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CDC Says Coronavirus Variants Could Reverse Recent Progress In Declining Numbers

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There is a new signal this week that progress in fighting the pandemic might be stalling. That warning comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a press briefing today. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is here with details. Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: We've been hearing good news for weeks that the number of people getting infected and hospitalized has been falling. Deaths finally started dropping. Everyone has been talking about how the country may have finally turned a corner. So tell us what's new today.

STEIN: Yes, that's right. You know, after a horrific winter surge and losing more than 500,000 lives in the United States, things finally looked like they turned around. All the numbers are tumbling, but everyone's been holding their breath to see what happens next. And now the first hints that everything isn't necessarily going to continue to get better have emerged. Here's what CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a briefing today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: The latest data suggests that these declines may be stalling, potentially leveling off at still a very high number. We at CDC consider this a very concerning shift in the trajectory.

STEIN: In fact, over the last three days, the number of people catching the virus looks like it may actually have started to go in the opposite direction, starting to tick back up again. Even the number of people dying every day appears to have crept higher.

SHAPIRO: And do scientists know why that might be happening?

STEIN: Well, you know, some public health experts are hoping it's just a blip, that maybe - you know, maybe it's just a lag in reporting caused by last week's terrible winter storms. But Walensky and others worry that it might be what everyone's been afraid might happen. The coronavirus variants, especially the really contagious variant from the U.K. - Walensky says it's increased from about 1 to 4% of cases to now about 10% of cases nationally and may even be more common in some places like Florida and California. Here's more from Dr. Walensky.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALENSKY: CDC has been sounding the alarm about the continued spread of variants in the United States. We may now be seeing the beginning effects of these variants in the most recent data.

SHAPIRO: And this is happening as millions of people are getting vaccinated and the U.S. is, we hope, inching its way towards herd immunity.

STEIN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Are you saying we might see a surge before that happens?

STEIN: Yeah, well, that's the worry - you know, that the country could be seeing the first hints of yet another new surge. But even if the pandemic just plateaus, that's still really bad news. You know, more than 70,000 people are still getting infected every day. More than 52,000 are still hospitalized. More than 3,000 are still dying every day. So lots of people would continue to get seriously ill and die.

SHAPIRO: So what is the CDC proposing to avert that scenario?

STEIN: Yeah. So Dr. Walensky is urging everyone not to let down their guard. You know, she knows everyone is really fed up, but she's really worried that some places are starting to loosen restrictions way too soon - open up restaurants, lift mask mandates. That's the worst thing that could happen. Here; let's listen to Dr. Walensky one more time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALENSKY: Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions. We may be done with the virus, but clearly, the virus is not done with us.

STEIN: So Dr. Walensky is just telling everybody to keep wearing those masks, stay away from other people, don't relax restrictions, give the country enough time to get more people vaccinated. You know, the end could be in sight because of the vaccines, but the virus could take off before enough people get vaccinated. Or new, even more dangerous variants could evolve if the virus continues to spread so quickly.

SHAPIRO: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thank you.

STEIN: You bet, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.