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The latest on COVID: Labor Day weekend, possible boosters and vaccines this fall

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As we head into one of the biggest travel weekends of the year, the latest wave of COVID is showing no signs of slowing down. So we have called NPR health correspondent Rob Stein to get the latest. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey. So we keep saying, we keep hoping COVID is in the rearview mirror. And yet here you and I find ourselves yet again talking about...

STEIN: Yep. Here we are again.

KELLY: ...Another COVID wave. Sigh. What do we need to know?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, all the numbers had been going down, down, down all year, and most people had pretty much moved on from COVID. But yet a fourth summer wave started rising in the middle of July, and it just kept going for weeks now. I don't know about you, but I've been hearing about friends, neighbors, coworkers getting COVID almost every day. My wife and I both got it for the first time this summer, and so did Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins.

CAITLIN RIVERS: COVID is really affecting people's everyday lives. I'm recently recovered from COVID myself, so I can promise you that it is out there, and it is no fun.

STEIN: The amount of virus in wastewater has about quadrupled since the summer began. Hospitalizations are up almost 19% in the last week, and even deaths are rising again, up almost 18% the past week. Now, that all may sound pretty scary, but it's important to remember that the numbers are still very, very low compared to how bad things were the first three years of the pandemic. The last time this year - last year, 3,000 people were dying every week from COVID. Today it's about 650. And that's because we all have so much immunity from all the vaccinations and infections we've gotten that many people - COVID is not fun but pretty manageable.

KELLY: I have still never had it, Rob. And now I'm glancing...

STEIN: Wow.

KELLY: ...Around for something wooden to knock on quickly...

STEIN: And you're in novid (ph) world.

KELLY: ...Now that I've jinxed myself. Yeah.

STEIN: Yeah. Really.

KELLY: Tell me how I should be thinking about - how we should all be thinking about these rising cases as we head into another big travel weekend.

STEIN: Well, the good news is the stuff people usually do over Labor Day tends to be more low risk - you know, the beach, outdoor barbecues. But a lot of people will be traveling, so they might want to think about putting those masks back on when they're in places like crowded airports and open the windows if they're inside with lots of families and - family and friends. And the fall and winter are coming, so the numbers could keep rising now for yet another winter wave. At the same time, RSV is starting to pick up again, and the flu won't be too far behind. Now, unless something really bad happens, some new variant suddenly erupts, it's unlikely to get anywhere near as serious as the previous years. Here's Michael Osterholm from the University of Minnesota.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: There is no evidence to suggest that we're going to go back to the days of what we saw in the first three years of the pandemic.

STEIN: But those who are most vulnerable, like the elderly and those with other health problems, should take precautions, and their family and friends should try to avoid infecting them.

KELLY: OK. Some good precautions there. Meanwhile, Rob, another booster - when's it coming?

STEIN: That's right. The best thing people can do is to get one of the new shots when they become available, probably in a few weeks.

KELLY: OK.

STEIN: The new vaccines were designed to protect people against an earlier strain that's no longer dominant. But the shots are still a pretty close match of the strains that are currently most common and will cut the risk of catching the virus and spreading to others for at least a couple of months and reduce the risk of getting really sick, especially for those at greatest risk.

We should be getting some data soon about how well the new shots will work against the newest variants that's gotten some attention lately because it's so mutated. But that's still quite rare, and the tests and the treatments still work. So people should test themselves, but you should check to make sure the expiration dates in that stack of old tests in your medicine cabinet is still valid and haven't expired. The FDA website can tell you which expiration dates have been extended.

KELLY: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: Sure thing, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.