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How to navigate the rise in COVID cases this summer

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is a fact. COVID cases are up again. The CDC is describing it as an uptick after a long period of declining rates. There is also a new omicron variant on the rise. So how do we make sense of what is going on in this fourth summer of living with COVID? NPR's Pien Huang is here to explain. Hey, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hi. I'm depressed to even be talking about this. How are we talking about this? It sounds like this is not a wave necessarily. What are you calling it?

HUANG: Yeah. I mean, it's - I'm in the same boat as you. It's not a wave, but I'm calling it more of a summer swell. And it's showing up in the national data from wastewater surveillance, which - where you can see that the virus levels have been going up in the past month in every region. Here's how Dr. Celine Gounder put it. She's an infectious disease specialist and a senior fellow at KFF.

CELINE GOUNDER: Yeah. This is not really a surge, and so it's not dismissing that COVID is a threat. It's that you have to know when to sound the alarms and when not to.

HUANG: So by the CDC numbers this week, there's been a 12.5% increase in people getting hospitalized with COVID. But health experts do stress that that still means that hospitalizations are near an all-time low. So Gounder says that this is definitely something to watch, but it's not something to panic over. While the risks are more serious for some, there are tools that are available to help.

KELLY: The risks are more serious for some. Who should be more concerned now?

HUANG: Yeah. Yeah. So there are some people that have a real increased risk of hospitalization and death, even if they've been vaccinated. So this includes the elderly, people who are immunocompromised, people who live in nursing homes, people who are pregnant, infants. And now as cases are going up, they might want to think about doing things that might mitigate the risks, like avoiding crowds, maybe wearing a mask when they're grocery shopping or traveling, using air filters in rooms, spending more time outside if they're going to hang out with people. And, of course, you know, the people who live with them, visit them, spend time with them - they might also want to be taking precautions, too.

KELLY: And this new variant we mentioned - what do we know about it?

HUANG: So the new variant that people are talking about now is called EG.5. It's a subvariant of omicron. So that means it's still really closely related to what's been circulating since early 2022, and it's become more dominant over the past few months. So right now it's estimated to be responsible in 17% of cases. Here's how Dr. Mandy Cohen, head of the CDC, talked about the variants this week. She spoke on the podcast "In The Bubble With Andy Slavitt."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "IN THE BUBBLE WITH ANDY SLAVITT")

MANDY COHEN: They're still susceptible to our vaccines. They're still susceptible to our medicines. They're still picked up by the tests. So all of our tools still work as the virus changes. But we're going to have to keep watching it.

KELLY: Pien, speaking of the vaccine, should we all go get a shot now to shore up protection?

HUANG: Well, the general advice from experts right now is that if you can, it would make sense to hold off for another month or two. So that's because the booster that's available currently is actually an old formulation from last year. There's a new version of the COVID vaccine coming this fall in late September, early October, and that's the one that targets newer variants.

KELLY: So just briefly, it sounds like we may want to hold off.

HUANG: Yeah, exactly. I mean, we expect that there's going to be an actual surge in the colder months. So if you wait to get the updated booster this fall, you're going to be better protected heading into the holiday season.

KELLY: NPR's Pien Huang. Thank you.

HUANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.

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