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As COVID-19 Cases Rise, Warnings Increase Against Holiday Gatherings

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It has taken just six days - six days - for the United States to add a million new COVID cases. We've moved past the 12 million mark in documented infections in this country. And that is before Thanksgiving. Health care workers across the country are holding their breath now, knowing that surges we have seen following other holidays have been really bad. There is reason for optimism, with new medications and vaccines. But it will be many months before all Americans could be vaccinated. Let's talk this through with NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, good morning to you.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: This is - I mean, this is a really frightening surge. And it sounds like it's just getting worse.

AUBREY: Yeah. You know, as we head into this holiday week, it's grim. I mean, we're averaging 170,000 new cases a day. It's a 60% increase just from two weeks ago. If you look at the map, David, it's all orange and red in so many parts of the country. Deaths are averaging about 1,200 per day and rising. That's nearly a person dying from COVID every minute. I spoke to former CDC Director Tom Frieden about this surge.

TOM FRIEDEN: It's shocking. We're losing the equivalent of a 9/11 attack every three days in the U.S. And what, frankly, scares me is that Thanksgiving could become the Super Bowl of super spreading events.

AUBREY: You know, it just doesn't take much, David. All you need is one asymptomatic person in your gathering to start a round of infections. The CDC now says most coronavirus cases are, in fact, spread by people without any symptoms. And we know how easily the virus spreads within households.

GREENE: I mean, we also know how much Thanksgiving means to all of us. Like, I think we all want to be with our families so badly - the CDC telling us just don't travel. I mean, do you think Americans are listening despite how much they just want to see their loved ones?

AUBREY: Yeah. I think many people are rethinking their plans, David, especially the travel part. But a survey out from the University of Michigan this morning finds that 1-in-3 people polled say the benefits of gathering with family for the holidays are worth the risk of spreading or getting the virus. I should point out - this survey came out last week or actually was completed last week before being released this morning. And this is before the CDC advisory. But it does show the temptation and the desire you point to. People want to see family. I certainly want to, too. But as Tom Frieden says, better to have a Zoom Thanksgiving than an ICU Christmas.

GREENE: Yeah. It's not the same. But we can show each other the turkeys over Zoom...

AUBREY: (Laughter).

GREENE: ...I mean, find some way to show each other love. Well, I want to ask you about hospitals. I mean, there are now more than 83,000 people hospitalized with COVID-19. What does that number mean? How much pressure are hospitals around the country feeling right now?

AUBREY: You know, around the country, hospitals are filling up, David. And this is taking a toll on front line health care workers. I spent much of this weekend talking to doctors, talking to nurses in some of hard hit areas. And they are exhausted. They're just fried, David. I spoke to Alison Wiens (ph). She's a nurse practitioner at the University of Iowa hospitals. They have three times the number of COVID patients they did two weeks ago. As part of their surge plan, they've had to reschedule or postpone nonessential surgeries and procedures because they're at capacity. Last week, they had to convert more beds into ICU beds because the demand is growing so fast.

ALISON WIENS: We've filled those extra beds within 24 hours. And the anxiety has not stopped. I'm still a little bit nauseous today thinking about, you know, what if the next set of beds isn't enough? And what if we have to keep going?

AUBREY: You know, keep in mind, David, COVID patients require a lot of resources. Before COVID, the average ICU stay was about four days at her hospital. But COVID patients are in the ICU for weeks. And if they're on mechanical ventilation, dozens of staff can be involved in their care. Also, given the risks and the need to minimize time in patients' rooms, it's harder to, as one nurse told me, deliver compassionate care.

GREENE: I just think about these health care workers, too. I mean, you and I talk about maybe figuring out ways to mark Thanksgiving, like, with a Zoom Thanksgiving. Health care workers can't even think about that. I mean, they just must be working around the clock right now.

AUBREY: You know, they have long, grueling shifts. And as one nurse told me, we eat like snakes. We eat a meal in one bite. There isn't time to sit down and eat a meal during a shift. On top of this, health care workers are like the rest of us, David. They're trying to manage home life, you know, maybe kids not in school or the needs of aging parents, issues of isolation, loneliness, stress. Alison Wiens says it is simply exhausting.

WIENS: I have had moments where I have thought, I can't do this anymore. And it's not that I don't want to keep doing it. But I just don't know how much longer I can function as a human under these conditions.

AUBREY: And given the numbers right now, rising cases, her hospital has likely not seen the worst of it.

GREENE: Wow. That voice just stays with me, I mean, just on the verge of breaking.

AUBREY: I know.

GREENE: I mean, that has to hit you hard. You must be hearing this so much from people in the middle of this.

AUBREY: You know, these conversations with health care workers really brought me to tears. Alison Wiens told me that after a shift at work, if she drives home and she sees people gathered at a bar or at a restaurant or just people not being masked in public, it's just incredibly frustrating.

WIENS: It's a punch in the gut. It feels disrespectful. And we all have rules in society that we follow that make us good citizens and make us live in a civilized society. And right now, taking care of each other by following public health mandates or recommendations is part of that.

AUBREY: You know, we all get it, that Americans value freedom. But she says with that freedom comes responsibilities, too. And right now, that means wearing a mask and following all of the other recommendations.

GREENE: Well, I mean, recommendations. And we're seeing more restrictions now from some states, curfews and restrictions on businesses. I mean, is there evidence that this is going to help stem this?

AUBREY: Look at what's happening in England and in other parts of Europe. They've had nationwide restrictions in place for weeks. They've closed many nonessential businesses. And cases in England have been declining in recent days. Here's Tom Frieden again.

FRIEDEN: We do see cases beginning to come down in the United Kingdom over the past week or so. And that's almost certainly the result of the kind of restrictions you're seeing.

AUBREY: Interestingly, they've aimed to leave schools open and prioritized closing other parts of society. So this is something we'll hear more about in the coming weeks.

GREENE: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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