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U.S. Records 6 Million Coronavirus Cases


Today the United States passed a sobering milestone in the coronavirus pandemic. The reported number of cases topped 6 million. It took less than three weeks for the U.S. to add the last million cases to this tally. Deaths now top 180,000. Those figures are the highest for any country. Joining us now is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

Richard, 6 million cases is a big number. Would you put that in world context for us?

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Sure, Sacha. Well, there are about 25 million cases globally, so the U.S. accounts for about a quarter of all reported cases. And, remember, the U.S. only accounts for about 4% of the global population, right? So the coronavirus continues to be especially bad here. I talked to Mark Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard, about this today.

MARC LIPSITCH: There are other places in the world that have many fewer cases and more open economies and better control over the epidemic.

HARRIS: And it's important to remember these are reported cases. The actual number is far higher. Lipsitch says some of his colleagues suggest the true number of cases in the U.S. is more like 31 million given that many people never got tested or diagnosed. That's highly uncertain, but it suggests it could have affected around 10% of the U.S. population.

PFEIFFER: As we said, U.S. death count about 180,000. Do we know how accurate that is?

HARRIS: Well, deaths are likely to be - that tally is likely to be much more accurate because, you know, those cases never got diagnosed or confirmed. But deaths do get recorded in a much better manner. So still that makes COVID the third leading cause of death here in the U.S. right now behind only cancer and heart disease. You know, more people have died from COVID-19 than they have from accidents, which usually is the third leading killer. And here's another way to look at it. The virus is responsible for more than 1 in 8 of all deaths.

PFEIFFER: Richard, just a few weeks ago, we were reporting about the milestone hitting 5 million coronavirus cases. Now, we're at 6 million. But we're also hearing that the case count in the U.S. is starting to slow down. So these things are happening simultaneously.

HARRIS: That's right. The case count has been dropping. The second wave of coronavirus in July peaked at nearly 70,000 cases a day. It's now down to not quite half of that but in that direction. Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, says that is progress. Although 45,000 cases a day is still a really big number.

CAITLIN RIVERS: Although some of the most hard hit states earlier in the pandemic are doing quite well, we see the outbreak moving to new areas of the country, not new in the sense that they never had COVID, but we see a new intensity in the outbreaks, particularly in Midwestern states like the Dakotas and Iowa.

HARRIS: Rivers says things are looking much better in the South. Texas and Florida, along with Arizona, had really been hit hard this summer. But the decision to crack down on social gatherings and at bars and the like seems to have helped out there a lot.

PFEIFFER: There is a possible upside to the high case numbers and that's that eventually so many people could've been infected that the disease won't spread easily or as easily. Are we getting close to that point do we know?

HARRIS: Yeah, that's a phenomenon called herd immunity, and it appears that we are nowhere close. Nobody knows exactly what share of the population needs to be infected before herd immunity becomes a factor in slowing the disease. But Lipsitch at Harvard says it's likely to be 40% or more. The U.S. is far short of that mark. Even so, Lipsitch says that the infections to date could be actually part of the reason that the disease has been slowing down. He says nobody really knows what percentage of Americans has already been infected with the virus.

LIPSITCH: But if it's 10% of the population and most of those people are really immune, then that means that 10% of all transmissions that would have occurred don't occur. And because the virus spreads exponentially, a 10% cut in its growth rate is a big cut.

HARRIS: Of course, that would really make - what would really make a difference would be an effective vaccine, but that's still a question mark.

PFEIFFER: And, Richard, do epidemiologists know where this disease is heading in coming months?

HARRIS: Well, Lipsitch at Harvard says it could rise as kids head back to school and cooler weather kicks in. But Rivers at Hopkins has a more upbeat view. She says, you know, it's really up to Americans collectively, along with local, state and federal governments. If we do things like wear our masks and so on, we could actually really keep watching this trend go down.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Richard Harris, thank you. 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.