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CDC Says Real Coronavirus Cases Number Might Be Much Higher Than The Official One


The CDC came out and publicly agreed with what scientists studying the coronavirus have been saying - the actual number of cases is probably 10 times higher than the official count. That means more than 20 million Americans likely have been infected. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris joins us now to talk about that news and what the CDC is saying about it.

Hi, Richard.


MCCAMMON: Why is there such a big gap between the official case count and what is apparently the actual count?

HARRIS: Well, a lot of this has to do with detecting the virus in people who had mild symptoms or no symptoms at all so they were never tested for coronavirus. And this larger figure is based on surveys that look at - for antibodies in blood samples. The antibodies indicate people who have been previously exposed to the virus.

CDC Director Robert Redfield said in a telephone news conference today that their surveys agree with other assessments showing that the official case count, which is about 2.3 million cases, is probably low by a factor of 10 or so. The percentage of people nationwide who have been infected varies a lot by region, he said.


ROBERT REDFIELD: All in all, somewhere between 5-, 6-, 7-, 8% of the American public has experienced infection whether they recognize it or not.

MCCAMMON: So is that good news or bad news?

HARRIS: Yeah. Well, it means a lot of people who got infected didn't get sick, so that's good. But it also means that the vast majority of Americans have not encountered the virus, and that means they are still vulnerable.

MCCAMMON: And I understand the CDC has also refined its list of who is at higher risk from the virus. What's the latest there?

HARRIS: The CDC says people with chronic kidney disease or serious heart disease, obesity and lung diseases like emphysema are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19. The CDC also has new data showing that pregnant women are much more likely to end up in the intensive care unit or on a ventilator compared with women of similar age who aren't pregnant. Dr. Dana Meaney-Delman at the CDC says the good news is pregnant women don't seem to be at higher risk of dying.


DANA MEANEY-DELMAN: Pregnant women need to take precautions with regard to the number of people they come in contact with, wearing face coverings, social distancing. We really think this is a pivotal moment to emphasize those precautions that people can take as they are living their lives in the face of COVID.

MCCAMMON: And, Richard, we know the recent increase in disease has involved a lot of younger people, including women of childbearing age. What does the CDC say about that?

HARRIS: The CDC sent somewhat mixed messages about that in the news conference today. At first, Director Redfield suggested that the surge has a lot to do with more extensive testing for the virus, which is turning up a lot of cases, mostly in young people. He said the situation is a lot different from back in the spring when the disease was hospitalizing and killing older and more susceptible people. The new surge is tending much younger, he said.


REDFIELD: Fewer of those individuals are requiring the hospitalizations and having a fatal outcome. But that is not to minimize it.

HARRIS: And let's remember that many younger Americans do have underlying health conditions, like obesity. And that still puts them at a higher risk of serious consequences if they do contract the illness. And that message may not be getting through to younger people who keep hearing that they're really not as vulnerable.

MCCAMMON: And what's the CDC doing to address this surge in younger people?

HARRIS: Well, officials say they are trying to figure out how to get the message out to this age group. They're gearing up messaging on social media, though a reporter asked for an example, and the official said, oh, we can't give you one just yet. You know, many younger people seem to have wearied of social distancing, which is such an important tool in combating this epidemic. And while they are at lower risk of death if they contract the virus, they can easily spread the disease, not only to older relatives and people with underlying health conditions - and it's not necessarily obvious who that may be - but also the health care workers, as well. And, you know, unfortunately, that message doesn't seem to be resonating with everyone.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Richard Harris. Thanks.

HARRIS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.