A MARTINEZ, HOST:
The delta variant surge of the coronavirus continues to rage across the U.S., with tens of thousands of people getting infected, thousands being hospitalized and hundreds dying every day. So far, more than 666,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19. That's one in every 500.
Joining us now to talk about the latest is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, situation sounds and seems pretty grim, so let's just take a moment to check in on where things stand in the pandemic in this country.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: You know, the numbers are still really staggering. About 150,000 people are still catching the virus every day. More than 96,000 are so sick they're in the hospital. And more than 1,800 people are still dying every day from COVID-19. That's still not nearly as bad as things got during the darkest days of last winter, but it's still really awful. No one thought the pandemic would still be taking this kind of toll, especially so many months after we thought the vaccines would be like the cavalry riding to the rescue.
I talked about this with Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown School of Public Health.
ASHISH JHA: The infection numbers across the country are really stunningly bad - I mean, 150-, 160,000 Americans getting infected every single day. It's really stunning that this is where we are as a country.
STEIN: And just tragic since the incredibly effective vaccines made so much of this preventable, even in the face of the delta variant.
MARTINEZ: Well, so OK. So where is this headed then? I mean, are things just going to go from bad to worse yet again?
STEIN: Yeah. So the - yeah, that's what everybody's wondering, right? You know, every parent is holding their breath, hoping their kids are going to stay in school. Every worker's wondering about their jobs. Well, there is a glimmer of hope. It looks like the surge may have hit a peak and could finally be starting to subside, at least for now. The rate of new infections may have plateaued. That's because the spread of the virus started slowing in many of the hardest-hit states in the South that have been driving this surge.
I talked about this with Dr. David Rubin at the University of Pennsylvania.
DAVID RUBIN: We're likely to see some significant declines nationally. The South is really starting to improve now. We're certainly seeing throughout Florida, South Carolina, southern Texas in particular - but even throughout the upper South, we're starting to see conditions improve. And they're of a sufficient magnitude and speed that we should see that reflected in the national numbers over the next couple weeks.
STEIN: But Rubin and others quickly cautioned that this may not last long. As the surge eases in the South, it could ramp up in the North, like last year. So Rubin's keeping a close eye on places like the upper Midwest and the Northeast, especially as the days get shorter and the temperatures get colder and people retreat back indoors.
MARTINEZ: Yeah. At least there was some good news there...
MARTINEZ: ...For a little bit. So how bad could it get, though?
STEIN: Well, you know, the relatively high rates of vaccination in those places - you know, in the northern states - could be enough to keep it from getting really bad, like last winter. But just how bad depends on what people do, you know? Do enough people finally get vaccinated? Do they wear their masks enough? Do they stay away from crowds?
MARTINEZ: Meantime, though, we're still hearing horror stories about hospitals being overwhelmed. I mean, could the worst be over for hospitals now as well?
STEIN: Unfortunately, probably not - you know, remember, there's a lag between infections and hospitalizations. So while hospitalizations for COVID may be slowing down, in the best-case scenario, it'll probably be weeks before the drop in people catching the virus translates into a significant drop in the onslaught of people flooding into hospitals and intensive care units around the country.
MARTINEZ: While we got you, Rob, really quick on boosters - FDA advisers are making a big decision about boosters tomorrow. What can you tell us?
STEIN: Right. Yeah. So, you know, Pfizer wants the FDA to approve a booster for everyone 16 and older. But this is really controversial. There's a lot of interest in boosters because of the delta variant and evidence that the first two shots may be fading. But lots of questions are swirling around the Biden administration's plan to start giving boosters in less than a week.
Are boosters really widely needed if the vaccines are still really good at keeping people out of the hospital and keeping them alive? Is it right to give Americans third shots when most of the rest of the world is still desperate for their first? So, you know, the date - debate about this on - tomorrow is going to be quite intense.
MARTINEZ: That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks.
STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.