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The U.S. is averaging 120,000 COVID-19 infections daily in seasonal surge

DON GONYEA, HOST:

In some parts of the U.S., it feels like winter has arrived, and so has omicron. The new coronavirus variant has now been detected in about 60 countries and in more than half of U.S. states. But the most immediate problem facing America in this pandemic is the delta variant. And to explain that, we have NPR's Will Stone. Will, thanks for being with us.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

GONYEA: It's another seasonal surge that's upon us. How bad are things as you take stock this weekend?

STONE: Well, it's getting harder to find bright spots when you look around the country. Cases are rising in more than half of states. The U.S. is averaging around 120,000 new infections every day. That's about a 40% jump from just last week. And there are more people in the hospital with COVID-19 than there have been in months. And, of course, the holidays are upon us. People are traveling. They're spending more time indoors, so there's every reason to believe cases will keep going up.

GONYEA: Is that what's behind this big jump in cases, though, the holidays?

STONE: Yeah, it's definitely part of the equation. Remember, there were already a lot of cases going into Thanksgiving, and that only seems to have accelerated. Increasingly, these patients who got infected have been showing up in hospitals. This is how Dr. Amy Ray at The MetroHealth System in Cleveland, Ohio, described the situation to me.

AMY RAY: The increase has been fast and furious. Very concerningly, we're just now starting to see patients who were infected around the time of Thanksgiving actually require hospitalization at this point in their infections. So unfortunately, we're still on the uptrend.

STONE: So Ray's hospital is expanding the ICU, and they're making room to accommodate the influx of COVID patients.

GONYEA: Will, it's an old story that hospitals have been badly stretched throughout the pandemic. How are they managing at this point?

STONE: Well, some states like Maine and Michigan are calling in the military to help. Many hospitals have had to, again, cancel surgeries and figure out how to do more with less. I am literally hearing from places that I spoke to a year ago during that surge. One of them is the Marshfield Health Clinic System. That's in Wisconsin. I asked Tammy Simon, who helps lead their COVID-19 response, how now compares to last winter.

TAMMY SIMON: I would say it's worse. And it's worse because we had more federal support and just overall outside resources that were able to help us. And then our own internal staff - we had more people taking care of these patients. And that's where, you know, they've left the workforce in health care altogether.

STONE: And Wisconsin, like much of the Midwest, is now an epicenter of the U.S. outbreak.

GONYEA: OK, that's the Midwest. How about elsewhere in the country?

STONE: Yeah, the Northeast is also in trouble - lots of cases there. And that's actually an area where many states have some of the highest vaccination rates in the U.S. I spoke to Jennifer Nuzzo, who's an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, about what could be going on there.

JENNNIFER NUZZO: There is no part of the country that I feel completely relaxed about in terms of their vaccination coverage. Really, everywhere, there exists dangerous gaps in immunity.

STONE: What Nuzzo means is that even if a state overall looks pretty good, there are neighborhoods or counties where vaccine levels are low. And that can be enough to fuel a surge.

GONYEA: And again, we need to stress that this is fueled largely by the delta variant and not the omicron.

STONE: Yeah, but that could change. And a lot of scientists I've talked to are worried about this. Early data show omicron is spreading anywhere from two to four times as fast as delta in the United Kingdom, and it could account for half of all cases there by sometime next week. That is just an astonishing increase. And the U.S. needs to pay attention because, as we've seen throughout the pandemic, what happens in Europe often foreshadows what's going to happen in the U.S.

GONYEA: All right. That's NPR's Will Stone. Thank you, Will.

STONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.