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As new COVID cases drop, can we be optimistic about the pandemic's end?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

New cases of the coronavirus are falling significantly as the omicron search loses steam. But hospitalizations are still near pandemic highs, and deaths have been rising. Can we afford to be optimistic in this second year of the pandemic? Let's ask NPR's Allison Aubrey. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: OK. So infections are coming down rapidly in some states. What can we expect in the coming weeks?

AUBREY: New infections have fallen more than 30% since mid-January, Leila. But in areas that are just now peaking or passing their peak, it's a pretty intense scene out there still. Nearly 18,000 people with COVID are still being admitted to hospitals every day. I spoke to the head of Houston Methodist hospital, Dr. Marc Boom, about the situation there.

MARC BOOM: We've seen a pretty sharp decline in infections in Houston. You know, the best metric is our wastewater. Unfortunately, we still see many people coming to our hospitals and getting very ill and dying. And they're really in two groups. They're either unvaccinated individuals, or they're particularly elderly or very, very immunocompromised.

AUBREY: Now, it is completely expected that deaths and hospitalizations would lag behind the peak in infections. But the number of deaths - about 2,300 people are dying each day right now across the country - is quite high. And that number has been rising.

FADEL: So the timing of the rise in deaths is not a surprise, but the fact that deaths have risen this much is a surprise?

AUBREY: Yes. Compared to January of last year, when most people were not vaccinated, the death toll now is lower. Last January, deaths peaked at 3,400 a day or so. But the fact deaths have risen pretty high during the surge was probably avoidable, Dr. Boom argues.

BOOM: Our booster rate in the United States is, frankly, appalling and embarrassing. I mean, when we look at ourselves versus the U.K. and ask ourselves, why are so many more Americans, percentagewise, dying of COVID than people in the U.K., yet we all kind of are acting similarly? It comes down to a couple of things. But by far, the biggest thing is that they have vaccinated much more effectively the vulnerable population.

AUBREY: Immunity can wane, so boosters seem to make a big difference here, Leila. In fact, a new study has found that three shots of a COVID vaccine boosted protection against death from an omicron infection to about 95%. This was in people 50 and older in the U.K.

FADEL: So the focus still on the push to get more people vaccinated and boosted?

AUBREY: Absolutely. At this point, the consensus is that we will be coexisting with COVID for a long time. Variants will come. Variants will go. Some may be consequential, others not. The latest variant, BA.2, the relative of omicron, which has been circulating in Denmark and other countries, has been identified here in the U.S. And yesterday on CBS, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said it's possible the variant could extend the tail of this wave of infections. Infections will continue to go down, likely. But he said vaccinated and boosted people should be protected.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: There's data out of the U.K. that suggests that a fully boosted person may be more protected against this new variant than they were against the original strain of omicron. And then the final question is, is it more virulent? Is it more dangerous? And so far, based on what we've seen out of Denmark and the U.K., which are collecting very good data on this, it doesn't appear to be a more virulent strain.

AUBREY: An analysis by the U.K. Health Security Agency found the vaccines appear to be about as effective against this new strain as they are against the original omicron strain.

FADEL: So will people who've gotten infected during this wave from the omicron variant have protection against this newer variant?

AUBREY: If you've had an omicron infection, you should have protection for a while. That's why Dr. Gottlieb says he does not think the BA.2 variant will create a, you know, huge wave of infection in the U.S. But one point that all of the infectious disease experts I talked to keep making to me is that even as this wave recedes and we head, hopefully, towards a lull where life may start to feel normal-ish again, we must be prepared for what could come next. Here's Dr. Lance Becker. He's chair of emergency medicine at Northwell Health. That's a large health care provider in New York.

LANCE BECKER: It makes me think of fighting forest fires. One of the things you need to do is remove the dead wood because if there's all this dead wood around, another forest fire will come along. And particularly, if we get a little time to breathe, we've just got to get much more of our population vaccinated and immune so we can just put this forest fire down to smoldering.

AUBREY: So staying vigilant during lulls when cases recede by offering and encouraging vaccines is key, he says. Also, expanding production of medicines, such as the new antivirals, is important so that the country is prepared for any future waves.

FADEL: OK. Before you go, I want to ask about interpreting the results of rapid antigen tests. What some people are finding is that they're still getting a positive result six or seven days into an infection. Do they need to stay at home?

AUBREY: When the CDC shortened the isolation period to five days, the rationale was that people are most infectious early in their infection. And that is true. But it can take a while for the virus to run its course. And it's not unusual for people to test positive at Day 6 or 7. I spoke to Patricia Stinchfield. She's president-elect of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. She says you can get a positive test result even after symptoms resolve.

PATRICIA STINCHFIELD: If you're feeling better and it's Day 6 and the test is positive, believe those positive tests. And that means you have a high enough viral load that you could be infectious to others. So then, of course, stay home.

AUBREY: Stay away from vulnerable people. You know, these rapid tests are not a perfect tool. They can't determine the moment you are no longer infectious. But they are pretty reliable at picking up the virus.

FADEL: All right. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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.