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U.S. COVID infection rates have been dropping, but that could change


The U.S. seems to be on the downward slope of the delta surge of the late summer. So what does that mean? Is it time to celebrate, take a tentative sigh of relief? NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin takes stock.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: If you look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's graph of the country's daily COVID-19 case counts, at the peak of the delta surge, there were about 150,000 new cases every day. That was back in early September. Now there are less than half as many cases every day, around 70,000. As CDC Director Rochelle Walensky noted on Friday in a press briefing, that's not the only metric that's headed down.


ROCHELLE WALENSKY: The seven-day average of hospital admissions was about 6,000 per day, also a decrease of about 10% from the previous week. And seven-day average daily deaths were about 1,250 per day, a decrease of about 4% from the previous week.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: But there's still a lot of spread around the country, warns Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at NYU and Bellevue Hospital.

CELINE GOUNDER: I think we have to be very careful. Yes, things are trending in the right direction, but we're far from being on the other side of this.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: When the trend lines look good, people sometimes let their guards down with masking and hand-washing, and that can backfire and lead to more spread, she says, especially with colder weather pushing people indoors and the winter holidays bringing people from different parts of the country together.

GOUNDER: And I think that is going to set off maybe not a huge surge, but certainly a wave of cases.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: How exactly that plays out is going to depend on a lot of variables, including whether the FDA authorizes COVID-19 vaccines for kids as young as five and whether worker vaccination mandates expected from federal agencies any day now will get more people to roll up their sleeves. Because despite the early start, only 57% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. That's behind Chile, Cambodia, Brazil and dozens of other countries.

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.