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Another COVID surge strikes but vaccines are protecting people from the worst

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The U.S. is in the midst of yet another surge of coronavirus infections, raising concern that the number of people dying from COVID-19 will start rising again. Here's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: The massive winter omicron surge receded as quickly as it hit, and the hope was the pandemic would continue fading, finally letting people live with fewer worries. But once again, the virus isn't cooperating. Eric Toner at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security says the number of people catching the virus has been rising steadily again for more than a month, and infections now appear to be accelerating.

ERIC TONER: We're seeing a new surge of cases in many parts of the U.S., particularly in the Northeast and upper Midwest. And we're beginning to see surges in the West and scattered places around the country. So I think we're into a new wave in the U.S.

STEIN: And the surge is probably already far bigger than the official numbers are saying. This time around, it's a kind of stealth surge. Because so many people are testing themselves at home or not testing at all, many cases simply aren't being counted. The good news is, so far, most people aren't getting that sick.

TONER: We see a lot of people who have what amounts to a mild cold. We see a fair number of people who have what seems like a pretty nasty case of the flu. But the number of people who are so sick that they require hospitalization is relatively very small compared to previous outbreaks of COVID.

STEIN: That said, so many people are catching the virus that the number of people ending up in the hospital is shooting up again too, which means the number of people dying will probably start inching up. This new surge is being driven by a confluence of trends - an even more contagious strain of omicron, immunity from vaccinations fading and so many people acting like the pandemic's over.

TONER: We have a more transmissible virus. We've given up on those measures that we know reduce transmission. So it's not a surprise that we are seeing increased cases. We are doing nothing at this point to stop it.

STEIN: In fact, the CDC says more than a third of Americans live in counties now considered at moderate or high risk. So federal officials are asking people to protect themselves. Here's CDC director Rochelle Walensky.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We would ask people to engage in all of the activities that they want to engage in but to do so wisely, do so when you're up to date with your vaccines, when you've tested before you gather and, if you have a high risk of infection in your area, to put on that mask before you gather.

STEIN: Now, many experts think this surge is unlikely to get nearly as bad as last winter's because there's still enough immunity left from infections and vaccinations. But they're keeping a close eye on the situation and are really worried about next winter, when people will be even more vulnerable because their immunity will have faded even more. So the federal government is planning another big vaccine campaign in the fall and trying to come up with new vaccines that give people stronger, hopefully longer-lasting protection. Rob Stein, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC LAU'S "STAR TREKKING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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