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COVID is down in the U.S., but some regions are still experiencing outbreaks

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The number of Americans hospitalized for COVID is now less than half of what it was in early September. That is good news, but it masks some trouble spots, especially in the northern half of the country. NPR's Will Stone reports.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: If only it felt like the tail end of the delta wave in Dr. Andy Dunn's hospital. Instead, Wyoming Medical Center, the biggest hospital in the state, is contending with its biggest surge of the pandemic.

ANDY DUNN: In the 12 years I've been with the hospital, it's hands-down the busiest. We're seeing more COVID patients, and we're seeing sicker COVID patients.

STONE: It's not so much a surprise as a foreseeable tragedy. Dunn says they started planning months ago.

ANDY DUNN: For what we all thought predictably was going to happen based on how contagious the delta variant is combined with our low vaccination rate.

STONE: About 44% of Wyoming's population is fully vaccinated, which puts it behind almost every other state. In fact, the pandemic is still raging across much of the Mountain West, from Idaho to Colorado to Utah.

ANGELA DUNN: We are definitely in a crisis.

STONE: Dr. Angela Dunn directs the Salt Lake County Health Department.

ANGELA DUNN: When a patient needs an ICU bed, it takes us two to three hours because they're all full. Usually, it takes 10 minutes.

STONE: But she says much of the public doesn't seem aware of how bad it really is. Utah's vaccination rate is in the bottom half of states, and Dunn says very few people are showing up for a shot anymore. Most who are want boosters.

ANGELA DUNN: It's those people who initially got their vaccine very early, and they were excited to do so. So we're seeing a lot more demand for booster doses than first doses at this point.

STONE: Nationwide, here's how the pandemic looks. Cases have plummeted in the South, but many northern areas are seeing an uptick or trying to prevent a surge, even in heavily vaccinated areas like the Northeast. Vermont, for example, is about 70% vaccinated. A doctor there, Rick Hildebrant at Rutland Regional Medical Center, says they've cared for more COVID patients in the last month than ever before.

RICK HILDEBRANT: But we have never seen the type of scenarios you've seen in other parts of the country where the hospital systems have just been overwhelmed by COVID.

STONE: The state added more beds to deal with the strain, but this is mostly due to other kinds of patients, plus staffing shortages with COVID layered on top. And Hildebrant says those with COVID in their hospital...

HILDEBRANT: Generally, you can trace the cases back to an unvaccinated individual who has spread the virus in a small cluster.

STONE: Vermont shows that even a relatively well-vaccinated state is still vulnerable, says Dr. Tim Lahey at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

TIM LAHEY: I think we all hoped that, if you got, you know, 99% of your 60-, 70-, 80-year-olds vaccinated and most of the rest of the population, that that would be it. Goodnight for COVID. And clearly, that's not the case.

STONE: But so many seniors being vaccinated has shielded the hospitals from the kind of disaster seen elsewhere.

LAHEY: There are absolutely Vermonters who never ended up in the hospital because they got vaccinated.

STONE: As the weather gets colder and more people gather indoors and travel, other well-vaccinated places could see a surge, too. Dr. David Rubin does COVID modeling at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, but he says so far this fall, even when cases have risen, outbreaks have not gotten out of control.

DAVID RUBIN: That gives you some cautious optimism that some of these more highly vaccinated regions in the North may prove somewhat resilient through the holiday season.

STONE: Rubin says this next stage of the vaccination campaign, when children start getting shots, could make a huge difference in the coming months.

RUBIN: And, to me, offers probably the greatest hope that our worst days are behind us.

STONE: But in places where many adults are still unvaccinated, he says the data are unassailable. More people die, the hospitals get overrun, and the return to normal is slow and painful.

Will Stone, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.