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CDC Director's Warning Of 'Impending Doom' Sparks Fear Of Another Bad COVID-19 Surge

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a stark and emotional warning today. She says the U.S. could be facing yet another deadly surge of the coronavirus. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now with the details.

Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Ailsa.

CHANG: So I understand that there were some pretty strong words from Dr. Rochelle Walensky today. What exactly did she say?

STEIN: Yeah, Ailsa, it was pretty striking. Walensky spoke in quite personal and dramatic terms about how worried she is. It was during today's White House pandemic briefing. Here's a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: I'm going to pause here. I'm going to lose the script, and I'm going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom. We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope. But right now I'm scared.

CHANG: Wow - impending doom. Can you explain?

STEIN: Yeah.

CHANG: Why is she so concerned right now?

STEIN: Yeah, so, you know, the numbers just look very ominous. You know, the numbers had all plummeted after the big winter surge, but then that stalled. And now everything started going back up again. The number of people getting infected jumped 10% to nearly 60,000 a day. The number getting so sick they're ending up in the hospital is rising again to now about 4,800 a day. Even the number of people dying every day started creeping up again to nearly 1,000 every single day. You know, Walensky reminded everyone that she's already seen too many COVID deaths firsthand as a doctor at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALENSKY: I know what it's like as a physician to stand in that patient room - gowned, gloved, masked, shielded - and to be the last person to touch someone else's loved one because their loved one couldn't be there.

STEIN: So, you know, Walensky - she's just terrified that the U.S. is heading toward another big surge like the ones hitting Europe right now.

CHANG: I mean, did she say why this is happening?

STEIN: Yeah. It's really two things. One is the variants, you know, especially the one originally spotted in the U.K. It's a lot easier to catch. It looks like it tends to make people sicker, and it's spreading fast all over the country right now. And the second one is people are just letting down their guard too fast. Millions of people are traveling. Lots of states have dropped their mask mandates and loosened restrictions on things like bars and restaurants. So President Biden today called for governors and mayors to keep their mask mandates. And Walensky literally pleaded with people to be more patient, to give the country more time to vaccinate more people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALENSKY: I'm speaking today not necessarily as your CDC director - not only as your CDC director but as a wife, as a mother, as a daughter to ask you to just please hold on a little while longer.

CHANG: Well, what about getting people vaccinated? Where do things stand with those efforts right now?

STEIN: Well, you know, more than 95 million people have now received at least one shot. More than 52 million are fully vaccinated. Nearly 3 million are getting vaccinated every day. And President Biden announced a series of steps today to speed things up even more. He's promising 90% of adults will be eligible to get vaccinated, and that vaccine will be available at local pharmacies for 90% of Americans by April 19. And the CDC also released a new study that shows that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are about 80% effective not just in preventing people from getting really sick but also at preventing infections after the first shot and 90% effective after both shots. So that's really good news for finally bringing the pandemic under control. Here's Dr. Anthony Fauci at the NIH at today's briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: That's the reason why we're essentially pleading with people even though we have - all of us - an urge, particularly with the warm weather coming, to just cut loose. We've just got to hang in there a bit longer.

STEIN: But the fear is the country will lose the race with the virus if people start acting like the pandemic's over too soon.

CHANG: That is NPR's Rob Stein.

Thank you, Rob.

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