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COVID-19 Deaths And Hospitalizations Continue To Rise In The U.S.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Progress in the COVID pandemic that looked so promising at the beginning of this summer continues to roll back. More states are reporting a rise in hospitalizations and deaths. In fact, the CDC reported that only last Friday, 1,329 people died from the virus in the U.S. Vaccines remain the best way to protect against serious illness. Yet one week after the FDA gave full approval to Pfizer's COVID vaccination, has this approval nudged more people to get that shot?

NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us. Allison, we've heard so many reports in recent days about hospital systems straining to keep up with demand all across Mississippi, Texas and Florida. And now the situation is worsening in more states.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Yes. With 176,000 new cases reported on Friday, many counties are reporting an increase in cases, suggesting the worst is yet to come from this delta surge in some states. In Kentucky, for instance, the governor announced the highest positivity rate since the start of the pandemic - 13% of tests coming back positive, a significant increase in cases. And at the University of Louisville Hospital, there's a surge in COVID patients coming in from smaller community hospitals around the state.

Here's chief nurse executive Cindy Luchesse.

CINDY LUCCHESE: It's a battle every day. We are seeing patients that are needing to be transferred to a higher level of care that we just don't have the capability of accepting. So it's definitely deja vu and probably worse than it was.

AUBREY: During prior surges, she means. Though, the next few weeks will be very telling. She says the number of health care workers - there are a number of health care workers out because they're positive for COVID. That adds to the strain. People hospitalized now are in their 40s and 50s, on average - so younger, she says. And the CDC has said over 90% of people hospitalized nationwide remain unvaccinated.

MARTINEZ: I know Biden administration officials were optimistic that full FDA approval of that Pfizer vaccine would maybe prompt more people to get vaccinated - any evidence at all if this is happening?

AUBREY: You know, on Friday, White House officials pointed to 1.1 million vaccinations in a single day. Many of those were people getting their second shot or are people who are immunocompromised getting a third shot. Now, it's too soon to say to what extent approval is driving more first-time vaccinations. But White House advisers say rates are rising fastest among teens. Fifty percent of 12 to 17 year olds have received at least their first shot now. So that's some progress. Of course, vaccines are not authorized for kids under 12 or babies. But studies show the vaccine is safe and effective for people who are pregnant.

I spoke to Kristin Carroll (ph). She is pregnant now. This will be her first child. And she said after holding off for many months, she finally decided to get vaccinated.

KRISTIN CARROLL: I realized that I was leading with fear over facts. And when I started to really turn to evidence-based research and began to understand how mRNA vaccines work - and I'm so grateful to have gotten vaccinated and to have protection for myself and for the baby.

AUBREY: She says she made the decision just as the FDA approval seemed imminent. That approval added a layer of reassurance for her.

MARTINEZ: And Kristin Carroll just said that she realized she was leading with fear. Who or what was making her fearful?

AUBREY: Well, she's part of a prenatal yoga group. So people would talk in this group, often sharing good information. But she says she would hear anti-vaccine messages coming from different influencers on social media, particularly some who are part of the, quote, "wellness community," into alternative or holistic health and healing. And she says she encountered a lot of misinformation.

CARROLL: Coming from people that I thought I trusted or at least respected - and it was, you know, as long as you're exercising, eating organic, taking the right supplements, that your body will be able to fight off the virus and that you don't need the vaccine. And it was easy to get trapped in that thought.

AUBREY: You know, of course, it's great to eat well and to exercise. Being healthy cuts the risk of serious illness. But after 634,000 deaths in the U.S. from COVID and all of the evidence to show vaccines are safe and effective, you can do both. I mean, that's the conclusion she came to - maintain a healthy lifestyle and get vaccinated.

MARTINEZ: Any evidence that these anti-vaccine messages are reaching maybe new audiences, even after full approval of that Pfizer vaccine?

AUBREY: You know, yes. Despite all the vaccine education campaigns and efforts to block vaccine opponents who spread misinformation, the researchers I talked to say influencers continue to reach new audiences. For instance, last week, a TikTok video - which attracts a very young audience - that has been viewed and shared thousands of times claimed the FDA has lied or been deceitful about vaccine approval.

Now, Erin McAweeney of the social media research firm Graphika says, there are lots of microinfluencers out there who put out messages to sow seeds of distrust and doubt.

ERIN MCAWEENEY: It's very common to see viral videos on TikTok that are being shared across Facebook, across Instagram, across Twitter. And I think that health and wellness influencers are introducing anti-vaccine sentiment into communities that may have not been exposed to this type of misinformation already.

AUBREY: She says, of course, it is certainly not all health and wellness influencers. Many do share good evidence-based information. And look, the vaccination campaign has been successful. As of this morning, 74% of adults in the U.S. have gotten at least one shot. But many of those who remain unvaccinated, the other 25% or so, are still susceptible to misinformation.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. And though some remain hesitant, many people are eager to get that booster shot. And there's been talk of changing the recommendation of the best timing for boosters.

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, earlier this month, the administration announced a plan for boosters, pending FDA review and CDC review. They said people would be eligible eight months after their second shot at the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine. Now, in recent days, there's been talk of moving this to as early as, say, five months. But yesterday on ABC, Dr. Anthony Fauci says, the plan so far has not changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: We're going to have to go through the standard way of the FDA looking at the data and then the advisory committee on immunization practices. So although we're sticking with eight, we're remaining flexible that if the data tells us differently, we'll make adjustments accordingly. But for now, we're sticking with the eight.

AUBREY: So there will be a number of meetings. Advisers to the CDC will meet to talk about the strategy. The FDA will review the data. But for now if you got your second shot in January, you would be eligible in September for...

MARTINEZ: All right.

AUBREY: ...A booster shot.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Everyone, do your own math accordingly.

AUBREY: (Laughter) Right.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thanks a lot.

AUBREY: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYMBYC SYSTYM'S "1000 ARMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.