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COVID cases are rising this summer. Fall boosters are just around the corner

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There's a lot of COVID going around, and the CDC says this uptick in summer cases is not surprising. The agency says hospital admissions have risen slightly, and a new variant is likely fueling the rise. A new booster shot targeting omicron is expected out in early fall. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now to catch us up. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: OK, so lots of us may know someone who's gotten COVID this summer. How many cases are out there?

AUBREY: It's hard to know exactly since people test at home now, but wastewater surveillance points to a rise and hospitalizations have ticked up slightly. The CDC says during the last week of July, there were about 9,000 new COVID-19 hospital admissions. That's about a 12% increase from the week before. I spoke to Dr. Bruce Farber. He's an infectious disease doctor at Northwell Health, which has a bunch of hospitals in the New York area, about what he's seeing.

BRUCE FARBER: We do know that in our health care system, positivity rates of people coming into the ER and the hospital are up - about double compared to a month ago. So this is definitely a summer wave of COVID. And, yes, this is what it's like for the virus to become endemic.

FADEL: Endemic - what does he mean by that?

AUBREY: Well, we've reached a time when there's a baseline of COVID around kind of all the time.

FADEL: Yeah.

AUBREY: It's settled in and is going to stick around, albeit without the same level of danger. I learned this firsthand, Leila, just when I'd almost forgotten about COVID. My daughter and I just went to visit my parents, and little did we know my daughter had been infected - probably at camp. She had a little sniffle that I'd kind of chalked up to allergies. But that first night we were there, my mom lit a candle and everyone was commenting on the smell. It was very fragrant. And my daughter said, I can't smell anything.

FADEL: Oh, no.

AUBREY: Then the next morning, her throat hurt. By that time, she had likely infected me and both my parents.

FADEL: Oh, man. I mean, three years into this, you would think COVID wasn't still ruining vacations, family gatherings. How's everybody doing?

AUBREY: Right. Well, my parents had been so cautious during the pandemic, so they never got COVID until now. They're both vaccinated and boosted and they're both OK now. But my mom actually got quite sick with fever, chills, GI issues. She spent most of the week in bed. She's in her late 70s and in good health overall. But Dr. Farber says her story is a reminder that COVID is still very much with us and can hit people hard, especially older people.

FARBER: It often takes weeks until the cough goes away and the brain fog goes away and the malaise goes away and they're back to exercising to levels that they were before. So your incidence sums it up very well. So I think people need to keep that in mind when they think COVID is nothing.

FADEL: So the people who are being hospitalized with COVID this summer, what are doctors seeing there?

AUBREY: Well, Dr. Farber says most people admitted with COVID are there for something else, say hip surgery or some sort of injury, and end up testing positive for COVID.

FADEL: Oh.

FARBER: Most of those people in the hospital with COVID are in for other reasons and not in because of COVID - not all of them. And very, very few are critically ill with COVID and very few are dying with COVID.

AUBREY: There's so much immunity from prior infections and vaccines. And this new wave is in part due to yet another subvariant of omicron. The new one is called EG.5, and it may become dominant globally. Clearly, it's very transmissible, and there's a new booster coming out soon.

FADEL: Will this new version of the booster shot protect against this new variant?

AUBREY: The current thinking is that the new booster will be beneficial. It no longer includes the original strain of the virus, the Wuhan strain. The new booster targets, the XBB subvariants. I spoke to Anu Hazra. He's an infectious disease doctor at the University of Chicago. He explains since the virus is always mutating, the new booster isn't a perfect match against this new EG.5, but they're closely related.

ANU HAZRA: The EG.5 variant is still a subvariant under the omicron family, and there's a single mutation that separates it from the most recent variants. Whether or not a booster created for XBB would be equally effective for EG.5 is still unclear, but we know, again, that they're genetically very similar.

FADEL: OK. So for the new booster, when should people get them?

AUBREY: Well, I think that's a big question that everyone has. And just as people think of fall as getting the flu shot, there's probably going to be a push for the COVID booster in the fall too. The new booster is expected to be out late September, early October. The idea is to protect against a potential winter wave since January tends to be peak season for the virus.

HAZRA: We know, again, it takes a few weeks to develop immunity once you get the booster. And we know, you know, from good amount of data that these boosters have high amounts of antibodies for at least 12 weeks after. So if we're looking at getting a booster in the fall, that should really protect you, at least for the lion's share of the winter.

AUBREY: And for people who get COVID this summer, you'll have a bump in immunity. So you may want to wait a bit longer before getting a booster.

FADEL: So it's school season. Kids are going back. Should school-age kids get boosted?

AUBREY: Well, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children get vaccinated and boosted. Given the new booster isn't out yet, there is not a push to get one right now, but rather wait for most kids. It's worth noting the uptick of vaccination and boosters hasn't been great among school kids because - aged 5 to 12 - partly because many parents just don't perceive too much of a risk. I spoke to Sean O'Leary. He's a pediatrician in Colorado. He's the liaison to the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunizations.

SEAN O'LEARY: The reason to continue to keep kids up to date on their COVID vaccines is that, you know, this is a preventable disease, and we do want to use the tools we have to continue to prevent COVID.

AUBREY: He says that they will continue to review the data to determine whether annual boosters for kids should be recommended.

FADEL: So, Allison, before I let you go, I feel like I kind of glossed over how you and your family are doing after getting COVID a few weeks ago. Everyone better?

AUBREY: Yeah, everyone's better. I'd say the biggest surprise, in my own experience - this was my second time having COVID, and this time around I didn't have too many respiratory symptoms - a little bit of a head cold. But the fatigue really hit me. My brain's been a little bit slow. Not sure I'd go as far as saying I have brain fog, but just a little off. It's a reminder to me that I do not want to get this again.

FADEL: Yeah. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks, Allison. I'm glad you're feeling better.

AUBREY: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROHNE'S "HIATUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.