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Rising Coronavirus Numbers In Some States Spark Fear Of Third Wave


Just 2 1/2 weeks ago, our correspondent Rob Stein brought us hopeful news. A range of public health experts agreed that the worst of the pandemic was over. That still seems to be true, but coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are now rising in more states, adding to the risk of another surge. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is back once again. Hey there, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Steve.

INSKEEP: Could we really blow this right at the end?

STEIN: Well, you know, that's what people are worried about. You know, there are definitely some very ominous signs out there. Nearly 60,000 people are still testing positive and hundreds are still dying every day, so it's a really precarious situation. And we're seeing what looks like a growing number of what could be new hot spots around the country. Michigan is by far the worst. Infections are just, you know, soaring there. But they look like they're going up in lots of other places now, too, especially across the Midwest and all along the Eastern Seaboard from Washington, D.C., up through New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts.

INSKEEP: And I guess we're also talking about more hospitalizations. And that's the serious part because that's the really sick collection of people and the possibility of a health care collapse or overload.

STEIN: Yeah, you know, and this is the first time since - that hospitalizations look like they could be increasing since the big winter peak. Some numbers indicate hospitalizations are rising in more than a dozen states - again, mostly in the Midwest and Northeast. Now, it looks like those who are being hospitalized are mostly younger people, and they're less likely to get really sick and die. So the hope is that it won't necessarily lead to an increase in deaths, but it's still a worry. Here's Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington.

ALI MOKDAD: The fact that we are seeing a rise of cases in many states, that's a big concern. I mean, it shouldn't happen at this time.

STEIN: It shouldn't be happening because the weather is getting warmer, which makes it harder for the virus to spread. So many people have some protection from the virus because they were already exposed, and so many people are getting vaccinated every day now.

INSKEEP: Well, given all that, why is it happening?

STEIN: You know, Steve, one big reason is people are understandably just exhausted and just aren't being as careful. Lots of states have relaxed the restrictions, letting more people eat inside restaurants, get together in bars. They're dropping their mask mandates. And that's sending a powerful signal that everything is kind of, you know, getting back to normal. You know, we've seen all those people partying on spring break. And the reality is that, yes, things are starting to get back to normal a bit, but it's definitely really premature to act as if the pandemic's over. And the second reason is probably those more contagious variants. They're a lot easier to catch. And the one that's spreading the most right now looks like it makes people sicker, too.

INSKEEP: OK, Rob, let's think about those public health experts who told you a couple weeks ago, two or three weeks ago, that the worst is over. Could we get to the point where we say, actually, no, the worst isn't over after all?

STEIN: Well, you know, that's the fear. But, you know, the hope is that even if there is another surge, it won't necessarily be nearly as bad as the one we just went through. But, you know, one projection says New York City could be heading towards another surge nearly as bad as this winter. And the worry, you know, is that other places could follow. Jennifer Nuzzo at Johns Hopkins says the country needs to work hard to prevent anything like that from happening.

JENNIFER NUZZO: We've suffered so much. We've lost so many people. And it would be a shame if people, you know, got infected now when protection is so close at hand.

STEIN: So, you know, people just need to be patient a little longer, hang in there, keep wearing those masks, avoid those crowds, so more people can get vaccinated. But, you know, with all those spring breakers heading home now and Easter dinner is coming up, the fear is things could spiral out of control before enough people get their shots.

INSKEEP: Rob, thanks for the update.

STEIN: You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVOCATIV'S "ECHO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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