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U.S. COVID-19 Cases Surge, Pence Aides Test Positive For Virus

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's hard to measure a second wave of the coronavirus when we never really got out of the first one. But however you define it, coronavirus in the U.S. is surging. Some parts of the country are passing more restrictions to try to combat the record number of cases. This as we have yet another coronavirus outbreak in the White House.

NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us now. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So when we say the White House, we mean in the orbit of Vice President Mike Pence. Several aides...

AUBREY: That's right.

MARTIN: ...To the vice president have tested positive for COVID-19, including his chief of staff. Nevertheless, the vice president decided to keep traveling, to keep campaigning. What's the reaction been to that?

AUBREY: You know, the decision to keep his travel schedule intact was made in consultation with the White House Medical Unit, a spokesperson said yesterday. And Pence's office says this is in accordance with CDC guidance for essential personnel. They're basically making the case he has essential work to do, including on the campaign trail. But public health experts, Rachel, are really questioning this definition. Here's Josh Sharfstein of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He served in the FDA under President Obama.

JOSH SHARFSTEIN: The vice president should be limiting interactions with others because he could be harboring the virus, and he could wind up becoming infectious. And so if there are essential activities that he needs to do in person, he should take extra precautions to do those. But otherwise, I think he should be staying at home.

AUBREY: Especially given that around the country, including places Pence is scheduled to travel, such as Minnesota, the virus is circulating widely.

MARTIN: Right. So let's talk about that, Allison. What do the numbers tell us about the virus right now?

AUBREY: The U.S. has been averaging about 68,000 new cases per day. This is about a 30% increase compared to just two weeks ago. In recent days, new cases have reached record levels in several states - Utah, Tennessee, Illinois. In Chicago over the weekend, stronger restrictions took effect. So bars and restaurants must close earlier in the evening. This is part of a curfew in the city. Other parts of Illinois have stricter rules, too, including new limits on the number of people allowed to gather. And, Rachel, there's certainly a lot of reminders around the nation to stay vigilant.

MARTIN: Right. Hospitalizations from COVID have been on the rise, too. I mean, does that mean we're likely to see more fatalities in coming weeks?

AUBREY: You know, probably. There are still a lot of people dying - about 775 people per day in the U.S. on average. That's a lot lower than the highs of last spring. Part of this can be explained by the increase in cases among younger people, who are less likely to die. But, Rachel, there's also been an improvement in treating people in hospitals. Physician Aneesh Mehta is an infectious disease expert at Emory University. He's also a principal investigator for the NIH remdesivir trial at Emory. Last week, the FDA gave this antiviral drug full approval.

ANEESH MEHTA: Remdesivir reduced recovery time to 10 days compared to 15 days. And also, importantly, remdesivir-treated patients had less use of mechanical ventilators and other advanced oxygen support techniques.

AUBREY: Compared to patients who didn't get remdesivir. Now, it's important to point out, Rachel, this is not a home run treatment. It hasn't been shown to significantly prevent deaths among very sick patients. But it does have some benefits.

MARTIN: And, Allison, doctors now have other treatments they can offer as well as remdesivir, right?

AUBREY: That's right. Doctors have more tools in the toolkit now. They have, you know, steroids such as dexamethasone, better information about when to put people on blood thinners. Overall, the death rate appears to have dropped. In fact, a new study that included an analysis of thousands of hospitalized patients found that at the start of the pandemic, patients had about a 25% chance of dying. Now they have an 8% chance - so still high, but definitely improvement.

MARTIN: Yeah, definitely. So younger people - you know, you mentioned that more younger people have been diagnosed with the virus. So as we start to think about Thanksgiving, is there any way to ensure that college students don't bring the virus home as they leave for break?

AUBREY: You know, if you have a college student coming home to you, find out if they're being tested. Many schools are offering or even requiring an exit test or a departure test just before students depart for Thanksgiving break. I spoke to David Paltiel - he's a professor at the Yale School of Public Health - about this. He says, of course, it's easy to identify symptomatic people, but this isn't good enough.

DAVID PALTIEL: I'm worrying about the student who feels just fine, but who happens to have been exposed recently and who could be heading home to visit an elderly relative. And so we don't want to be sending little ticking time bombs home for Thanksgiving. I completely agree that we need to have everybody tested within 72 hours of departure.

AUBREY: Now, not every school can manage this, given the cost. But many campuses are offering departure tests, including big schools like Ohio State and many small liberal arts schools, too.

MARTIN: I mean, it's not just families that have college-aged kids either, right? I mean, my own family - we're trying to figure out what we do...

AUBREY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...If anything, with Thanksgiving.

AUBREY: (Laughter) We're all trying to figure this out, right?

MARTIN: Everyone's trying to figure it out. So what can you tell us at this point, Allison?

AUBREY: Well, I think the easy thing to say is the holidays are going to feel different this year, right?

MARTIN: Yeah.

AUBREY: Infectious disease experts say the safest thing to do is to stay home with your immediate household. But this can be tough after months of...

MARTIN: Yeah.

AUBREY: ...Isolation. People want to see family. If you do plan to visit relatives or welcome people into your home, you can't reduce the risk to zero, but you can minimize it. I spoke to Judy Guzman-Cottrill about this. She's an infectious disease expert at Oregon Health & Science University.

JUDY GUZMAN-COTTRILL: One strategy is self-quarantining at home, ideally for the 14 days leading up to the gathering.

AUBREY: Because that's the incubation period, Rachel. So if you're exposed to the virus, that's the period of time you would become sick and infectious. So being super conscientious in the two weeks before the holiday, if you're going to get together with others, is really important.

MARTIN: And I guess you have to just be extra careful when thinking about the risk of inviting grandparents - right? - or anyone who's older.

AUBREY: Yeah. You know, you've really got to weigh the risks. I mean, people who are 70 and healthy are less vulnerable than people of the same age who have chronic conditions that might put them at higher risk. But no matter, age alone is a risk factor. Judy Guzman-Cottrill says she hasn't been able to see her parents since the pandemic began.

GUZMAN-COTTRILL: They're elderly. They're far away. They live in a state where cases are rising.

AUBREY: So even though it's really disappointing, she says it's in their best interest that her family skip the visit there this year. And they're planning to stay home and have Thanksgiving with one other family who's already in their social bubble. We're considering doing the same thing.

MARTIN: Right. We can still make turkey. We can still make the food. Maybe get the FaceTime rolling for the friends and family. NPR's Allison Aubrey.

AUBREY: That's right.

MARTIN: Thank you so much, Allison.

AUBREY: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.