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COVID-19 cases are on the rise, yet again

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Cases of COVID-19 are on the rise again. The U.S. has seen an average of more than 100,000 reported new infections across the country every day. That's about double what it was a month ago. And the real number of cases is likely much higher 'cause so many people are doing at-home tests, and those positives don't get included in official counts. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin joins us.

Selena, thanks so much for being with us.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: Public health experts have an estimate as to how big the surge might actually be?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, it's pretty tricky to figure out how many cases - of the official cases, how many are really out there, right? It's always going to be a subset of what the true number of infections are. And Jeffrey Shaman, who's an infectious disease specialist at Columbia University, has been trying to figure this out throughout the whole pandemic. So way back when tests were really hard to find, at the very beginning, he estimates that they were only capturing maybe 1 in 10 cases. But then testing got better, and official counts got closer to the real number. During the omicron surge in January, his lab estimated official numbers captured 1 out of every 5.5 cases. And now...

JEFFREY SHAMAN: Well, I think it's still in that ballpark. I think the question is whether or not - instead of 1 in 5.5, is it 1 in 8?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: One in 8 - so that would mean the country would have 800,000 cases a day instead of 100,000. Although he cautions, this isn't a precise calculation. So you got to take it with a big grain of salt.

SIMON: Whatever size of a grain of salt, it sounds bad. How worrisome are these big numbers?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So a lot of the epidemiologists I've talked to are not too worried. I mean, they point out that the country has a lot of immunity right now because there were so many infections during the omicron surge. And those infections mean people might not be as likely to get reinfected, or they might not get as sick if they do. So the number of people in the hospital for COVID is definitely going up, but it is nowhere near where it was over the past winter. And a lot of the people I've talked to said they don't expect policymakers to make big moves right now. They might be waiting to hold off until things get worse later this year, in the coming fall and winter months.

SIMON: The idea that official counts aren't reliable and infections are trending up sounds unsettling. It is unsettling. What can people do to understand what's happening locally so they can make decisions about what they ought to do?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So all of the experts I've talked with say that you should just start with vaccination. So if you are not up to date on your vaccine, go ahead and get that done. Zinzi Bailey is an epidemiologist at the University of Miami.

ZINZI BAILEY: If people have been waiting, trying to wait things out to see if they wanted to get this booster, this is the time.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: This is the low-hanging fruit. She says a third of seniors haven't gotten that first booster shot, and around half of people who are eligible haven't either. And it makes a huge difference in how protected from serious illness and death you are if you get infected. So beyond that, pay attention to official numbers - so not just numbers from local health departments, but also, you know, if your kid's school keeps a tally of how many infections there are, or your workplace. When you see those numbers start to spike, it can give you a sense that something's up. And you can make decisions like deciding to go to fewer indoor public places or, if you do, masking up with a high-quality mask.

SIMON: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thanks so much.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KMD SONG, "STOP SMOKIN' THAT SHIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.