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COVID-19 Cases Continue To Surge, Take Toll On Health Care Workers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It has almost been a year since the U.S. registered its first case of the coronavirus. And today, the pandemic is as deadly as it has ever been. We now have effective vaccines, but the country faces a dual challenge on that front - speeding up delivery of the vaccine to the millions of people who are waiting and convincing people who are hesitant, including some essential workers and nursing home employees, that getting the shot is the best way to protect themselves and others. We've got NPR's Allison Aubrey with us this morning to talk about all these things. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: It's still important at the beginning of these conversations to mark how deadly this virus is. What are the numbers right now?

AUBREY: You know, the U.S. is averaging about 250,000 new cases a day. That's an increase of nearly 40% compared to just a few weeks back. We've seen a record number of deaths in recent days, more than two people dying every minute in the U.S. And there's a great urgency to speed up the vaccination campaign. As some governors open up access to more people, there just aren't enough vaccination sites up and running. Some states, including Massachusetts, New Jersey, Texas, are opening mega sites. Many others are scrambling. And my own mom, who's 75, caught wind that a local pharmacy had extra doses left over from vaccinations at a nursing home. So she hurried over there to find this big crowd of people. There were only a few shots available. She said it was a bit chaotic. People got really frustrated. She did not end up getting her shot. And that's playing out in other places, too.

MARTIN: Which is something the Biden administration is worried about. They want to make sure demand matches supply and vice versa. I mean, President Biden's advisers said they want to try something different than the Trump administration, right? They want to release almost all the available doses of the vaccine at once. Tell us.

AUBREY: Yeah. So the idea is to release more doses, not to hold them back for the second shot. And this could be helpful going forward. I mean, the Biden advisers tell me that supply is not the issue here. Millions of doses are being made. The thinking is there will be plenty of vaccine for everyone to get a second dose on time. I spoke to one adviser, Zeke Emanuel. He says the challenge right now is really to improve coordination and increase capacity to deliver more shots now.

EZEKIEL EMANUEL: There cannot be a higher sense of urgency. So nothing should be taken off the table - sports stadiums, convention centers, schools, parking lots that have been set up for testing and can be adapted to vaccine administration. That's the philosophy.

AUBREY: He says the higgledy-piggledy approach in these initial weeks just needs to improve.

MARTIN: So, I mean, meanwhile, as we've said, the virus rages on. LA is being hit especially hard right now. Can you talk a little bit about what those hospitals there are facing?

AUBREY: Yeah. It's hard for them to keep up. I mean, ICUs, ERs are stretched thin. I spoke to nurse Karen Grimley. She's chief nursing executive at UCLA. Now, they have multiple ICUs there. They take in a lot of patients from other facilities, too. They have been expanding their COVID beds just to keep up with the surge.

KAREN GRIMLEY: It's almost like a chess game every day - identifying how many COVID patients do we anticipate are going to come in? Where are we going to put them? And it's a different type of care. It's labor intensive.

MARTIN: And you and I, Allison, have both spoken with health care workers over these many, many months who haven't even had a day off. I mean, some of these people are logging just, you know, more than 100 days of dealing with this.

AUBREY: Exactly. Many are exhausted. And not only do they have more patients to take care of, but there's this physical toll, too, Rachel. I mean, for example, nurses have to prone the COVID patients, meaning flip them on their bellies - over onto their bellies and back again multiple times a day to help them breathe. So nurses are running ragged.

GRIMLEY: For some of the big people, it takes six people to turn somebody over onto their belly. And then you start looking at the equipment. They probably have eight or nine intravenouses running into them. And, you know, you've got to keep all that from getting tangled. And then you've also got to be dressed out in all your protective wear. So stress, coupled with hours worked can be really tiring.

AUBREY: And, you know, amid the surge, the number of people ending up in the hospital is still increasing as we speak. I mean, this vaccine cannot stop the current surge, but it's another reminder of the urgency of getting more people vaccinated.

MARTIN: So at this point, health care workers who are in the first tranche of people who are allowed to get the vaccine are now up for their second dose. What do we know so far about how those folks are responding to this - to the booster?

AUBREY: You know, overall, very mild side effects, if any. In the clinical trials, there were more instances of low-grade fevers, chills for a day or so with the second dose, sometimes a headache. I spoke to Patricia Gardner. She's a nurse at Hackensack Meridian Health in New Jersey. She got her second dose last week. She says it was really no big deal. She experienced none of this.

PATRICIA GARDNER: The only side effects, I would say, that I had was the aching at the injection site. I did take ibuprofen prior to the vaccination, so I feel good. I'm excited.

AUBREY: And she says she's been talking to some of her friends and her family members who are very hesitant, urging them to get the shot when they can.

MARTIN: So let's talk about that. I mean, it's great if you can get a vaccine and get big distribution sites set up, and it doesn't really matter if people aren't willing to get it.

AUBREY: That's right. In Ohio, for instance, about 60% of workers in long-term care facilities offered the shot have opted not to get it, at least so far. Now, that's just one data point, but public health officials nationwide are concerned, Rachel. Some polls do show that hesitancy has diminished a bit among the general public. But there are plenty of people who think that this vaccine was rushed and multiple factors play into hesitancy within minority communities. Nurse Patricia Gardner says there's lingering mistrust in the health care system. And within the Jamaican community, she says there's messages being spread on social media that the vaccine will give you the mark of the beast. It's a biblical reference linked to the end of times. This message has also circulated among some evangelical communities.

GARDNER: My one sister, she doesn't want to get it because they're saying now it's the mark of the beast. It's - so there's a lot of skepticism going out there. And they believe it, unfortunately. But my message to my community, my friends, is we are the people who are suffering. Our culture, our community has a high percentage of people dying from COVID.

MARTIN: Wow.

AUBREY: And she tells them getting this vaccine is the best way to protect themselves. I mean, she's trying to sway the people closest to her. And the research really suggests it's these one-to-one or peer-to-peer conversations that can help overcome hesitancy.

MARTIN: Yeah. With seconds remaining, I do want to ask you one more thing. There is concern over newer, more contagious variants that may be circulating around. Could these variants get in the way of the vaccine?

AUBREY: You know, so far, it seems the answer is no. A preliminary report found that a mutation shared by both new variants of concern did not alter the activity of antibodies produced by people who received the vaccine.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.

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