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Summer's COVID-19 Surge Is On Track To Get Worse — Maybe Even As Bad As Last Winter

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The latest COVID-19 surge is on a trajectory to steadily worsen throughout the summer and into the fall, potentially taking yet another terrible toll on the nation. That is according to a new projection from a leading group of researchers advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is here with more. And, Rob, ugh.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Yeah.

KELLY: This is not the headline I want to be reading.

STEIN: I know.

KELLY: What else is this research saying?

STEIN: Yeah, I know. Well, you know, it comes from something called the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub. It's a consortium organized with the CDC to help the agency track the pandemic. And the latest analysis concludes the highly contagious delta variant will cause a number of people catching the virus, getting so sick they end up in a hospital and dying from COVID-19 to keep surging again now throughout the summer and into the fall. In fact, the most likely scenario is the number of people getting infected every day would about double from where it is today, hitting about 60,000 new cases per day by the time the surge peaks. And the number of people dying every day would more than triple, hitting at least 850 a day. Here's Justin Lessler. He's an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina who's helping run the modeling hub.

JUSTIN LESSLER: Things may be even worse than our most pessimistic scenarios, and we might be seeing synergistic effects of people becoming less cautious in addition to the impacts of the delta variant.

STEIN: You know, in fact, there's even the plausible possibility that the surge could peak much higher, with about 240,000 people getting infected and more than 4,000 people dying every day, which would be almost as bad as last winter, you know, especially in places where a lot of people just haven't gotten vaccinated yet.

KELLY: This is so sobering and so not where we were all hoping we were pointed for...

STEIN: I know.

KELLY: ...The coming months. Tell us more about this research and just where we may be headed.

STEIN: Yeah. You know, it's important to point out that there's a lot of variation in the different models used in this, and there will probably be a lot of variation around the country, with some places getting hit way harder than others, you know, based on things like how many people are vaccinated and how people respond. But overall, this projection estimates that nationally, the surge would peak sometime around mid-October and then start to slowly recede for the rest of the year. Here's Justin Lessler again.

LESSLER: What the models are projecting is that by the time you get to October, these resurgent epidemics have burned through a lot of the people who are susceptible. And herd immunity starts kicking in a little more aggressively, and we start seeing things go down again.

STEIN: Now, this all assumes that nothing big changes. You know, the pace of the vaccination campaign just keeps creeping along at the anemic rate it's been stuck at for a while now. No new mask mandates or other new restrictions are slammed back into place, and no even more dangerous variant emerges.

KELLY: We'll stay on that. The White House held another briefing today. All the top health officials lined up. What are they saying about whether restrictions may be slammed back, to use your word?

STEIN: Yeah. So CDC Director Rochelle Walensky is holding firm on the CDC's new mask guidelines and saying people who are vaccinated generally don't need to wear masks. But she did emphasize that the guidelines have always said that unvaccinated people certainly should be masking up indoors. And even vaccinated people could mask up indoors, too, if they want extra protection, especially in places where the virus is surging and there are a lot of unvaccinated people. But her main message was the same - get vaccinated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We are yet at another pivotal moment in this pandemic, with cases rising again and some hospitals reaching their capacity in some areas. We need to come together as one nation unified in our resolve to protect the health of ourselves, our children, our community, our country and our future with the tools we have available.

KELLY: That is the CDC director. And we've been speaking with health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

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