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COVID Cases Finally Are Falling. Experts Worry Variants Could Erase That Fast

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Coronavirus variants are spreading in the United States, threatening to spark yet a new surge. Is there a good defense? NPR health correspondent Rob Stein's been looking into this. Rob, thanks so much for being with us.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Please remind us what these variants are and why they're a particular concern.

STEIN: There are three variants that scientists are really worried about because they appear to spread a lot faster and the vaccines may not work as well against them. You know, things have finally started to turn around this country. Infections are plummeting, hospitalizations are down. But that could turn around on a dime if one of these variants takes off. And one of the problems is we're not looking hard enough for these variants.

SIMON: Well, how should we be looking?

STEIN: Yeah. So what we really need to do is to kind of turbocharge the early warning system. And that's done by constantly sequencing the genetic code of thousands of specimens to spot mutations. The U.S. is finally doing a lot more of that, but Dr. David Relman at Stanford University says it's still not nearly enough and way too random.

DAVID RELMAN: We are flying partly blind. It's like having maybe 30 flashlights that you're just arbitrarily shining at different locales around the United States, and the rest of the country is in the dark.

STEIN: Now, the CDC says it's trying to ramp that up, but the question is whether that's going to happen fast enough and go big enough.

SIMON: What else should authorities do?

STEIN: So, you know, a big one is we should be vaccinating as many people as fast as possible. And so some are calling for delaying the booster shot to get as many first shots in to people as quickly as we can. Here's Dr. Ashish Jha. He's the dean of the Brown School of Public Health.

ASHISH JHA: I definitely believe at this point the benefits of giving all high-risk people one dose and waiting for a second dose until those individuals have gotten their first certainly outweighs the cost of doing that.

STEIN: Now, you know, it's important to point out that this is quite controversial. In fact, you know, experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, for example, aren't behind this idea at all.

SIMON: Rob, are the vaccines the only way to slow down the variants?

STEIN: No. You know, another big one is masks. You know, the Biden administration has been beating the drum about this, but some public health experts I've been talking to say the administration could do even more. The CDC, for example, could issue new, more detailed guidelines about the best kinds of masks and the best way to wear them. CDC director Rochelle Walensky is hinting that new mask guidelines are coming, but some say they're way overdue and that the administration should threaten to withhold federal funding to states that aren't imposing broad, tough mass mandates.

I talked about this with Dr. Leana Wen at George Washington University.

LEANA WEN: We're at a crossroads, and the Biden administration coming in has substantial political capital. They should use that in order to get us to the right side of the crossroads. And this explosive surge could be truly catastrophic here.

STEIN: So it's really urgent to slow the spread of the virus.

SIMON: Rob, what are state and local governments doing, because they're the ones, of course, that are making a lot of these decisions on the ground?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. That's right. And, unfortunately, some parts of the country are actually letting down their guard a bit. New York, for example, is planning to allow indoor dining again. New Jersey is also easing up. So some public health experts say the CDC needs to quickly issue strong new guidelines on what should and should not be allowed.

Here's Jennifer Nuzzo from Johns Hopkins.

JENNIFER NUZZO: Unfortunately, what a lot of communities are doing is they're translating falling cases into now permission to reopen businesses and to ease restrictions. But this is a really worrisome time to be doing that because we're so deeply worried about the potential spread of these variants.

STEIN: You know, so the last thing we want to do right now is let down our guard even more.

SIMON: Thanks so much, NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

STEIN: You bet, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.