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COVID-19 Spreads As People Pass It Along To Someone They Live With

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Coronavirus infections are at an all-time high. The United States documented nearly 100,000 new cases in one day over the weekend. And this comes as we learn more about how the virus can spread within a household. Let's talk about this and all the information we need in this pandemic with NPR's Allison Aubrey, who joins us most Mondays. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: OK, let's first dig into the numbers, as we often do. What are we seeing in the United States right now? And what does it tell us about where we might be headed here?

AUBREY: Sure. New cases have been averaging about 80,000 per day. That's about a 40% increase compared to mid-October. And with this has come an increase in deaths. Over the last several days, nearly a thousand people in the U.S. have died from COVID per day on average.

And perhaps the best measure of where we're headed - hospitalizations. Some hospitals are filling up. For instance, hospital beds in metropolitan areas - including Atlanta, Minneapolis, Baltimore - were at 80% capacity or above as of last week and continue - cases continue to rise in these areas, David.

GREENE: I mean, we're already hearing about some European countries go into more lockdowns. Are we going to see new restrictions here in the United States?

AUBREY: Yeah, we're already seeing some. In parts of New Jersey, Illinois, there are new restrictions on businesses. Last week, a judge in El Paso County, Texas, issued a type of shutdown order for nonessential businesses. In Maine, bars were set to reopen this week, but that is now not happening, and Governor Janet Mills announced other measures, including lowering the limits on indoor gatherings.

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said yesterday, we are probably going to need more aggressive actions to control the spread around the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: Things are getting worse around the country. I think Thanksgiving is really going to be an inflection point. I think December's probably going to be our toughest month. But when you look at what's happening in states right now, you're seeing accelerating spread. We're right at the beginning of what looks like exponential growth in a lot of states. So this is very worrisome as we head into the winter.

AUBREY: You know, there's probably not the kind of support for a nationwide lockdown here that people in England are preparing for. There, it means everything from pubs and restaurants to gyms. Places of worship and nonessential businesses are set to close.

GREENE: Well, can we talk about how this is spreading? I mean, we've talked about so-called superspreader events. But the CDC released a new report that talks about just how easily the virus can spread within a household, right?

AUBREY: Yeah, yeah. The study found that after a first person is diagnosed in a home, at least one more person is quickly infected in well over half the cases.

Important to note here, David - even with children who are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms, a study found that when kids 12 and younger tested positive for the virus, they ended up spreading the virus to someone they lived with about 53% of the time. That's why people who have COVID or suspect they have COVID are urged to stay in a separate bedroom, use a separate bathroom if possible and to wear masks, especially in shared spaces.

And remember - the incubation period of the virus is up to two weeks. My son, who was exposed to the virus at college, tested positive on his 14th day of quarantine.

GREENE: The last day - wow.

AUBREY: The last day. Now, thankfully, he is asymptomatic. But the point is, you cannot shortchange this isolation period.

GREENE: That's amazing. He's doing OK?

AUBREY: He's doing all right, yeah. Thanks for asking.

GREENE: OK, good. I mean, most people recover from this virus. But doctors seem to be learning more about these so-called long-haulers, these people who talk about experiencing symptoms, problems for a long period of time. What are we learning about that?

AUBREY: You know, there's not great data on how many people have long-term symptoms. But even if it's 1%, David, that's still thousands of people.

I spoke to Emily Brigham. She's a pulmonologist at Johns Hopkins, where one of the first post-COVID clinics has been set up and is now in operation. A range of doctors of different specialties, including cardiologists, neurologists, are treating patients who are experiencing a wide variety of ongoing or long-term symptoms.

EMILY BRIGHAM: Some of the commonalities are we often see persistent shortness of breath. We see many individuals with ongoing palpitations; fatigue is a common symptom; cognitive complaints, like difficulties with memory, remembering things or just thinking in general; and certainly changes in mood.

AUBREY: And she points out that this is something many of us have experienced - the change in mood, that is - during the pandemic, given all of the disruption to our lives.

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, I know you've also been looking into sleep as...

AUBREY: Yes.

GREENE: ...An interesting side of this. I mean, disruptions for sleep not just with people who test positive for COVID but for all of us in a pandemic.

AUBREY: That's right. A couple of studies out that point to a rise in insomnia and also some interesting research into pandemic dreams, suggesting that many of us are having very vivid dreams and nightmares.

I spoke to Kirsi-Marja Zitting. She's a sleep researcher at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She's keeping track of how many people search Google for insomnia, and she has documented a whopping increase, David. The typical time people are online searching for insomnia is the middle of the night, with a peak at 3 a.m.

KIRSI-MARJA ZITTING: And unfortunately, the number of people searching for insomnia has gone up even higher. So we think that that means that those people are pretty desperate and just searching, trying to find out what they can do to sleep better.

AUBREY: You know, a lack of sleep can have so many bad health effects. So this is a serious issue, David. And there are lots of ways to address it and steps you can take to prevent it.

GREENE: I guess one nice thing was the extra hour of sleep we got with the time change in most of the country.

AUBREY: Yeah, that's right.

GREENE: I mean, that couldn't have come at a better time. But, I mean, what other strategies are there to help?

AUBREY: You know, with darker days ahead, it's helpful to get sunlight in the morning when you wake up. I spoke to sleep expert Marishka Brown at the National Institutes of Health about this. She says go outside when you wake up if you can or just open the curtains first thing in the morning.

MARISHKA BROWN: When we talk about getting bright light in the morning, it's getting that cue, that sunlight, that - you know, telling your internal circadian rhythms, your internal clock, that it's time to move; it's time to get up.

AUBREY: You know, she says she is not surprised at all that so many people are experiencing insomnia because insomnia is tied to stress. And with all the disruptions and job losses, not to mention the election, a lot of people are stressed. She says early in the pandemic, even she experienced it. So she worked on having a more routine schedule. She stopped getting online and looking at social media so much. And she made other changes.

BROWN: I started getting my morning light and getting more exercise in, and it has helped me tremendously.

AUBREY: You know, there's just so much we cannot control, but we can work on these personal habits to try to be as healthy as possible.

GREENE: NPR's Allison Aubrey helping us understand this pandemic and this moment. Allison, thanks as always.

AUBREY: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF YPPAH'S "SOME HAVE SAID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.