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We Answer Your Coronavirus Questions

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Something just happened to the document on the computer screen in front of me. Just a moment ago, it said there were 31,000 coronavirus cases confirmed in the United States. And then, in an instant, the number changed as our editor made it 35,000 coronavirus cases. And we can expect that number to keep growing for some time.

As that happens, we continue hearing from you, our audience, about how this all affects you. And we're going to pose some of your questions to NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And let's start with the trends here. Who's getting sick, and how sick are they getting?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, we do have a preliminary snapshot of cases in the U.S. from the CDC. And the picture so far is similar to what was documented in China. Coronavirus hits oldest people - older people the hardest. The CDC analysis found that about half of the people who've ended up in intensive care are 65 and older; the highest percentage of deaths in the U.S. has been among those 85 and older. Now this is based on an analysis of about 500 patients admitted to the hospital in the U.S. - so not all of the cases. But here's something to be aware of - younger adults can be vulnerable too; about 20% of people hospitalized were in their 40s and 50s. And this may come as a surprise - about 20% were younger. So some millennials and Gen Xers have gotten seriously ill.

INSKEEP: Are those people who had some other underlying health problem?

AUBREY: Well, that's important to understand, and we don't have a complete picture yet of which underlying medical problems were present in how many of these younger people. But it's worth noting - an analysis from Italy shows that about 99% of the people who've died in Italy from the virus had at least one underlying illness or condition such as heart disease, a history of stroke, diabetes. So these certainly seem to increase the risk of death or serious illness.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about treatments for people who would end up in the hospital with COVID-19. The president and Dr. Anthony Fauci had a kind of debate in a briefing last week about how near some kind of treatment drug might be. What is the latest here? What's actually available?

AUBREY: That's right. Well, the Milken Institute is tracking the development of a whole bunch of potential treatments and vaccines. They've identified literally dozens of different candidates in the works on both the vaccine side, the treatment side - over 40 different compounds being looked at for the vaccine. But a vaccine is definitely a ways off. I mean, 12 to 18 months is an optimistic estimate out there.

In regard to treatments, there are clinical trials underway to look at the safety, efficacy of different drugs, from antivirals to antibody treatments. With one candidate, an antiviral called Remdesivir, some early results are expected later this spring, and there's a lot of hope out there. But obviously it's important to see what the studies find.

INSKEEP: Make sure that anything that they try actually would work and not make things worse.

AUBREY: That's right.

INSKEEP: What about simply testing people to see if they have the virus?

AUBREY: Well, we know it's been a very bumpy start - right? - lots of stories of delays, backlogs, despite promises to expand quickly. Now, over the weekend, the FDA issued emergency use authorization for a new diagnostic tool. This can provide results within hours rather than days. The company says it's going to make this available - roll this out by March 30th, so end of next week. So this could speed up testing.

INSKEEP: Allison, I want to confess something that I'm doing and I've heard of other people doing this. It's allergy season. I've been making really sure to take allergy medication because I don't want to sneeze and terrify people into thinking I have something else.

AUBREY: That's right. That is a smart move - very smart move there.

INSKEEP: So how can I tell the difference between someone who just has allergies and somebody who has something worse?

AUBREY: So there is some overlap. But there are key differences, too. I've spoken to a bunch of allergists about this. And here is one very important distinction - fever is a symptom of COVID-19, but it is not a symptom of seasonal allergies. With all of that pollen starting to develop around the country, a lot of people are sneezing and will have a runny nose. These are typical symptoms of seasonal allergies but not necessarily typical of coronavirus. Cough is another very important distinction. Coughing is usually not a main symptom of seasonal allergies, but it is a key symptom of COVID-19, especially a dry cough.

INSKEEP: People are also asking about re-infection, whether you are immune to this once you've had it.

AUBREY: Well, with a lot of viruses, I mean, after you've gotten exposed to it the first time, you'll have partial protection against it going forward. And there is reason to think that the same could be true with this virus. Now, the CDC says there's still a lot that is not known about the immune response to COVID-19. But for now, they're saying patients who have recovered from an infection are not likely to be re-infected shortly afterwards.

INSKEEP: OK, one positive thing. I guess all those many people who have been infected become a kind of firewall against spreading the disease at some later time. Or at least...

AUBREY: Could be.

INSKEEP: ...We think so. We think so.

So when might things begin to get back to normal?

AUBREY: Oh, gosh. Well, you know, we're halfway through that 15-day period announced last week asking everyone to hunker down, stay home. And what Anthony Fauci, the top adviser, has said over the weekend is that the social distancing, all the measures we're taking - they will have an effect. But we just can't quantify the effect yet. I mean, how much we may be slowing the spread here is masked by the significant increase in cases each day, as you just mentioned at the top.

So you know, as testing expands, we're going to get this increase in cases. Hard to see the progress here - it's likely going to be much, much longer before life feels like normal again, right? I mean, many schools have extended closures. There'll be lots of distance learning going on. Many scientists and public health experts watching China as the country lifts its restrictions. Does the virus stay under control, or does it start to spread again? We can learn a lot by watching what happens there.

INSKEEP: And I guess (ph), in the meantime, we all need to take care of ourselves, take care of loved ones, make sure we get some exercise, a little bit of sunshine, not too much alcohol, that sort of thing.

Allison, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey giving us the latest information.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "MARRIAGE IS THE NEW GOING STEADY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.