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What the next pandemic phase means for case numbers, hospitalizations and the economy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The omicron wave has begun to recede. Case counts are down nationally, and new hospital admissions are dropping. White House COVID adviser Jeff Zients struck an optimistic tone at the latest meeting of the COVID response team.

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JEFF ZIENTS: We're moving toward a time when COVID won't disrupt our daily lives, where COVID won't be a constant crisis but something we protect against and treat.

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

At the same time, COVID-19 deaths are on the rise, averaging more than 2,000 a day. And even though many Americans will have some form of immunity after this surge, either from vaccines or infections or both, Dr. Anthony Fauci cautioned at that same briefing that it's too early to let our guard down.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: The worst-case scenario, we're faced with a variant that's so different that it eludes the accumulation of the immune protection that we've gotten from vaccinations and from prior infections.

SHAPIRO: So how should we think about this next phase of the pandemic? We're going to spend the next few minutes answering that question with a look at three different indicators - cases, hospitalizations and the economy. And we're going to go first to our health correspondent Allison Aubrey. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there - good to be here, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So national declines - same is true in a lot of specific parts of the country. Give us the national picture of what it looks like right now.

AUBREY: Sure. I mean, CDC data shows that nationwide, the number of new infections is certainly declining. Cases hit a high about 10 days ago, averaging about 800,000 reported cases a day. That has fallen by about 15%. Many areas are past their peaks. Cases in Washington, D.C., New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania have been falling rapidly. Parts of the Midwest, as well as Florida and Texas, are seeing a decline, too. But some areas are still in the thick of it, Ari. I'd point to Arizona. And several states are expected to peak this week or may be passing their peaks now, including Utah and Oregon.

SHAPIRO: So for places that are at or past their peak, how close are we to that time we heard Jeff Zients describe as a time when COVID won't disrupt our daily lives?

AUBREY: Right. None of the infectious disease experts I talk to regularly would say COVID is over. I mean, scientists know the virus is here to stay, but certainly our ability to live with it is getting better. Given the extraordinarily high number of people infected amid this surge, combined with the fact that about 80% of people 5 and up are vaccinated with at least one shot in this country, we're a lot more protected. So while our lives may start to feel normal-ish again soon, the consensus really is that we can't let our guard down just yet. Infections are coming down. But millions more will be infected before this surge really recedes, which models suggest could be by March.

SHAPIRO: There's also a certain sense of deja vu here. I mean, over the last couple of years, there have been a lot of moments where it seemed like there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and then the delta variant came along, or the omicron variant came along.

AUBREY: Sure.

SHAPIRO: What are the chances something like that's going to happen again?

AUBREY: As long as the virus is replicating, which we know it is across the world right now, it can mutate. There's an omicron subvariant circulating in Denmark right now, for example. But infectious disease experts say future outbreaks will hopefully be much more manageable. Vaccine-makers keep working on variant-specific shots or ones that could offer a kind of broader protection. Also, more permanent changes may include more seasonal testing for all respiratory viruses, perhaps more focus on keeping workplaces and schools safe with better air circulation, for example. And with proper planning, new treatment options such as the antiviral pills that are in short supply right now should be more readily available, and this should help keep people out of the hospital.

SHAPIRO: All right. To talk more about what's happening in those hospitals, let's turn to NPR's Will Stone, who's been covering the health care system since the start of the pandemic. Will, what do things look like in American hospitals right now?

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Well, Ari, hospitals are not in the clear yet at all. Nationally, the total number of COVID patients in the hospital is still higher than it was during any other surge, but it is starting to trend in the right direction. New hospital admissions are now down about 8% compared to the week before, so fewer people are coming into the hospital. And that's largely because of the improvements in places that were hit early, like the Northeast, parts of the Midwest. But some places are on different timelines, and doctors like Kelly Cawcutt worry people are getting the wrong message. Cawcutt is at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

KELLY CAWCUTT: That is, I think, what makes it difficult and frankly sometimes frustrating when we hear in the media, oh, everything's getting better, and people in our state hear, oh, it's clearly down trending, but our local data doesn't actually reflect that.

STONE: So there are certainly parts of the country, like Nebraska, like states in the west and in the south, where hospitals are as busy as ever.

SHAPIRO: So this is obviously going to vary depending on where in the country people are, but can hospitals start returning to some kind of normal soon?

STONE: I would say the word normal is not something you'll hear inside most hospitals for a number of reasons. First, hospitals don't just empty out quickly, especially when they've had record levels of people in the ICU critically ill. Plus, health care workers are going to keep getting infected, which leaves hospitals short-staffed. Second, remember that hospitalizations trail infection, so people who got infected the week prior are still coming in as they get sicker and need care. And then finally, this surge has profoundly disrupted health care. And to get a sense of that, take a listen to a Dr. Tammy Lundstrom told me. She's with Trinity Health, which has hospitals all over the U.S.

TAMMY LUNDSTROM: In the next couple of weeks, we'll start to see a bit of easing, and then that will allow us to get in all those people who deferred care. Some of our facilities have lists of over 200 people that we need to get in for care that was non-urgent but also is necessary.

STONE: So that means even as beds open up because there are fewer COVID patients, those are going to get filled up right away with other patients.

SHAPIRO: OK, that's the picture in hospitals. To hear what's happening with workers and employers in the economy more broadly, let's turn to NPR labor and workplace correspondent Andrea Hsu. Andrea, what are you seeing right now?

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Well, certainly a lot of workers have been calling out sick. The Census Bureau estimated that earlier this month, it was close to 9 million people who were out because they had COVID or they were caring for someone who had it. Ari, that's three times the number of people who were out for the same reason in early December. And I talked with Joey Price about this. He's the CEO of Jumpstart:HR in Baltimore. His clients are small businesses and nonprofits, and he's seeing major staffing challenges everywhere.

JOEY PRICE: Clients and even, you know, my local Starbucks. It's resulting in a lot of schedule changes, compressed hours.

HSU: Because a lot of companies just don't have enough workers.

SHAPIRO: So what are employers doing about that?

HSU: Well, for example, Starbucks told its store managers, modify operations as needed. Do grab and go or drive-through only - whatever it takes. Businesses everywhere are making do relying on workers who can show up to do more.

SHAPIRO: In so many ways, this feels like an echo of the uncertainty that businesses felt at the start of the pandemic - the strains on staffing, the uncertainty about the future. Is there any end in sight?

HSU: Well, in some places, the staffing shortages are easing somewhat. Macy's, you know, had cut back its store hours this month, but it's returning to normal hours next week on February 1. And schools that went remote, in part because so many teachers and staff were quarantining - they've now gone back in person. But remember; even before omicron, it's not as if everything was back to normal - really, far from it. Several million people who had left or lost their jobs in the pandemic hadn't gone back to work, and employers are still having a hard time hiring. And now on top of that, there's this havoc created by omicron. So Joey Price, the HR consultant, told me, if anything, what the surge cemented for a lot of employers is that any carefully laid plan may have to be rethought at a moment's notice.

PRICE: So the big thing is, employers have stopped expecting. It's just taking it one day at a time, one week at a time.

HSU: And I think that's how a lot of people are feeling, Ari, two years into this pandemic.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR labor and workplace correspondent Andrea Hsu, science reporter Will Stone and health correspondent Allison Aubrey - good to have all three of you here today. Thanks a lot.

HSU: Thanks so much.

STONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
Will Stone
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.