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COVID-19 update: the delta variant, school openings and more

The COVID-19 delta variant has been surging worldwide and in certain areas of the U.S. What will this mean for school openings, and for children not yet eligible for vaccines? And how are vaccine efforts going in America? ProPublica reporter Caroline Chen joins Hari Sreenivasan with the latest on COVID-19 in the U.S. and around the world.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For more on the rise in COVID cases, including what the latest variant could mean for children not yet eligible for vaccines, I spoke with ProPublica reporter Caroline Chen.

  • Caroline Chen:

    I think that this is a particularly difficult time, I can imagine, for a lot of parents who are thinking about, you know, how can I protect my kid? We want them to go back to school. Schools may have already been opened and back in session. So I think the thing that we know for sure about the delta variant is that it is more contagious at least than the wild type variant. What's much harder for us to assess clearly when it comes to these variants is whether they are actually causing more severe disease because there's so many factors that go into that sort of assessment. So not only who's getting sick, how healthy are they in the first place, but also things like hospital capacity. Right. What are the resources? Those can all effect outcomes.

    So at this point in time, there's no sort of super clear signal that the delta variant is going to be more dangerous to kids, particularly have worse outcomes for kids. We haven't seen any sort of that signal. But understandably, if your kid is going back to school, things are opening up, you could still be concerned about that. And so, unfortunately, I think there is still a little bit of time until there's going to be vaccines available for the under twelves.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, Caroline, there, and I should put this in perspective, when we spoke in the winter, the numbers were horrendous. So if there is some good news here is that collectively speaking, we are doing far better than the worst of what this virus did to us in terms of cases and hospitalizations and deaths. However, if you start to zoom in on the map into specific areas, you start to hear and see stories of hospitals that are filling up again. And it's mostly in places where there are large populations of unvaccinated people.

  • Caroline Chen:

    Right. I mean, unfortunately, that is just what you would expect scientifically. And it's bearing out here where the virus is going to infect and go after, I don't want to anthropomorphize the virus here, but the virus will more likely be able to infect somebody who's unvaccinated. That's just a fact there. So if you have clusters of people who are unvaccinated and states are opening up and not requiring people to stay at home or wear masks, it's unfortunately inevitable that you will start to see cases surge in those areas. So that's zooming way in.

    Zooming way out and looking beyond our borders, you also see other countries that are unfortunately swamped. In some countries, it's the worst the pandemic has been so far for them. And also this is often correlated with extremely low vaccination rates.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So when we have these sort of forces combining, meaning we've got countries who still don't have access to vaccines, we've got pockets in the United States where people, for whatever reason, choose not to take them. Does that mean that there is an opportunity here for Americans to kind of breed the next variant of the virus? I mean, does the virus have a better chance of escaping immunity in populations where not enough people are vaccinated?

  • Caroline Chen:

    Well, I think any time somebody gets infected, it is an opportunity for the virus to mutate. And we know that this is just something there's no malicious intent here with the virus, just as it copies itself. Sometimes mistakes happen and that creates a mutation. Not every mutation is a variant that we would even care about. A lot of them may become weaker. And so it is it is a game of chances in a way, if we give it lots and lots of opportunities to continue infecting people, there are more chances for it to mutate and there are more chances for one of those to become a variant that we are even more concerned about. And of course, over time, with evolution, the ones that are stronger are going to win out.

    And we're very lucky so far that the vaccines are at least somewhat effective against all of the variants of concern that we're looking at right now. We don't know if that's going to be true always. So I think about like what are the parts that we can control to make the outcomes better? Right. And again, as I mentioned earlier, there are factors that are not sort of inherent to the virus, things like what resources are available, how full are the hospitals. All of these sorts of things can affect the outcomes and vaccinations. Right. So those are the things that we can act on. So I feel then that if you're an adult who's eligible for the vaccine and you don't have any medical concerns, that's your way of being able to contribute to changing the outcomes here for everyone.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What are you hearing from experts when it comes to figuring out how to get that last 20 or 30 percent vaccinated?

  • Caroline Chen:

    Yeah, I think the first thing is to recognize that whatever the percentage of people in your region who haven't been vaccinated yet, they're not a monolith. So there's not one reason or one answer. I mean, that would be maybe easier for public health officials to combat, but unfortunately, that's not the case. So there are going to be a group of die hard, never going to get a vaccine, nothing you say can convince me whether that's because they have some misinformation at hand that they're believing or whether it's a grand conspiracy theory to them.

    Unfortunately, they're just going to be people who are never going to accept vaccinations. But there are many other people who we've seen over the course of the pandemic who started out with some questions or doubts, a lot of them, which were very valid, wanting to see more data, wanted to understand the safety profile, maybe that they were confused by misinformation that was going around on the Internet and having the opportunity to have those one on one conversations with their provider, with a family member who could kind of talk them through their fears. That's what sort of changed their mind. And so I think that there is still a good percentage that can be convinced over time with repeated conversations. And I think that it is doing a disservice to folks who have concerns and fears to just say we're going to lump you in with people and say like you're a lost cause here.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Caroline Chen of ProPublica, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Caroline Chen:

    Thanks for having me. Good to see you.

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