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Latest Data On COVID-19 Infections Show Cases Are Dropping

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

New cases of coronavirus have fallen by 20% over the last two weeks. And there's optimism that this downward trend could continue if people continue to take precautions. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are now eligible for a Pfizer booster dose aimed at shoring up immunity. Also, what do you need to know about combining a flu shot and a COVID booster in the same visit?

NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now with all those details. Allison, there were more than 2,000 deaths from COVID reported on Friday in the U.S., yet many experts say we're on the downslope of this surge. What's the latest numbers show?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Well, the U.S. is down to about 114,000 new infections a day. And this decline has been pretty sustained over the last few weeks. If the trend continues, deaths could begin to drop, too, presumably. Hospitals in the hard-hit Sunbelt states are seeing a continued dip in admissions, so that's good. Nationwide, new hospital admissions have dropped 16% over the last week.

And Dr. Marc Boom, who is CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital, says there is a sense that the worst could be behind them.

MARC BOOM: We're in the right direction. And we still need the community to do the right things. We still vociferously recommend people go get their first and second doses. And while I applaud all these booster decisions, the most important thing is that the people who haven't gotten vaccinated go get vaccinated.

AUBREY: His hospital has already begun giving boosters, too. Millions of people who received the Pfizer vaccine are now eligible if it's been at least six months since their second dose.

MARTINEZ: All right. So the COVID vaccine booster strategy that was pretty uncertain a week ago now has clear recommendations. So who is eligible?

AUBREY: Well, the way the booster strategy and the recommendations are written, there are sort of two categories - people who should get a vaccine and people who may opt for one - in the should category, the CDC says, anyone 65 and up and people 50 and older with underlying health conditions who may be at higher risk of serious illness. Also eligible - so people who may opt to get one - are younger adults with underlying medical conditions. And the decision should be based on an individual assessment, according to CDC, perhaps in consultation with a medical provider. Now, right now a booster is not recommended for younger, healthier adults because so far it looks as if we are still well protected against serious illness and hospitalization. And that seems to be the main goal of the vaccination campaign - not to prevent every infection, but to limit the serious ones. Now, this recommendation could change as time goes on.

MARTINEZ: What about health care workers? How do they fit in?

AUBREY: You know, the calculation is really different in the health care space. And this was reflected in the CDC's decision. The goal really is to try to prevent all infections, if possible, because that is key to keeping health care workers on the job.

Here's, Dr. Boom again.

BOOM: Even an asymptomatic infection or a mildly symptomatic infection takes that health care worker out of the workforce for about a two-week period. And we have significant staffing shortages across the United States. And so we need to have zero infections in that workforce so that their ability to care for patients is intact.

AUBREY: Now, Boom says he's already gotten his booster. And similar to what some initial CDC data shows, the side effects are really pretty similar to what people experience after the second dose.

MARTINEZ: All right. What about other groups of people who may not work in health care but are also more likely to be exposed to the virus based on where they work or live?

AUBREY: You know, this was an area of some controversy. And the CDC advisers were not convinced that there was enough evidence to recommend a booster for all of those at risk due to workplace exposure.

But CDC director Rochelle Walensky broke with that guidance. She explained her decision on CBS' "Face The Nation" yesterday, saying that the decision should be based on individual risk assessment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION WITH MARGARET BRENNAN")

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: I felt it was appropriate for those people to also be eligible for boosters. That includes people in homeless shelters, people in group homes, people in prisons, but also, importantly, our people who work with vulnerable communities - so our health care workers, our teachers, our grocery workers, our public transportation employees.

AUBREY: You know, the evidence shows protection has begun to wane. An analysis of hospital cases found that the Pfizer vaccine had fallen to about 77% effective against hospitalizations. That was down from 91% in the early months after vaccination. Now, these people tended to be older people who ended up in the hospital. But it is data like this that led to the support for boosters.

MARTINEZ: All right, now, to be clear, we're just talking about a Pfizer booster that's been authorized. So what about people who've gotten the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or the Moderna vaccine? Are they going to have to wait?

AUBREY: For now that's right. I mean, the regulators say they understand the confusion that this could cause, to have just one booster authorized. Right now there's not a lot of data on mixing and matching the vaccine, so people may need to wait. Now, Moderna has already submitted data to the FDA on its booster. Johnson & Johnson is also pursuing a booster.

And Dr. Anthony Fauci said last week that people who got these vaccines are not forgotten.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: We are definitely paying strong attention to both the J&J people and those who've received a Moderna. And the actual data that will get that third shot for the Moderna and second shot for the J&J is literally a couple to a few weeks away.

AUBREY: The FDA will also, of course, be looking at the data on boosters for children under the age of 12 in the next several weeks.

MARTINEZ: All right. Also, time of the year where we usually get our flu shots - I got mine last week. Is that recommendation at risk of being maybe lost or overlooked with all the focus on COVID and the boosters?

AUBREY: Well, you know, this is definitely the season for flu shots...

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

AUBREY: ..So good on you for getting yours. I spoke to Dr. Lisa Grohskopf. She's a medical officer with the CDC. She says, though there wasn't much flu at all last year since so many people were at home or taking precautions with masking and distancing, we need to be prepared for the flu to come back.

LISA GROHSKOPF: This season, we're starting to see already a bit of a recurrence of some of the other respiratory viruses that typically start to circulate in the fall and winter.

AUBREY: So she says it won't be surprising to see flu, too. She says to make it convenient, it is possible to get a flu shot at the same time you get a COVID vaccine or booster. Shots can be given at the same visit.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thanks a lot.

AUBREY: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "DERN KALA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.