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New COVID strain is highly contagious but symptoms mild for the vaccinated

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Biden continues to isolate himself in the White House as doctors monitor his recovery from COVID-19. The president is probably the most prominent person to get swept up in the rising tide of people who have caught the virus. We're joined now by NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

Rob, thanks so much for being with us.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: How's the president doing?

STEIN: The White House says the president had a temperature of 99.4 Thursday night but responded well to some Tylenol. He still has a runny nose, is tired, and a bit of a cough, but his voice sounds better and he appears to be improving since he started taking the antiviral drug Paxlovid. Here's Dr. Ashish Jha, the COVID response coordinator at yesterday's White House briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASHISH JHA: The big-picture point here is the president's doing better today than he was yesterday. And yesterday he had mild symptoms. Today he's feeling even a little bit better. He's doing well.

STEIN: But the president will continue to remain isolated while working in the White House. And given his age, doctors are keeping a close eye on him just to make sure he continues to improve.

SIMON: And, of course, as we noted, the president's infection comes as the nation is going through yet another surge. How big is this wave?

STEIN: You know, so far, it doesn't look nearly as bad as like last winter, but the virus is spreading like crazy again. Johns Hopkins University says more than 134,000 people are catching the virus every day. And everyone knows the real number of infections is far higher because a lot of cases just aren't being reported. And the number of people getting so sick they're ending up in the hospital and even dying is on the rise again, too. Nearly 500 people are dying every day now. And the main reason is the latest omicron subvariant known as BA.5, which spreads incredibly easily. Luckily, BA.5 doesn't appear to make people sicker than the previous strains, but because it's infecting so many people, more people are inevitably going to get seriously ill and even die.

SIMON: But at the same time, I don't believe we've heard any calls to reimpose mask mandates or take other steps to try to keep the virus from spreading. How do you read that?

STEIN: Yeah, that's right. You know, even though a big chunk of the country now meets the CDC's criteria for imposing new mandates, health officials around the country acknowledge that there's just no appetite for that sort of thing at this point in the pandemic. And because so many people have either been vaccinated or infected at this point, most people are just getting something that feels more like a cold or maybe the flu. I talked about this with William Hanage. He's a Harvard epidemiologist.

WILLIAM HANAGE: It's like thunder heard at a picnic. It's frightening but not directly threatening. In the same way, the virus is now somewhat in the background, and people are living their lives. However, the virus has not gone away, and, you know, it's still going to be able to make some people very, very sick indeed. And it's going to keep killing.

STEIN: In fact, a new projection estimates that more than 230,000 more people could die from COVID in the next year, even if another more dangerous variant doesn't emerge. So experts are urging people to protect themselves, especially by getting more people vaccinated and boosted.

SIMON: And what's the latest with boosters?

STEIN: Yeah. There's a big debate going on right now about whether to expand eligibility for a second booster, a fourth shot. Everyone age 50 and older has been eligible since the spring, but younger adults haven't been able to bolster their waning immunity. So many infectious disease experts are urging the FDA to authorize fourth shots for all adults. That would be the same shot that, you know, we've been using all along. At the same time, a new generation of boosters is coming this fall, designed specifically to target omicron. And so boosting more people now could, you know, kind of mess that up, in part because people have to wait weeks, maybe even months between boosters to make sure they work. So the FDA is struggling with all that, and a decision could come sometime maybe, like, next week.

SIMON: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thanks so much.

STEIN: Sure thing, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.