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Accelerated By The Delta Variant, New COVID-19 Cases Are Rising

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Hospitals across the Sun Belt are struggling to find beds for COVID patients, and daily deaths from the virus have doubled in recent weeks. While the surge may have reached a peak in a few southern states, the virus continues to circulate widely throughout the country. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to discuss. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So what are the latest numbers?

AUBREY: Cases hit a new high on Friday - 157,000 infections reported nationwide, and deaths are climbing. A month ago, there were about 300 deaths a day. Now about 750 people on average are dying each day from COVID. That's nowhere near the thousands a day during the winter surge, but it is quite an increase. I spoke to an emergency room doctor in the Orlando, Fla., area, Dr. Andy Little. He works for AdventHealth. He described the scene at his hospital over the weekend.

ANDY LITTLE: You know, our hospitals are full. Our ICUs are full, and emergency departments are overflowing with patients that are boarded, meaning that they should be admitted to the hospital, but because of lack of beds upstairs, they're hanging out in the emergency room.

AUBREY: Which is not ideal because they just can't get the level of care that's given in the ICU.

FADEL: Yeah. And it's so familiar now hearing this about the emergency rooms, and most of the people being hospitalized during this surge are unvaccinated.

AUBREY: Yes, more than 90%, according to the CDC. And Dr. Little says many patients he sees are regretful when he talks to them about it.

LITTLE: Probably a third of the patients will say, is there a way I can get the vaccine now? And then we have the discussion that, you know, that isn't how vaccines work. And they are overwhelmingly upset. They're upset knowing that this was preventable, that if they had just gotten their shot, maybe this wouldn't be as bad, maybe they wouldn't have to stay in the hospital.

AUBREY: He says the treatments have shifted some compared to last year. His ER tries not to intubate people as early, given the risks of mechanical ventilation. And they do have several therapies that can help, including antiviral drugs. Some hospitals are giving more monoclonal antibodies. These are for people who are not too sick yet, though these drugs are not authorized for young children.

FADEL: So these drugs aren't authorized for young children. But the number of cases are continuing to rise in young kids, right?

AUBREY: That's right. More than 120,000 cases were reported in a single week earlier this month in kids. Now, most kids do get mild illness, but it is tough for health care providers who are treating more seriously ill kids now. I spoke to pediatric infectious disease Dr. Charlotte Hobbs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

CHARLOTTE HOBBS: Right now, we are indeed full to capacity, and we've been having serial emergency meetings. And for the children who are admitted to the intensive care unit, the majority of those children are right now on ventilatory support. So we are seeing more and more children who actually were previously healthy coming in with severe disease.

AUBREY: Now, it remains unclear if delta is more virulent or if the surge in hospitalized kids is just a reflection of the fact that more kids are infected and can't yet be vaccinated.

FADEL: So Dr. Hobbs mentioned severe disease. What are they seeing in children with COVID?

AUBREY: Throughout the pandemic, there have been about 4,000 cases of severe inflammatory syndrome in kids. And Dr. Hobbs says she is seeing an uptick in cases now. It is tricky to diagnose because it can come on four to six weeks after a kid is diagnosed with COVID. It can start in a bunch of different ways, with a fever, an upset stomach or a rash. Now, amid the pandemic, at least 38 kids have died from this condition, according to the CDC. Overall, sadly, about 350 children have died of COVID. Deaths remain very, very rare, but they do happen. And one thing that has struck me in the last couple of days talking to doctors who are also parents is their level of concern right now. Here's Dr. Little.

LITTLE: You know, my kids started back at school here in Florida last week. And I will tell you, my biggest fear now is one of my kids contracting it because we are seeing kids getting COVID in this wave are significantly sicker. That includes hospitalizations and just across the board.

AUBREY: That's why pediatricians are strongly backing universal masking in schools. And many say more testing can help keep kids safer, too.

FADEL: Now, health officials have repeatedly said that the goal is to keep kids in school in person. But does the delta variant change that thinking?

AUBREY: You know, that is still the goal. I mean, one way to do this is for schools to do routine testing to try to identify cases early and prevent outbreaks. Last spring, the Biden administration announced $10 billion in funding from the American Rescue Plan to expand testing in schools. And former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb says testing can help limit quarantines given outbreaks seen in just the first few weeks of school. He points to the situation in Hillsborough County, Fla. Here he is Sunday on CBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: There's been 2,700 kids have been diagnosed with COVID. About 6% of the kids in that district are in quarantine. You're seeing that all across the South right now. It's going to be very disruptive to the school year. And then once these districts either do go to a hybrid model or shut down or put a lot of kids into quarantine, it becomes very hard to restart a normal school year. So you want to prevent that from happening while keeping kids safe. I think testing could be used as a very effective tool to do that.

FADEL: Allison, the FDA has now fully approved the Pfizer vaccine. What's the significance of this?

AUBREY: Yeah, the Food and Drug Administration has been reviewing Pfizer's application. This could prompt more businesses and schools to require or mandate the vaccines. And full approval could help ease some hesitancy among people who think that the vaccine was rushed, that it came too soon. There's still a lot of unvaccinated people out there; 27% of adults in the U.S. have yet to get their first shot.

FADEL: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you so much.

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