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While the omicron variant steals the spotlight, delta is still a big problem

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The omicron variant of the coronavirus has been found in about one-third of U.S. states, but it's the delta variant that's still causing most of the COVID-19 cases nationwide. The U.S. is averaging about 100,000 cases a day. In a few moments, we'll question Dr. Anthony Fauci, but first, NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us with the latest. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about how the omicron variant is spreading?

AUBREY: Well, the variant is spreading across the U.S. with cases in about 17 states now, including Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Washington. In the New York City area, they've identified multiple cases. Some are linked to travel in South Africa; some are not. So the state's health commissioner says it appears omicron has begun to spread from person to person within that community. Now, it is not clear if omicron will take over delta, Rachel. Right now delta is still circulating widely. On Friday, the CDC reported the highest number of cases since the Thanksgiving holiday. Cases are up about 50% nationwide compared to one month ago. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky spoke about the situation on ABC yesterday.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We have about 90- to 100,000 cases a day right now in the United States, and 99.9% of them are the delta variant. So we have an issue right now in the United States with delta, and we have so many things that we can do about delta, including getting vaccinated, including getting boosted.

AUBREY: So everyone has heard it before, but her message is get vaccinated and, if you're eligible, get boosted.

MARTIN: Right. So on that, though, is there any more clarity about whether the current vaccines protect against this particular variant?

AUBREY: Well, it's still early, but so far, cases in vaccinated people have appeared to be mild. Now, this does suggest that vaccinated people can be vulnerable to infection with omicron, but Dr. Walensky says being fully vaccinated and boosted should provide some protection against the new variant, even though it has a lot of mutations.

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WALENSKY: We're really hopeful that our vaccines will work in a way that, even if they don't prevent disease entirely, prevent infection entirely, that they can work to prevent severe disease and keep people out of the hospital.

AUBREY: Now, right now scientists are doing studies where they take the plasma from fully vaccinated people and they see if antibodies in the blood neutralize or fend off the omicron variant. Some early results should be out very soon. And this will help scientists gauge the extent to which current vaccines are protective, Rachel. In addition, as there are more cases around the globe, doctors are tracking the severity of infections.

MARTIN: So, Allison, it was just the other day I was looking at my family's itinerary to go to Idaho to visit my dad. My brother and my sister are going to be there. We're all super excited.

AUBREY: Yes, of course.

MARTIN: And as we hear all this, I mean, so many people are making travel plans.

AUBREY: Yeah.

MARTIN: How are we supposed to think about those plans in the context of this new variant?

AUBREY: You know, I mean, for international travel, the threat of omicron has already led to restrictions, more testing requirements. But for domestic travel and for holiday gatherings, none of the infectious disease experts I've spoken to say that people should cancel plans, but they do say this - take precautions. Here's Dr. Emily Landon of the University of Chicago.

EMILY LANDON: The bottom line that I think is important for people to remember is that this could be bad, and so we might want to add on additional layers, especially if you are vulnerable or unvaccinated or if you're having these multigenerational family get-togethers, especially if they include other vulnerable people.

AUBREY: She says you can limit face-to-face contacts in the week leading up to gatherings. Make sure everyone in your group is vaccinated and boosted. Gather outdoors if the weather is OK. And you should mask up.

MARTIN: Mask up. We should know this by now. We mask up.

AUBREY: Yeah. That's a new one, right?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Right. So we've heard this so much. But the fact is that masking seems to have fallen off in several places around the country, right?

AUBREY: Yeah. I mean, you know, as cases dropped through early fall, mask mandates were relaxed in many places. But Emily Landon says, you know, beyond vaccination and getting booster shots, masks are still a key prevention tool just given the extent to which COVID spreads in the air.

LANDON: Masks are essential. They're the best way that we have of preventing the transmission of COVID. It's about sharing air. People with COVID, whether they know or not that they have COVID, are breathing COVID out, and it's contaminating the air, and you get into that space or if you are in the room, you know, that's how we're getting COVID.

AUBREY: So a strong recommendation there to mask up, especially in indoor crowded spaces.

MARTIN: And we do have this new tool, right - I mean, over-the-counter tests?

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, rapid antigen tests are a very good way to get real-time information and give people assurance that no one in their group is positive. I spoke to Judy Guzman-Cottrill of Oregon Health and Science University. She says it's important to do the tests as close to the start of a gathering as possible because the tests aren't so accurate at picking up early infections.

JUDY GUZMAN-COTTRILL: So I think COVID testing prior to travel and prior to social gatherings can really also help to decrease viral transmission, including asymptomatic people who can unknowingly be carrying the virus in their nose. So, you know, if you test positive, stay home. Skip the holiday dinner or postpone your trip for at least 10 days.

AUBREY: And she says if you're traveling, you may want to do a test on the day of travel and again after you arrive, before you gather with family. Remember; last week, Rachel, the Biden administration announced a plan for health insurance companies to reimburse people for these over-the-counter tests.

MARTIN: Right.

AUBREY: So this should make testing more affordable.

MARTIN: That would be a good thing. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you.

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