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The U.S. is experiencing a late summer wave of COVID cases


The U.S. is experiencing a late summer wave of COVID cases.


Hospitalizations have jumped more than 21% compared to the prior week. Some hospitals and schools have reinstated mask requirements or at least actively encouraged people to wear them again.

MARTÍNEZ: Here with an update is NPR's Maria Godoy. Maria, when did people start to notice that the number of COVID cases was climbing?

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Well, I got my first inkling that COVID cases were on the rise a couple of weeks ago when my social media feed was suddenly full of people posting photos of their positive tests again. And while most people aren't getting really sick, hospitalizations have been going up. I spoke with Dr. Carlos del Rio. He's an infectious disease doctor at Emory School of Medicine. He says most of the people getting sick enough to end up in the hospital are older folks.

CARLOS DEL RIO: I think what we're seeing is people over the age of 85. So it's significant wane of immunity and lack of uptick of boosting in those older populations. And I think that's what's driving the hospitalizations, right?

GODOY: Del Rio notes that protection from vaccination wanes faster in older people. And only about 40% of Americans age 65 and up got the bivalent booster that became available last September.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. So if older people are most at risk, why are schools suggesting that kids wear masks again?

GODOY: It's to try to stop the spread. For example, a school district in Alabama is encouraging masks just to be cautious because Alabama has seen nearly a 300% increase in hospitalizations since early July. And no one wants schools shutting down because students and teachers are sick. Now, I should note that while hospitalizations are rising, they are still relatively low.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. And there's a new variant that the CDC is worried about. What can you tell us about that?

GODOY: Yeah, it's called BA.2.86. It's been detected in a handful of countries recently, including the U.S. I spoke with Katelyn Jetelina. She's an epidemiologist who consults with the CDC. And she says it's quite different from other circulating strains. It's got 35 mutations to its spike protein, which is what you might think of as the key that the virus uses to enter our cells. Here's what she said.

KATELYN JETELINA: It's actually shown a pretty insane amount of change all at once. And so this is as big of an evolutionary jump as the Wuhan strain to omicron, for example. So it's a big change.

GODOY: So now, of course, the big question is, will this new variant cause a big surge in cases like omicron did? And it's hard to say because we have a lot less surveillance now than we did in the past. But we do have a lot more immunity in the population than we did back when omicron hit.

MARTÍNEZ: And, Maria, I keep hearing about a new booster shot on the way. When will that be ready?

GODOY: Yeah. So the FDA and CDC are expected to clear the new booster in the coming weeks. Scientists are evaluating right now how well it will work against this new variant. Biden administration officials told reporters they expect it will bolster protection against severe disease, but we don't know yet how well it will protect against infection. Oh, and if you're wondering when to get boosted, for most people, experts say it makes sense to wait a bit for the new booster. But if you're at high risk of severe disease and you haven't been boosted in a long time and you're going to be traveling or in a crowded indoor setting, then you might want to talk to your doctor about whether to boost now.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. NPR's health correspondent Maria Godoy. Thanks, Maria.

GODOY: My pleasure. 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.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.