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U.S. Reaches Another Crucial Juncture In The Fight Against COVID-19

NOEL KING, HOST:

Are COVID-19 vaccines helping this country beat back the virus, or are we losing the fight to another wave of cases? Experts are right now actually trying to decide which it is. And NPR health correspondent Rob Stein talked to some of them.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: There's been a lot of debate about whether the nation is experiencing a fourth surge or creeping towards one. There's no question that the virus has been surging again in some parts of the country. Michigan is the most dramatic example of that. But nationally, new infections have kind of plateaued for weeks now. That's because the number of new cases is holding steady or falling in lots of other places at the same time. Here's Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown School of Public Health.

ASHISH JHA: Yeah, we're at this really funny moment where we've had two months of essentially flat number of cases. We've had about 50,000 to 70,000 infections a day. You know, we've never had a two-month period where we haven't either been going up or going down, but we've just been on a plateau. It's really unusual.

STEIN: The country is kind of like a big log that's trapped between two powerful currents in a raging river.

JHA: Two things are happening. They're both really dramatic, and they're pushing in opposite directions, and they're sort of canceling each other out. On one hand, we have the cases that are exploding among young people from B.1.1.7. That's the variant originally found in the U.K. And then we had this incredible vaccination effort that has really shut off infections in older people.

STEIN: Which has basically left the country in a state of limbo, wondering which way things are going to go - towards something like the hellish winter surge or toward the heaven that everyone's been fantasizing about for more than a year now, getting back to something like normal life. Dr. Monica Gandhi is an infectious disease doctor at the University of California, San Francisco.

MONICA GANDHI: We're exactly in a limbo period. I think that's a brilliant way to put it.

STEIN: And people have a hard time dealing with uncertainty. That's a big part of the reason people are so confused about exactly what they should do, what's safe, what's not. And lots of people are so exhausted, they're letting down their guard.

GANDHI: It's a really bizarre time in our country. We're messaging both caution and optimism at the same time. And it makes us seem completely all over the place, right? Like, OK, you can get together with vaccinated people unmasked, undistanced and you can travel if you're vaccinated. Oh, but don't travel if you're vaccinated. I mean, we're giving very mixed public health messaging right now.

STEIN: But public health experts are pleading with people to keep being careful to give the country more time to vaccinate more people. That said, most experts don't think the country will go through another surge anywhere as bad as last winter. Too many people have at least some immunity from being exposed to the virus, and millions more are being vaccinated every day. So infections could start falling nationally soon, just like they did in Israel when that country hit a tipping point with vaccinations. Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington likens the country to a plane circling the airport.

ALI MOKDAD: So that's what we are. We are on a holding pattern. And soon, you know, the pilot will get the clearance to land and then will start coming down and coming down fast. That's how I see it right now. We will see a rapid decline all over the country.

STEIN: Mokdad says that could happen really soon. But others say it could take longer, and it could happen at different times and at different rates in different parts of the country, depending on how many people are vaccinated, how fast the virus is spreading and how many people have some immunity. And the big worry is if a big chunk of the country doesn't get vaccinated, big hot spots could erupt in places with lots of unvaccinated people.

Rob Stein, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "WOES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.