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COVID-19 Roundup: Case Tally, School Outbreaks, Flu Shot, Vaccine Wait

NOEL KING, HOST:

We learned some important lessons from Memorial Day and July 4th this year. After those holidays, there was a surge in COVID cases both times. So as we go into Labor Day, public health experts are watching carefully. The news on the virus right now is mixed. The number of new cases is going down in the U.S., but there are new hot spots in the Midwest.

NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us. She has the latest. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So this is our regular Monday check-in. Where do we stand on this Monday in the U.S.?

AUBREY: Well, after weeks of about a thousand deaths a day, that number has declined to about 850 deaths a day. That's still a lot of people dying, Noel. But it's an improvement. And the number of new cases is about 40,000 per day, a significant decline compared to the 60,000 cases back in July. But of course, it's Labor Day weekend. So if people have been out and about in crowds - as we saw Memorial Day, this could really set us back. And there are already hotspots throughout the Midwest and the South. And infectious disease experts I talked to say this coming fall - people spending more time indoors, people back to work or school - there will likely be a bump in cases, given how widely the virus has been circulating and the change in seasons.

KING: And we have already seen this happen in some schools and on some college campuses as students come back. Have any of them found it possible to contain outbreaks or to prevent them?

AUBREY: Well, you know, there's a range of strategies being used in group settings - in schools and daycares. CDC Director Robert Redfield has pointed to evidence from Rhode Island where hundreds of day care facilities opened this summer. There were some students and teachers who got infected. But by identifying them and isolating them, they were able to limit community spread there. So he says that's a success.

Of course, to do this effectively, you got to identify people quickly, right? That's why some college campuses have mandated entry testing. I spoke to Eric Lander. He's the director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, which has kind of overseen a testing program for about a hundred college campuses in New England. Some of these schools are testing students and faculty two times a week. And so far, this seems to be paying off.

ERIC LANDER: Testing has identified, already, 450 infected people. Because we know that, they're not out there spreading to other people on the campus. That's the case for testing right now. That information is immediately actionable. By knowing, we can cut off the spread.

AUBREY: So when students test positive, they can be isolated. Now, of course, to prevent outbreaks, you need more than testing, right? Everybody's got to do the social distancing and masking and sometimes more stringent measures. At University of Illinois, where there was a very rigorous testing program, the school announced a temporary lockdown for undergraduates. The goal here is to quickly turn it around before it gets out of control.

KING: Something I've been curious about - we obviously don't have a COVID-19 vaccine yet, but there seems to be a big push for people to get the flu vaccine. I keep getting emails from my doctor, my pharmacy. What's going on there?

AUBREY: Yes (laughter). Doctors are concerned because people have put off routine visits during the pandemic. So for instance, child immunizations were way down this spring, according to an analysis by Komodo Health. They bounced back some. But the message from doctors and pediatricians is this - come in, and get your vaccine, especially the flu vaccine. If you ended up getting flu and COVID, which is possible, you could get really sick. I spoke to Michael Ison. He's an infectious disease doctor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

MICHAEL ISON: If you get sick with what you think may be the flu, you can't differentiate that based on symptoms from COVID-19. And so that'll mean those people are going to be seeing their doctor, asking for tests, needing health care.

AUBREY: And this could really overburden the health care system. That's why we're all being asked to keep up the social distancing, the masking, the hand-washing - because the same strategies that help prevent COVID also help prevent the flu.

KING: Now, in the meantime, we have a presidential election in two months. What's the latest advice or guidance on how to vote safely?

AUBREY: If you can vote by mail, that is a good option. But bottom line - polls will need to be open on Election Day for all the people who will vote in person. There's a lot of thought being given to big venues to maximize social distancing. For instance, in Baltimore, Camden Yards, the baseball stadium, has been considered as a possible voting site. I spoke to Myrna Perez. She's the director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. That's at the NYU School of Law. She says another challenge here - more poll workers are needed this November.

MYRNA PEREZ: Many of our country's poll workers have traditionally been people that are over 65, which are at greater risk of COVID complications. For that reason, we have people who either don't want to sign up to be a poll worker again or shouldn't be signing up to be a poll worker again. And as such, we need to expand who is serving as a poll worker, which means we're going to need a lot of people volunteering.

AUBREY: Hopefully younger people at lower risk of serious illness - so given that the virus is still circulating and we don't yet have a vaccine, that could be a good thing to do.

KING: Yeah, yeah. Sure. Last week, Allison, the CDC told states to be ready to distribute a vaccine by November. Now, there's some concern over this. Right? People are worried that there's political pressure to get a vaccine done because the election is coming up. The Trump administration would like to win that election. Let's leave the politics aside and talk about the science. Are we likely to get a vaccine this year?

AUBREY: You know, if there is any kind of approval or emergency use authorization this year, it would likely start with a very narrow group of people, likely health care workers or people in nursing homes. Now, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb spoke about the timing yesterday on CBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS BROADCAST)

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: I think the likelihood that we're going to have a vaccine for widespread use in 2020 is extremely low. I think we need to think of that as largely a 2021 event. And if we do have a vaccine available in 2020, it's likely to be used in a much more targeted fashion, almost in a therapeutic sense to protect very high-risk populations.

AUBREY: The current FDA administrator, Stephen Hahn, has said it is possible the agency may review a vaccine maker's application and make some kind of determination based on the evidence so far before trials are complete. But again, it will likely be many, many months before all of us can be vaccinated.

KING: A 2021 event, as Scott Gottlieb says.

Allison Aubrey, thanks so much for your reporting. We appreciate it.

AUBREY: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.