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A Look At The State Of The Pandemic

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is Monday of a week bound for the history books. Basically, we are tracking two huge and hugely intertwined stories - what many believe is the most consequential U.S. presidential election in living memory and the fact that it is taking place amid a pandemic that has now taken more than 230,000 American lives.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And let's stay with the pandemic first because cases are surging not only in the U.S. but also in much of the rest of the world. In Europe, some governments are imposing new lockdowns to try to beat back the virus. And here with me to talk about the state of the pandemic are NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman and NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

Hey to both of you.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Hi.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: Rob, let's start with you. I mean, we know that things in the U.S. are bad, but can you just give us a sense of how bad at this point?

STEIN: Well, you know, in many ways, unfortunately, the pandemic has never been worse in this country. More than 9 million cases have now been reported. And 90,000 new infections are being reported every day on some days, more every day than ever before. The virus is spreading out of control and breaking records in states from coast to coast. And it looks like we could top 100,000 new infections in a single day later this week. I talked about this today with Michael Osterholm at the University of Minnesota. He thinks things are about to get even worse.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: We're now entering the darkest days of the pandemic. I just can't think of a more perfect way for this virus to transmit effectively through our communities. We've set up right now, virtually, a perfect storm.

CHANG: A perfect storm. What does he mean by that, you think?

STEIN: Well, Ailsa, you know, many people are just kind of exhausted and fed up from the last eight months. You know, many are distrustful and outright angry at public health officials and their political leaders. We're heading into the winter months, when people spend - tend to spend more time inside, where the virus spreads the most. And lots of people are planning to travel and get together for the holidays. You know, Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming up. Put it all together, and it doesn't bode well.

CHANG: No, it does not. OK, so let's turn to outside the U.S., Nurith. What does that look like? I mean, which countries right now are struggling with mounting cases?

AIZENMAN: So when you look at just sheer numbers of new cases, of new deaths, some countries that have been struggling for a while are still in bad shape - India, Brazil, also Argentina. But what's particularly notable right now is the recent surge of transmission across Europe. Taken together, the countries of the European Union have the world's highest number of daily new cases and daily new deaths. For deaths, it's about 1,600 more than double the U.S., which ranks second globally on that measure. And new cases are particularly high in France, which is reporting around 53,000 per day, second only to the U.S. Also up there are Italy, the U.K. and Spain. And France especially also comes off really badly when you measure cases as a share of its population. Same with a lot of the smaller European countries.

CHANG: But how did things get so bad in Europe? I mean, because back in the spring, Europe seemed to be doing a much better job than the U.S. was at getting a handle on the virus.

AIZENMAN: Absolutely. Yeah. But I've spoken with researchers who say, unfortunately, that success that Europe had in the spring and early summer seems to have bred complacency. Ashish Jha is dean of Brown University's School of Public Health. And he says by early to mid-August, when cases first started to rise again in Europe...

ASHISH JHA: For six to eight weeks, you had just a denial, the sense that people had that they were done with the virus. People were vacationing. People were essentially going back to normal. And the policy response was, it'll be fine. It'll go away.

AIZENMAN: You know, there's just so much pandemic fatigue. And in some countries like Italy, even now, there's still a lot of public resistance to returning to mitigation measures. Of course, France and the U.K. have now imposed another round of lockdowns. Germany also has new measures.

CHANG: Well, OK, let's turn back to the U.S., Rob. I mean, infections are going up. And what we are hearing is that those infections are mostly among young people. And it would be a mistake - right? - to assume that young people don't get as sick.

STEIN: Yeah, that's right. Young people definitely can get seriously ill and sometimes end up with, you know, long-term complications and even die. And, in fact, the CDC recently reported that the biggest increase in excess deaths during the pandemic in the U.S. has been among people ages 25 to 44. And, you know, younger people - they can spread the virus to older people. And right now in the U.S., almost 50,000 people are hospitalized with COVID. And some hospitals, because of that, are being pushed to the limit. Wisconsin has set up a field hospital on the state fairgrounds to handle the overflow of patients. Hospitals in El Paso, Texas, have even started buying mobile morgues. And Utah is talking about having to start to pick and choose which patients have the best chance to survive.

CHANG: I mean, it is worth pointing out that we are 11 months into this global pandemic. It is still going. But on the bright side, I suppose, doctors do seem to be getting a lot better at treating COVID-19 and reducing deaths from this disease, right? Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

STEIN: I mean, doctors know a lot more now than they did when this all started. And, you know, they know to put really sick people on their stomachs to help them breathe. And they can use steroids to help save lives. But still, the mortality numbers are sobering. More than 230,000 Americans have already died, as you said, and more than a thousand are dying some days in any day in this country. So some are predicting tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands could still die in the coming months.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein and NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman.

Thanks to both of you.

AIZENMAN: Glad to do it.

STEIN: You bet, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.