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Nation & World

U.S. Heads Into Winter Months With Coronavirus Cases Surging

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The vaccine news offers hope for the spring or the summer, but does not change the short-term situation. The United States, still the world leader in coronavirus cases and COVID-19 deaths, heads into the winter with cases soaring. Right now almost 100,000 Americans are hospitalized with COVID-19. That is more than at any time during this pandemic. And leaders of several states say hospitals could soon be overwhelmed. We're going to check in now with NPR's Sally Herships and Nathan Rott. Sally is in New York. Nathan is in California. Hi, guys.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: And I have to - I'm sorry to be checking in with California and New York because, as you know very well, your states suffered early and then beat cases down. What are happening - what's happening now?

ROTT: So in California, it's the worst it's ever been, unfortunately. The seven-day average for new cases was 14,000 a day as of yesterday, which is the highest it's been at any point during the pandemic. The number of hospitalizations are the highest they've ever been. Here in Los Angeles, where I am, the county had more than 7,500 new cases reported just yesterday, which shatters the previous record. So pretty much all the numbers are going in the wrong direction.

HERSHIPS: Well, here in New York, things are not as bad as they were in March. We are getting closer to the bottom of this bad list, closer to where we want to be, closer to Guam and New Hampshire and other regions that are handling the virus well. But things are not so great, either. At the end of June, there were about 900 patients in New York hospitals with COVID, and as of this week, we're at about 3,500.

INSKEEP: Wow.

HERSHIPS: So we're seeing a rise in hospitalizations across the state.

INSKEEP: And I guess that does not yet include whoever may check into hospitals after thinking it was OK to get together for Thanksgiving.

ROTT: Right. That's the real big concern right now. You know, despite the warnings from public health officials, state leaders - you know, in a lot of places, people traveled to be with family. So there's a worry that the numbers we're seeing right now, the hospitalizations, are only going to go up in the next couple of weeks.

INSKEEP: What does that mean for hospitals and other health care providers?

ROTT: Well, that's the big worry here in California. The state's governor, Gavin Newsom, warned at the start of this week that with infection rates being what they are, with the expected rise because of that holiday travel, it's very possible that the state could run out of ICU beds - you know, intensive care units - in just the next couple of weeks. So Newsom says they might have to intervene.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAVIN NEWSOM: If these trends continue, we're going to have to take much more dramatic, arguably drastic, action.

ROTT: So what he's talking about there is a potential statewide stay-at-home order, similar to the kind that the state implemented back in March. So that would mean more temporary business closures, travel restrictions - all the fun stuff that we became intimately accustomed to earlier this year.

HERSHIPS: And that is also the big worry here in New York - hospital capacity. On Monday of this week, Governor Cuomo said we are in a new phase in the war against COVID. So New York has initiated some emergency measures. Hospitals are identifying retired health care workers. Some are already experiencing staffing shortages. One county, Erie County, which has what Cuomo says is the most critical situation in the state, has already stopped elective surgeries.

INSKEEP: Well, given all of that, is New York state going to have to impose more restrictions on people for their own safety?

HERSHIPS: Yes, restrictions have already been getting tighter. Private gatherings were recently capped at 10. Bars and gyms and restaurants now have to close at 10 o'clock at night. The restaurants can still provide takeout. And Governor Cuomo is talking about the need to prep emergency field hospitals across the state. So he's telling hospitals, if you have 100 beds, you're going to need 150. But of course, public schools in New York City are closed, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has just announced that elementary schools will be reopening.

INSKEEP: Is the state still leaving that district to district - each different part of the state can decide what to do with schools on their own?

HERSHIPS: Yeah, Governor Cuomo might disagree with that statement. He would say that this kind of patchwork approach is due to a lack of federal guidance and support. He has called on the federal government to take a firmer hand. And a good example of this kind of patchwork approach is amateur sports around the country. Right next door to New York, New Jersey - which is also seeing a spike in coronavirus cases - has recently tightened restrictions on amateur sports. And so have Michigan, Minnesota and North Dakota, which are experiencing spikes of their own. But then you have a state like Texas, which is also experiencing a huge surge, saying it will not take restrictions.

INSKEEP: So this is all a matter of public health, but also a matter of politics. How are people in your states responding to the talk of new restrictions as cases soar?

ROTT: Well, they're not happy about it in some cases. You know, we're seeing examples of restaurants or businesses, in California and other places, that are just, you know, kind of straight ignoring existing restrictions. The California restaurant business - the California Restaurant Association actually sued the state last week to try and block the suspension of outdoor dining here in Los Angeles County, saying that it would put thousands of businesses and employees out on the street. They lost that, and outdoor dining did stop here on Monday.

But you have to remember that, you know, a lot of businesses are still hurting from previous shutdowns. We talked to a cookie store owner in San Francisco. His name's Paul Perretta. And he said, you know, he understands why Governor Newsom is considering more restrictions.

PAUL PERRETTA: He's doing the best he can do with the information he has. I would hope and request that he take that same concern and care for the everyday citizen and translate it to the everyday business owner.

HERSHIPS: Yeah. In New York, there's mixed reaction not only in the business sector, but also in law enforcement. Leading up to Thanksgiving, the governor made a big push for residents to comply with his 10-person cap on private gatherings he put in place, but the state sheriffs association said it would not enforce the restriction. And there we have that patchwork response again.

INSKEEP: Wow. OK, that's NPR's Sally Herships and Nathan Rott. Thanks to you both.

ROTT: Yeah, thank you.

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