. He's a physician and a health policy expert at Indiana University. He says an important factor to look at here is the increase in the percentage of tests coming back positive.

AARON CARROLL: If testing was increasing but the percentage of positive tests was staying steady or going down, that would be an argument for, hey, you know, we're just testing more and more healthy people. But the testing percentages in Arizona are through the roof. So the fact that the percent of tests is going up as the number of tests is going up is hugely concerning that more and more people are getting infected.

AUBREY: And all of this, Rachel, is, of course, a reminder to be vigilant about social distancing and masking. These are our best defenses against the virus.

MARTIN: So, Allison, we hear this time and time again - right? - the importance of taking all these precautions and being conscientious.

AUBREY: Yes.

MARTIN: I mean, the hard thing, I think, is that people have a hard time measuring how well it's working.

AUBREY: That's right.

MARTIN: There aren't concrete metrics, right?

AUBREY: That's right. Well, when scientists analyze all the cellphone location data, they see all the increased mobility of states' relaxed restrictions. It is clear that having more people out and about in crowds is linked to more cases. There are lots of models out there. One from scientists at the University of Pennsylvania suggests there could be about 30,000 more deaths over the next couple of months if people slip and reduce compliance with social distancing and masking and hand hygiene. That's one estimate.

I spoke to Aaron Carroll about this. He says - bottom line - crowds bring risk, especially at indoor events, like the rally in Tulsa over the weekend, even if the arena wasn't completely filled.

CARROLL: You had a lot of people bunched up together, screaming and yelling and, for the most part, refusing to wear masks - and so doing very little of the things that I would suggest people should do to be safe. That is what had me very concerned and probably a lot of other experts.

AUBREY: And despite the resistance to masking and the fact that some people see them as a political statement, there is increasing evidence that wearing one really can significantly slow the spread of the virus.

MARTIN: So we still know that the elderly population really is one of the most vulnerable to the virus. It's summertime. You and I have talked about summer before.

AUBREY: (Laughter) Yes.

MARTIN: This is the time when we go reconnect with our family. We go reconnect...

AUBREY: That's right.

MARTIN: ...With grandparents.

AUBREY: That's right. We're all trying to do this.

MARTIN: How do we? How do we do it safely?

AUBREY: Ah, this is something I've been thinking about a lot because I want to do this as well - take my kids to see my parents. You know, there's no such thing as zero risk since the virus is still circulating. But to minimize the risk, you want to slowly expand your bubble to include those you really want to spend time with.

MARTIN: Yeah.

AUBREY: And you got to be choosy. You can't go to a beach house with a whole bunch of families, then pop in for a visit with the grandparents. You've got to be mindful. And Bill Miller - he's a physician and an epidemiologist at The Ohio State University - he says if you're going to stay with the grandparents in their home, you want to go into almost quarantine mindset for the 10 to 14 days, if possible, before you visit, which means, you know, work from home, limit outings, limit play dates - really take precautions.

WILLIAM MILLER: So once you're there, you basically just want to keep your bubble intact. You don't want to be going out and, you know, going to theme parks or museums and that sort of thing, even if the grandparents don't go along, right? That's the thing to remember, is if you're sharing the house, everything that you do is shared with the elderly folks.

AUBREY: Your exposure could become their exposure. And it's also not unreasonable, before you go, to have the family or kids tested. Keep in mind, tests are not 100% accurate, and if there are days between being tested and the actual visit, there's certainly a chance of exposure during that period. So you want to consider this as well.

MARTIN: So many things to balance.

AUBREY: Yes.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey has been helping us make these decisions for the last few weeks...

AUBREY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...And will continue to do so. NPR's Allison Aubrey, again, thanks.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKHEAD'S "UNSTUCK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.