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Vaccination Pace Increases But So Does Rate Of New COVID-19 Cases


After weeks of decline and then a plateau, new cases of the coronavirus are rising again in several states. The pace of vaccinations has accelerated a lot. But many people are still vulnerable to infection. And now one of President Trump's advisors says hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been prevented last year. NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us this morning, as she often is. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So the CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, had warned of an avoidable surge, rather, avoidable surge. And indeed, cases are rising. So what's behind the increase?

AUBREY: You know, there are several factors here, Rachel. More contagious virus - variants of the virus are circulating at a time when many families, middle-aged people who have not yet been vaccinated, are on the go. Airline travel is at its highest since the start of the pandemic. More than 1.5 million people boarded an airplane on Friday. And yesterday on CBS, Dr. Fauci said states are relaxing restrictions prematurely. More than a dozen do not have mask mandates right now. And many have eased restrictions on indoor dining and gatherings.


ANTHONY FAUCI: What we're likely seeing is because of things like spring break and pulling back on the mitigation methods that you've seen. Now, several states have done that. And unfortunately, that's what we're starting to see. We got stuck at around 50,000 new cases per day, went up to 60,000 the other day. And that's really a risk.

AUBREY: So he says with all the spring break travel, there, you know, are lines. There are crowds. There are more gatherings.

MARTIN: Which areas exactly are seeing the biggest increases, Allison?

AUBREY: You know, it's interesting. If you look at the map, Rachel, there's a lot of overlap with the areas hit hard in the first wave of the pandemic a year ago. I mean, look at New Jersey and New York, also parts of Michigan and, also, now, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts - basically, the whole, you know, I-95 corridor here on the East Coast. And the projections for this area for the next several weeks don't look good. I spoke to Dr. David Rubin. He's the director of PolicyLab at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. And he says, you know, the virus is spreading. But a lot of people, including children, of course, and teens and many younger and middle-aged people, have not yet been vaccinated.

DAVID RUBIN: As communities open up, as we're seeing rising infections in children and young adults again, to some degree, we're seeing the anticipated effects of reopening. We're going to have some more transmission. What we're hoping to be out is ahead of vaccination so that the transmission is happening in healthier and lower risk individuals so that we don't see it bounce back in hospitalizations again.

AUBREY: You know, and to his point there, deaths have been declining. But, you know, this is why there is such urgency to vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

MARTIN: Right. So let's talk about vaccine access. Are more states opening up eligibility to more people?

AUBREY: Absolutely. The majority of states say they will open up eligibility to everyone 16 and older by mid-April. So that's well before the May timeline that President Biden had laid out.


AUBREY: And some states have already done this - Alaska, Mississippi, Arizona, Utah, West Virginia. In Ohio, the governor had given the green light to some providers who were having a little trouble filling appointments to open up eligibility. And so going forward, he's opening up eligibility there as well. So what we're seeing is as the vaccine supplies continue to increase, we could see colleges offering it to students, which Dr. Rubin says could help tamp down the spread.

RUBIN: I think we have a real opportunity - particularly with, let's say, the J&J vaccine, which is a one-shot series - that before those college kids come home in May, if we could increase the inventory enough to potentially do campus-wide vaccinations before all those kids return to their communities...

AUBREY: That could be very helpful, he says. Now, I have spoken to administrators at several schools who tell me they will not mandate the vaccine. The exception to that is Rutgers University, which announced a plan to mandate it by next fall. But many campuses say they would like to offer it or at least incentivize students to get it when it's available. Administrators at Duke University, for instance, say they expect to receive enough supply of the J&J vaccine to offer all currently enrolled undergraduate and graduate students in the Durham area the option to get vaccinated in the next couple of weeks.

MARTIN: Wow. I mean, that would be huge for those older teens...


MARTIN: ...And young adult college students. What about younger kids, Allison?

AUBREY: You know, I have spoken to several families who have their children in clinical trials to test the vaccines. Moderna's KidCOVE vaccine study - that's for children ages six month through 11 years old - is now getting underway. Families who sign up will agree to get the two shots. They don't know if they'll get the placebo or the real thing. They'll be asked to use an e-diary to report any symptoms. They'll be given telemedicine visits, phone calls. They'll have to show up for in-person visits. So it is a commitment. But I talked to 12-year-old Connor Schauf (ph). He has been part of a Pfizer trial. He has already received his two shots. He doesn't know yet if he was given the placebo or the real thing. But he says he's happy to be, you know, part of the process to further the science.

CONNOR SCHAUF: I know there are people who don't agree, but most of the people I know definitely agree that it's important that we all get it, even if they might be scared or don't think they need it, just to protect the people around them who might think they do need it. Like, get it so that your friends and family won't have to experience getting COVID.

MARTIN: Wow. Connor sounds like a...

AUBREY: So it's not so much - yeah.

MARTIN: ...Self-possessed young man (laughter).

AUBREY: Doesn't he, doesn't he, right? - not so much for me, but for my family, for the people around me. He gets it, right? His brother, PJ (ph), who is almost 16, says he thinks of being vaccinated as a way to protect the grandparents, his teachers, his coaches. And Dr. Fauci has said the approximate timeline for authorization of the vaccine for younger children is likely kind of early next year, early 2022.

MARTIN: So before you go, I want to ask about the CNN documentary that aired last night. There were several of President Trump's former top coronavirus officials on this program. And they had harsh assessments for even their own handling of the pandemic, including Dr. Deborah Birx, right?

AUBREY: Yeah. That's right. Dr. Birx suggested that many lives could have been saved if the Trump administration had made different decisions and learned from the first wave of infections last spring.


DEBORAH BIRX: There were about 100,000 deaths that came from that original surge. All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.

AUBREY: You know, she says after the first shutdown, there were people within the administration justifying the reopening of the economy. And that kind of overshadowed her concern about fatalities, hospitalizations. She says that while she was the coordinator of the coronavirus task force in the White House, she was not the originator. And there were too many parallel streams of data there. She said we really have to learn to do it better the next time.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYMBYC SYSTM'S "1000 ARMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.