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COVID-19 cases are rising again in the U.S.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Coronavirus cases are again on the rise in the U.S. Some hospitals in the West and the Upper Midwest are already dealing with a big influx of patients, and some experts worry it's the beginning of a nationwide surge. NPR's Will Stone joins us now with more information. Welcome back, Will.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Good to be here.

CORNISH: So I feel like I had only recently been reading introductions about declining cases this past summer. So how big of an increase are we really seeing now?

STONE: Well, Audie, it's significant. Nationwide, cases are up about 10% over the past week. And this isn't being driven by just one part of the U.S. About half of states are seeing some kind of uptick. The trend of rising cases is definitely the most pronounced in the Northeast and the Upper Midwest. But remember; parts of the West have already been dealing with very strained hospitals and high case rates for a while. And that includes states like Colorado and Utah and parts of the southwest like New Mexico.

CORNISH: What are you hearing from hospitals in those places?

STONE: Many say that COVID is straining them, but it looks different than it did last year. So actually, New Mexico is a good example. Troy Clark heads the New Mexico Hospital Association. I asked him how right now compares to last winter.

TROY CLARK: Is it worse as far as the number of patients and acuity of COVID that we're taking care of? Probably not. Is it the worst it's been for a long, sustained demand on our staff, who is exhausted and tired, who is short-staffed? Absolutely.

STONE: New Mexico actually has high vaccination coverage compared to many nearby states. But Clark says hospitals there have been basically in a crisis since right after the summer. And this is the case even in other parts of the U.S. where lots of people are vaccinated.

CORNISH: To stop you for a minute, so are you saying that the lack of staff is what's making things harder?

STONE: Yeah, that's one big reason. The other is that after this summer, there was a big surge in very sick patients who had delayed care for things other than COVID. Here's Dr. Bruce Siegel. He's president of America's Essential Hospitals. That's a group that represents public hospitals in the U.S.

BRUCE SIEGEL: But while you have this ongoing and in some areas spiking demand from COVID, you also have this increasing demand from people who are just backlogged. And they just can't meet that demand.

STONE: And this is why COVID cases don't even tell the full story of what's happening in the hospitals. Many places were already busy, and adding any COVID can be enough to really just push them over the edge into a real crisis.

CORNISH: So what's known about why this increase might be happening now?

STONE: Well, there are some obvious factors that are definitely contributing. People are moving around a lot more. Mask-wearing is quite low across the U.S. these days in general. We have cooler weather in some places, so people are spending time indoors, plus waning immunity. So it doesn't seem like any of that is going to change, especially as we move further into the winter. But there is some promising news. Ali Mokdad does COVID modeling at the University of Washington.

ALI MOKDAD: So we're going to see less mortality in our surge that we are predicting simply because people are vaccinated. And we're not going to see a lot of deaths because the vaccines are playing a big role.

STONE: So this is the hope as we head into the big holiday travel season - that we have more immunity.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Will Stone. Thank you.

STONE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIS WILL DESTROY YOU'S "THEY MOVE ON TRACKS OF NEVER-ENDING LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.