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U.S. Deaths Top 170,000 As Coronavirus Pandemic Continues To Take Its Toll

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The CDC is estimating that we could see a death toll from the coronavirus hit 200,000 in the United States by Labor Day. Already, 170,000 people have been killed. There are renewed calls for vigilance, social distancing, masking. This is especially as more states aim to open schools and colleges. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us this morning to talk about all of this. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So as you look at the numbers right now, what are you learning, and where might we be headed?

AUBREY: Sure. Nationwide, we're at about 52,000 new cases a day on average. That's about a 15% decline compared to where we were early August. So that's an improvement. But we still have had over a thousand deaths a day, David, every day for the last two weeks. So bottom line here - the U.S. has had more confirmed cases than any other nation in the world. And former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said yesterday on CBS we seem to have a persistent level of infection.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: What's happening is, as the cases start to decline in the Southern states - Arizona, Texas, Florida - we're starting to see infections pick up in other parts of the country. California is still increasing. Really, the only state that seems to have come down quite a bit of the epidemic Sunbelt states is Arizona. And we now have 14 states with positivity rates above 10%. So there's still a lot of states with pretty high positivity rates.

AUBREY: And, you know, until more states get their positivity rates way down into the single digits as, you know, New York has - New York is now down to under 1% - the riskier it is to, you know, open schools and workplaces. So one strategy is to move towards more frequent and faster diagnostic tests.

GREENE: Well, that seems to be happening, right? I mean, over the weekend, the FDA approved some kind of saliva test. I mean, could that be a big help here?

AUBREY: Yes. I mean, hopefully, that could lead to faster results, and the faster that infected people are identified, the better, right? This has been a major challenge, given all of the silent spreading and testing delays. And there's a growing consensus that frequent testing is a way to do this and that we can do this. The saliva test was developed at Yale University with some research support, actually, from the National Basketball Association. The idea is that this will make it easier to be tested. You just spit into a cup. And on the lab side, it's a faster, streamlined process that should be cheaper. So labs across the country can now begin to use this test now that it's been authorized.

And it comes, David, just as many colleges - as you said at the beginning - are starting to reopen, some students returning to campus. UNC Chapel Hill, for instance, opened a week ago. The semester started last week, and already there have been outbreaks of COVID-19, clusters reported in residence halls, another reported over the weekend at an off-campus fraternity house. So, you know, this is just one example, and it's early days, but by winter, it could get messy, especially when we move into flu season. So there's going to be a big push for flu vaccinations.

GREENE: But that's not for coronavirus, right? We should say, flu vaccine can't protect you against the coronavirus.

AUBREY: That's right. But think about it - if COVID cases rise as more people spend more time together indoors and the flu could start to spread, too, well, then hospitals could get overwhelmed. So, you know, typically, the push for flu shots starts later in, you know, September or October. But don't be surprised, David, if you start hearing a lot about the flu vaccine now. I've spoken to pediatricians who say they're concerned because, you know, kids have skipped well visits during the pandemic. They've fallen behind on vaccines. So pediatricians want to get families in for flu shots and other vaccines. And some manufacturers are actually increasing their production of flu shots in anticipation that more people will get the shot.

I mean, it's difficult to predict what the flu season will be like. If everyone is doing their part - you know, social distancing and masking - well, then flu cases could be lower. That seems to have happened in the Southern Hemisphere, where the winter is just now ending. It was a lighter flu season in countries including Chile, New Zealand and Australia.

GREENE: I guess it's an important reminder here, that some of the same behaviors that help us prevent coronavirus - I mean, washing hands and keeping your distance and all of that - can really help prevent the flu as well.

AUBREY: That's right. And people are probably so tired of hearing it, but that's what we have to keep doing. You know, it's important to point out, if you do get symptoms, you want to know which thing you have. You want to know, do you have the flu? Do you have COVID? There - obviously, if you have flu, you could take some medicines. It's important to know. A company called Cepheid has created a new test that can distinguish between two types of flu - the coronavirus and RSV, another respiratory virus - all in one test. I spoke to the company's chief medical and technology officer Dave Persing.

DAVID PERSING: All of the viruses can present in very similar ways, and so we've decided to put all four of those together. And it generates results in about 36 minutes for all four targets.

AUBREY: So another example of another new test. They hope to have this available for the winter. It would be used in hospitals.

GREENE: I mean, hope is really the word here, right?

AUBREY: Yeah.

GREENE: I mean, it sounds like it's definitely going to be a long winter. But everyone wants to get back to some sort of more normal feeling. They're hoping there will be a vaccine at some point. But we just don't know, right?

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, and even after we have an approved vaccine - if that happens - the reality, David, is that there's not going to be some kind of magical day where we wake up and the virus is gone. That's not happening anytime soon. Anthony Fauci has said that the vaccine may only be 50% or 60% effective, meaning if 100 people get the vaccine, maybe only 50 or 60 get the full protection. We just don't know. I spoke to Carlos del Rio about this. He's an infectious disease doctor at Emory University. And he says, you know, for coronavirus, we only achieve herd immunity once 60% or 70% of people have immunity, but so far, only about 10% of Americans have had the virus.

CARLOS DEL RIO: So let's suppose that by the time we get to a vaccine, we are at 20% of the population being infected. Well, you're still going to have to get another 40% of the population immune with the vaccine in order to be at 60%, which is the level of herd immunity you need for this virus. So it's not going to happen right away.

AUBREY: So bottom line, David - get used to the new norm. If you don't have a comfortable mask, get one. You'll likely need it.

GREENE: It sounds like it. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks so much, Allison.

AUBREY: Thanks, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELIOS' "VAINGLORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.