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Epidemiologist Weighs In On The Current State Of The COVID-19 Pandemic

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is Labor Day weekend, and Americans are on the move. The Transportation Security Administration recorded almost 4 million travelers on Thursday and Friday of this past week, near pre-pandemic levels. Unfortunately, this also comes at a dangerous time, as a surge in COVID cases - fueled by a variant that we've come to know as delta - has led to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths across the country, even as the country's vaccination rate continues to rise. And, of course, kids across the country are returning to in-person schooling.

So we'd like to start the program today by understanding exactly where we are as this health crisis continues to run its course. For this, we've called Bill Hanage once again. He is an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Professor Hanage, thank you so much for joining us once again.

BILL HANAGE: Thanks for having me on the show.

MARTIN: So we are in our second year of fighting this pandemic. How does this year compare with last year?

HANAGE: I think the most important thing to remember at this stage, comparing it with last year, is that we have vaccines. So even though you're seeing a lot of news reports and a lot of justified concern about the numbers of cases, the number of hospitalizations and the numbers of deaths, we are in a far better situation than we might have been.

MARTIN: But - before we talk about why we are in a better place, I would like to ask just - region by region, though, are there any particular regional trends that would help us better understand where we are or what needs to be done?

HANAGE: The reason why things are bad in some places at the moment is a combination of delta, which is a nasty virus, and relatively low rates of vaccination in some communities. And you can just see the consequences of this by looking at the numbers of deaths which are going on in Florida. I don't mean to pick on Florida, by the way. There are also all sorts of other stories like this going on across the South. Florida's peak led to around 245, 250 deaths in a single day recently. And Florida's population is about 20 million. In contrast, the United Kingdom, which had a very, very large peak and its population is about three times that of Florida, had a peak of about 100 deaths a day. And the reason for the difference is that the United Kingdom has done a much better job of vaccinating the at-risk groups, the older population. And as a result of that, the transmission of the virus doesn't have the same consequences.

MARTIN: It's Labor Day weekend, which means a lot of people will be traveling. The CDC says that unvaccinated people should avoid traveling. But as we've mentioned, travel doesn't seem to have slowed down. In fact, the TSA says that this is almost back to pre-pandemic levels this particular weekend. Are we missing something in how we're communicating risk? Or do you think people are just sort of fed up with staying at home and they're going to do what they're going to do?

HANAGE: That's a great question. I mean, I think that one thing that we need to bear in mind is that we've got travel back to relatively normal levels, and yet in well-vaccinated communities, we're not seeing large spikes like we're seeing elsewhere. So that's a good message. I think it is going to be important to continue reminding folks that if you give the virus an opportunity to transmit, chances are it's going to take it. And the more contacts that we make, the more opportunities there are. And that's something which vaccination dents, but it doesn't completely remove.

MARTIN: It's back-to-school time. A lot of kids are already back in in-person school. And they will be returning in the coming week if they have not already. We know that kids can get sick. We know that they can transmit the virus. But kids under 12, at this point, cannot get vaccinated. Some schools have already had outbreaks. For example, by one report, about a fifth of Kentucky school districts have had to temporarily close since classes began last month because of coronavirus infections. So, you know, it's a big topic. But what can you tell us about the best way to protect kids as they head back to school and the people who are working with them?

HANAGE: Well, the most important thing to remember in this is that if we're in a community which is very highly vaccinated, then additional transmission among children or, indeed, other unvaccinated networks will not have the same impact that it would in a relatively unvaccinated community. The second thing I want to say is that it is possible to really limit transmission in school with a bunch of mitigation strategies, which include stuff like ventilation and masks and a number of other things. Whether or not that's going to work to the same degree with delta is an open question. However, it remains the case that if transmission does occur within schools, and I think we can do a lot to minimize it, maybe - even if it cannot be eliminated entirely, the consequences of that transmission, in terms of disease in more vulnerable groups, can be limited by making sure that they are vaccinated.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, professor Hanage, I find myself wanting to ask, you know, how do you feel about the coming year, which I know is a strange question to ask a scholar who works with data? But I do want to ask, how do you feel about the year that we're about to face?

HANAGE: You're right. I tend to try and talk about data and facts rather than feelings. But to be perfectly honest, I feel relieved that we are here with the tools at our disposal in the form of vaccines, because I am acutely aware of how much worse it could be. Having said that, I think it's important to remember that pandemics don't have a finish line where there's like a - you know, you get a ticker tape parade, and there's a firework display, and everybody goes, woo, pandemic's over, everything is normal. Instead, there's a gradual slowing of the acute health concerns. And I want people to remember that we do still have work to do. We are in a really, really good place, thanks to the vaccines. Unfortunately, there's not a perfect one. I wish it were. But, you know, I live in the real world. We don't do perfection. We can only do much better than the alternative.

MARTIN: That was Bill Hanage. He is an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Professor Hanage, thank you so much for joining us once again.

HANAGE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.