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Sun Belt Hospitals Struggle To Keep Up With The Surge Of COVID-19 Patients

NOEL KING, HOST:

Since the beginning of this month, the number of new daily COVID cases in this country has increased by about 40%. To give you a sense of the scale, on August 1, the seven-day average of new cases was about 85,000. Last Friday, that average had risen to about 120,000. Hospital systems in the South and the Sunbelt are being hit especially hard.

And with us now is NPR's Allison Aubrey, as she is often on Mondays. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning - good to be here.

KING: You've been looking into both case numbers and geography. And what are they telling you?

AUBREY: You know, every state in the country has areas of high transmission. But parts of the South are really struggling, including Mississippi, I'll point to, where only about 35% of people are fully vaccinated.

I spoke to Dr. LouAnn Woodward, who oversees the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Now, they started delaying or postponing elective procedures a few weeks back. And now they are struggling to find beds for this surge of COVID patients.

LOUANN WOODWARD: The beds are full. The ICUs are full. The ERs are full. Patients are backing up. And on top of that, we are short-staffed. Everybody across the state is short-staffed. And we've got staff out because they are sick or they have family members that are sick.

AUBREY: She says, it's a very tough situation there. And, she says, more than 90% of the people hospitalized with COVID now have not been vaccinated.

KING: More than 90% - wow. And, she said, the beds are full; the ICUs are full; the ERs are full. This must be very difficult for doctors and nurses and other people working on the front line.

AUBREY: Absolutely. I mean, Dr. Woodward says, it didn't have to come to this. And she's urging people still to go out and get vaccinated. She says, many, health care workers are frustrated. They're tired. This has been going on a long time. It can be especially tough when you have to tell a patient that was scheduled for, say, a heart procedure, hey, you'll have to wait; there are no beds right now.

And it's not just adults in the hospital with COVID, Noel. It's kids, too. She says, the pediatric wards are seeing it, too.

WOODWARD: We have more pediatric patients right now hospitalized with COVID than at any point prior in this pandemic. We are seeing a younger group of patients that are getting very sick with this. And again, many of them are previously healthy.

AUBREY: You know, it's really unsettling for parents to hear this, especially as a new school year begins. In Mississippi, some school districts have actually pivoted to virtual learning, given the spread of the virus. You know, it's true that most kids who get COVID have only mild infections and some are asymptomatic. But during the pandemic, the CDC has had reports of about 4,400 kids who've gotten multisystem inflammatory syndrome. This is one of the things that leads kids to the ER. It's serious. And nationwide, the number of kids diagnosed with COVID in recent weeks has shot up significantly.

KING: Allison, I would imagine this has to be adding to the urgency of getting more kids who are 12 and older vaccinated, but also getting the vaccine authorized for younger kids.

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, there's a huge push by pediatricians right now to get more middle school and high school kids vaccinated. And they'd also like to see the vaccine authorized for kids 5 to 11. Right now the vaccine-makers Pfizer and Moderna have been asked to expand the number of young children in their clinical trials to include thousands of more kids. This is to be extra careful that they're spotting any adverse events. But pediatricians say they hope this doesn't delay authorization of the vaccines for this age group.

I spoke to Moderna about this - the potential timing and what they've seen so far in the trial with kids. Here's Dr. Jacqueline Miller. She's a senior vice president at Moderna.

JACQUELINE MILLER: The safety profile so far is really comparable to the adults - and so far, no safety concerns. And then for the moment, we're targeting at the end of the year for the 6 to 11 year olds and early next year for the 6 month olds to 6 year olds. But that actually could be done more rapidly, depending on the rate of enrollment.

AUBREY: She says, depending on where you are in the country, there are still opportunities for families who want to enroll their kids in this clinical trial.

KING: You've reported that there are also trials testing booster shots for people who may feel the vaccine is wearing off. I mean, we've heard that from a lot of people, am I still safe - right? - six months, eight months later? What's the latest on those trials?

AUBREY: Sure - currently, only a small group of people with weakened immune systems qualify for the third dose in the U.S. In Israel, they've expanded the eligibility widely. People age 50 or older can now get a booster dose. And it's possible the U.S. could expand eligibility at some point. Right now vaccine-makers are testing different formulations of a third dose. Moderna is set to study a booster dose that targets the delta variant, as well as different formulations that could protect against multiple strains.

Here's Dr. Miller again.

MILLER: Antibodies wane over time. And I think, ultimately, the immunity after our vaccine will wane as well. And because we have not really gotten the pandemic under control, I do think that people will need a booster at some point in time.

AUBREY: She says by the end of this month, they plan to be giving the delta booster as part of this ongoing clinical trial.

KING: OK. So what do models tell us about where this country is headed in the next few weeks?

AUBREY: You know, some modelers predict this surge could peak in mid-October. And yesterday on NBC, Dr. Michael Osterholm - he's the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota - he says, this surge could sustain itself for at least another four to six weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: We're now seeing in the Southeast - Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, southern Illinois all start to take off - we're seeing in the Northwest, in states like Oregon and Washington.

AUBREY: He points out, you know, a month ago there were about 25,000 people hospitalized in the U.S. with COVID. Right now there are about 83,000 people hospitalized. That just gives you a sense of the increase. And it comes just as many people return to school and work.

KING: Yeah, those numbers - NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you as always, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "SEE IN YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.