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Yet another summer COVID wave may have started in the U.S., according to the CDC

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Yet another summer wave of COVID infections may have started. That is according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But so far, COVID's toll looks nothing like the last three summers. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now to explain. Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: So Rob, I just have to be honest with you - this is not the kind of update many people want to hear.

STEIN: No.

SUMMERS: Tell us what's going on here.

STEIN: Yeah, you know, the CDC says all the metrics suggest that the virus is still out there and just hasn't given up the fight. The amount of virus being detected in wastewater, the percentage of people testing positive and the number of people going to emergency rooms because of COVID all started creeping back up at the beginning of July. And in the past week, Dr. Brendan Jackson, the CDC's COVID-19 incident manager, says officials spotted a key bellwether.

BRENDAN JACKSON: After roughly six, seven months of steady declines, things are starting to tick back up again. We've seen the early indicators go up for the past several weeks. And just this week, for the first time in a long time, we've seen hospitalizations tick up as well. This could be the start of a late summer wave.

STEIN: Hospitalizations jumped 10%. Now, most of those ending up in a hospital are older, like in their 70s, 80s and 90s. And deaths from COVID are still falling. In fact, they're at the lowest they've been since the CDC started tracking them. But that could change in the coming weeks if hospitalizations keep increasing.

SUMMERS: OK. So Rob, how worried should we be about this?

STEIN: You know, for now, it's very much a kind of wait-and-see situation. Jackson stresses the numbers are still very, very low - far lower than they were the last three summers.

JACKSON: If you sort of imagine the decline in cases looking like a ski slope going down, down, down for the last six months, we're just starting to see a little bit of a - almost like a little ski jump at the bottom.

STEIN: A jump that could keep shooting up, but not necessarily. So the CDC's nowhere near ratcheting up recommendations for what people should do, like, you know, urging routine masking again. Here's how Caitlin Rivers from Johns Hopkins put it.

CAITLIN RIVERS: It's like when meteorologists are, like, watching a storm forming offshore and they're not sure if it'll pick up steam yet or if it'll even turn towards the mainland. But they see that the conditions are there and are watching closely.

STEIN: But, you know, people are probably hearing more about friends and family catching COVID again. In fact, I caught it for the first time about six weeks ago. It was pretty mild, but it still wasn't fun. And my wife caught it from me, got pretty sick and is still recovering.

SUMMERS: I hope she's feeling better soon, Rob.

STEIN: Thanks.

SUMMERS: What is the cause in the uptick in cases?

STEIN: You know, no one thinks it's some kind of new variant or anything like that. It's - there's just what people are calling a soup of omicron subvariants spreading around that don't look much different than the others that came before it. So, you know, it's probably just a repeat of the last three years. The virus has surged in the U.S. every summer and every winter since the pandemic started. So maybe that's just how it's going to be from now on.

SUMMERS: Last thing - what's the outlook looking forward for the rest of the summer and the rest of the year?

STEIN: You know, it wouldn't be surprising if the numbers keep going up for a bit and cause a true summer wave, but it's pretty unlikely to get anywhere close to being as bad as the last three summers because we have so much immunity from all the infections and vaccinations we've gotten. And many experts do think there'll be another wave this fall and winter and maybe a pretty big one. So the Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve a new vaccine in September to try to blunt whatever happens during the winter.

SUMMERS: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thank you.

STEIN: Sure thing, Juana. 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.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.