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A Look Back, And Ahead, At COVID-19 In The U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And on this Memorial Day, we are thinking back to one year ago, a Memorial Day that felt very different. The U.S. had already seen awful COVID surges in states including New York, Michigan, Louisiana. As those numbers began to fall, an uneasy lull had set in, and we were beginning to survey the devastation. Here is how Ailsa and Ari, my co-hosts, opened the show on Memorial Day last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AILSA CHANG: The U.S. is the undisputed leader in a contest no one wants to win. This country has by far more reported cases of the coronavirus than any other nation in the world. The number now tops 1.6 million people.

ARI SHAPIRO: Even as we inch closer to 100,000 American lives lost to the virus, experts say the true death count is almost certainly higher than what we've been able to record.

KELLY: Again, that was last year. And, of course, those numbers kept climbing and climbing. Today the toll in this country stands at more than 33 million cases, nearly 600,000 people dead. But the number of vaccinated Americans these last few months - that number has been climbing, too. A hundred sixty-seven million people, half the U.S., has now gotten at least one dose. So this Memorial Day, some of our listeners are finally feeling like they can take a breath and relax, like Ada Orey in Maryland.

ADA OREY: This is my very first extended weekend since Christmas because I've been working six days a week. I've been watching Hallmark Channel, which is my happy escape from reality because there's always a happily ever after.

KELLY: Other listeners, though, like Michelle Weber in Oregon - they're still feeling cautious.

MICHELLE WEBER: Honestly, I'm feeling concerned about summer. My kids aren't old enough to be vaccinated. Even though Dad and I are vaccinated, we have made the decision that we're going to continue to wear masks outside of our home.

KELLY: So where are we as a country on this Memorial Day, and what do we need to look out for in the months to come? We're going to put those questions to Saskia Popescu, infectious disease expert and assistant professor at George Mason University.

Welcome.

SASKIA POPESCU: Thanks so much for having me.

KELLY: Did you ever imagine it would get so bad? I mean, if I told you a year ago that we would be approaching 600,000 Americans dead from the virus, would you believe me?

POPESCU: Honestly, I think the thing I keep going back to is - for those of us that work in pandemic response and just pandemic preparedness in general, there was this gut feeling during the Trump administration that if we had a biological event, you know, specifically an outbreak, we knew it would be tough because of the way that the administration had approached science and public health. But no one anticipated it would be so bad and just such an uphill battle every single day. A lot of it truly was preventable. If we could have gotten ahead of this and really prioritized science and public health, those numbers, I truly believe, would be drastically different.

KELLY: Where do you think we are in the arc of this? I've noticed people starting to struggle with what tense to talk about the pandemic in. Is it starting to feel in the rearview mirror to you, or do you feel like there's still significant hurdles to overcome ahead?

POPESCU: You know, we have 40% of the total population fully vaccinated. That's a very exciting thing. And it feels like we're starting to get ahead of this. But then I see the daily numbers of vaccines administered just declining, and we're struggling to get more people vaccinated, to get them to want to be vaccinated. But that's also this very U.S. focus. I was just discussing this with a friend because it feels like everybody in the U.S. is just, oh, COVID is over, and the rest of the world is struggling to get vaccines. You know, India is still dealing with, like, 200,000 cases a day. We've got really severe situations in Argentina and Colombia and Brazil. And, you know, I can't help but think we're starting to become very U.S.-focused with this. And this is truly a global issue.

KELLY: Looking overseas - where, as you noted, the situation looks so much worse in a lot of places than it now does in the U.S. - what are the responsibilities of the United States when it comes to helping the rest of the world through this next phase of the pandemic?

POPESCU: Well, I absolutely think that we do have a role in this. We don't want people to just become myopic about this and get very U.S.-focused. Global health is a huge piece of this, as we just saw with the questions regarding the variants that are coming out. The B1617 was first identified in India. There are a lot of questions about increased transmissibility. And every single time we identified a variant, we ask if it's going to impact, I should say, the vaccine effectiveness. And if we're asking ourselves those questions but we're not investing in global public health and global disease mitigation and vaccine distribution, then we have bigger issues at hand because we're never going to get ahead of this if we don't start supporting other countries in mitigation and vaccination.

KELLY: We're speaking, you and I, on Memorial Day, which, of course, is traditionally a time to reflect on the sacrifices of our armed forces. The last year has felt like we have been at war but against an invisible enemy. I wonder what you're reflecting on as somebody who has been studying and speaking about the pandemic over this last year.

POPESCU: Oh, that's a big question. I think right now I'm really reflecting on the mental health struggles that we're all going through right now. I think there's a lot of fatigue, a lot of exhaustion and some trauma we've all experienced. So I reflect on that and how we can better support each other. But as we've discussed, I simply am so worried and concerned that we're not thinking about the global context of that. And it really worries me. So I'm trying to just really be mindful of that right now. There's so much discussion about the progress we've made in the U.S., but we still have a long ways to go. And that's going to mean supporting people from a mental health perspective and the long term and for long COVID but also globally.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Saskia Popescu, infectious disease expert and assistant professor at George Mason University.

Thank you.

POPESCU: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.