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A Note from the General Manager about Excursions

U.S. Near 500,000 Deaths From The Coronavirus Pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you know someone who died of COVID, the latest death total is more than a number. Sometime today, we reach 500,000. And that number of dead is where NPR's Allison Aubrey begins our regular update on the pandemic. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I'm recalling our conversations almost a year ago when people talked about - maybe 60,000 people would die. Maybe 120,000 people would die. We're almost 10 times past that 60,000.

AUBREY: Yeah. You know, the loss of life is stunning. I mean, for the first time in decades, life expectancy in the U.S. has declined by a full year, Steve, due to the death toll from COVID. On average now, Americans can expect to live 77.8 years, down from 78.8 years. And the decline is even steeper for Black Americans and for Latinos. Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke about this death toll on "Meet The Press" yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

ANTHONY FAUCI: It's just - it's terrible. It is historic. We haven't seen anything even close to this for well over a hundred years, since the 1918 pandemic. Almost unbelievable. But it's true. This is a devastating pandemic.

AUBREY: And it's not behind us. I mean, new cases and deaths are declining, but the virus and new variants continue to circulate. So that's why there is a rush to get as many people as possible vaccinated.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking about that reference to the 1918 pandemic. I looked it up. It was 675,000 dead. We could get there, even with all the advantages of science that we have, in this pandemic, one of which is the vaccination, though. How's that going?

AUBREY: You know, nearly 44 million people have received at least one dose of the vaccine, but last week was really tough due to the extreme weather. Shipments of both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were delayed. Some 6 million doses were held up. So lots of people nationwide had their appointments canceled and are now scrambling to reschedule. I spoke to the mayor of Santa Ana, Calif., Vicente Sarmiento. He said their vaccination site, which had just opened for the first time last week, had to then close to shut down after running out of doses due to these shipment delays.

VICENTE SARMIENTO: Not only does it cause confusion, but we've been the most hard-hit. And we have the largest number of Latino, disadvantaged, underserved communities. So it has been difficult. But, you know, we're optimistic that that is a temporary short interruption.

AUBREY: He says the vaccination site should be back up and running in the next few days. This is pending the arrival of more doses. Andy Slavitt, COVID adviser at the White House, said, we will be able to catch up this week. Many sites will have to extend their hours.

INSKEEP: Will the government be able to increase the number of doses beyond just catching up?

AUBREY: Yeah, I mean, beyond getting through this backlog of doses from the delayed, whether the Biden administration has told states to prepare for more volume this week. I spoke to Claire Hannan of the Association of Immunization Managers. She says there will be a boost in doses sent to both pharmacies and to the states.

CLAIRE HANNAN: The states are getting about 11 million doses, which is up from about 9 1/2 million a few weeks ago. And we are continuing to make progress. But we're still in a state where supply is nowhere near demand.

AUBREY: And, you know, this is not going to change overnight, Steve. So we will continue to hear stories of people who are eligible but have not been able to get vaccinated yet.

INSKEEP: What about holding off on the second dose so that people can get a first dose?

AUBREY: You know, for people who have not had coronavirus, have not been infected, Dr. Anthony Fauci has repeatedly said there's just not enough data to depart from the recommended two doses. That's how the vaccines were tested. The clinical trials showed two doses are effective.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAUCI: We don't know what the durability of a single dose is. And it really is risky.

AUBREY: So he did again dismiss this idea of delaying second doses. But he said for people who have been infected, who have already had COVID, one dose might be enough. He said it may be something to consider after a careful look at the data.

INSKEEP: Could the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that may be coming ease the supply problem here?

AUBREY: You know, advisers to the FDA are scheduled to meet this Friday. And there could be a decision very quickly, Steve, by this weekend. And while this vaccine is not quite as effective overall as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, it is designed to be a one-dose vaccine and it appears to be very effective at preventing what is most important - hospitalizations and deaths. We're likely to see more data this week. Jeffrey Zients, the COVID-19 response coordinator at the White House, said there's not a big inventory of available doses now to start out, perhaps just a few million doses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFFREY ZIENTS: The Johnson & Johnson contract commits Johnson & Johnson to deliver 100 million doses by the end of June. That is more back-end-loaded. We're working with the company to do everything we can, assuming they are approved by the FDA, to bring forward as many of those doses as possible into the earlier months.

AUBREY: So a big boost to long-term supply, but they will not be available overnight.

INSKEEP: Is it going to be possible to get past this crisis without vaccinating kids, who are not approved for the vaccines yet?

AUBREY: You know, eventually, kids probably will be vaccinated. I mean, children are about a fifth of the population. There are studies underway to test safety and efficacy. A Moderna spokesperson told me that the company has seen an increase in enrollment in the trials, though it's likely going to be early 2022. So next year before a vaccine is authorized for kids 12 and younger. It's available now 16 and up, the Pfizer vaccine.

INSKEEP: Right.

AUBREY: You know, in the meantime, though we don't have herd immunity yet, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on CBS yesterday, if you look at the places in New York and New Jersey where 45% or so of the population had already been infected going into this winter, they did not see as much of this winter surge.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS BROADCAST)

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: So once you get to about 40% of the population with some form of protective immunity, you don't have herd immunity, meaning that this won't transfer at all. It will continue to transfer, but it'll transfer to a much slower rate. And that's what we have right now around the country.

AUBREY: You know, the number of new daily cases has fallen more than 40% over the last two weeks, Steve. And hospitalizations have dropped, too, about 30% over the last two weeks. We're down to 56,000 people hospitalized. And Gottlieb also pointed to some other promising news yesterday, new data from Israel. It shows that the Pfizer vaccine prevents infections and curbs transmission, which really is key to ending this pandemic, Steve.

INSKEEP: Wow, 40% drop in new cases in just two weeks - that's great. Allison, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYMBYC SYSTYM'S "1000 ARMS" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.