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Pandemic Restrictions Have Eased As Memorial Day Approaches. But It's Not Over Yet

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As the country heads into the Memorial Day weekend, we are hearing something we haven't heard before a big national holiday in a very long time - optimism. The country finally looks like it's on the right track in the battle against the pandemic. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is here to help us start this Friday with some good news. Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's start with the numbers. What do they say?

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, everything is going in the right direction and has been for some time now. You know, the number of people catching the virus every day has been tumbling steadily for more than a month. The seven-day average number of infections has plummeted from nearly 68,000 on April 18 to less than 22,000 today. That's the lowest it's been in almost a year. And the number of people getting so sick they're ending up in the hospital has also dropped; so has the number of people dying. That's plunged below 500 a day. So, you know, pretty dramatic improvement and that's all made health officials, you know, almost giddy with optimism. Here's CDC Director Rochelle Walensky at the latest COVID briefing earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: This coming weekend is Memorial Day. I know that many of you are looking forward to spending time with your family and friends. Thanks to vaccines, tens of millions of Americans are able to get back to something closer to normal.

STEIN: You know, in fact, the country passed a major milestone in the vaccination campaign this week with more than half of all adults now fully vaccinated.

MARTIN: It is so striking, Rob, to think about how different things were a year ago, right?

STEIN: Yeah, it is. You know, it really is quite striking. I'm sure you remember how different things were back then. You know, the country was locked down and in a kind of state of shock about what was happening. Public health officials were issuing dire warnings, pleading with people to avoid holiday gatherings to prevent big surges, only to see the worst fears come true. And that sad pattern repeated with each holiday over the past year - Memorial Day, July Fourth, Labor Day, Christmas - ominous warnings followed by one more terrible surge after another. It only took about a month to go from 400,000 deaths to 500,000. But it's been more than three months now since that terrible milestone. And thankfully, the number of people dying every day has slowed from the thousands to the hundreds. And today, the CDC is telling vaccinated people they can, you know, take off their masks and enjoy getting together with family and friends at picnics and barbecues for the holiday weekend.

MARTIN: Which is such good news, such a welcome respite from the past year. Does that optimism extend through the summer?

STEIN: Well, you know, the thinking is that nationally the numbers should keep going in the right direction, at least through the summer, you know. But of course, this is all dependent on people, you know, not letting down their guard too fast and the vaccination campaign not flagging. I talked about this with Justin Lessler at Johns Hopkins University.

JUSTIN LESSLER: I think they continue to get better so long as the vaccination - you know, we continue to have more and more people getting vaccinated, things will continue to get better.

STEIN: You know, now there could be surges in places where not enough people have rolled up their sleeves. And there definitely could yet be another surge in the fall and winter as the weather gets colder again and people head back indoors, especially if not if people have gotten vaccinated. And of course, the big worry is the variants. So far, that really contagious variant first spotted in India hasn't taken off in this country yet, but the numbers look like they may be starting to rise. So things are looking good, but we're not out of the woods yet by any means.

MARTIN: I mean, it's worth just underscoring that, right? I mean, the variants, the pandemic is still raging in other parts of the world. And that poses a risk, doesn't it?

STEIN: Yeah. Yeah. COVID is still causing great suffering in many parts of the world and a lot of the countries that are struggling to get vaccines out there, you know, that means the virus is continuing to spread and will continue to mutate and an even more dangerous variant could evolve somewhere in the world. If that happens, things could spiral out of control again, you know, especially in places where the vaccination rates have been really low.

MARTIN: OK, so enjoy optimism, but stay vigilant. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thank you.

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