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Public health experts say most of us will get COVID-19. What does that mean?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Is it inevitable that everyone's going to get COVID? Here's acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock.

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JANET WOODCOCK: I think it's hard to process what's actually happening right now, which is most people are going to get COVID.

SHAPIRO: Most people are going to get COVID, she said. Well, at the White House COVID-19 briefing today, Dr. Anthony Fauci gave a little more context and explained what this might look like. NPR's Allison Aubrey is here to explain. Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hey there. Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: Should we be alarmed or reassured by this statement that most of us are going to COVID-19?

AUBREY: You know, I think the answer to that, Ari, depends somewhat on whether you've been vaccinated and boosted. I think Dr. Woodcock's statement was kind of a recognition that COVID is not going away. As Dr. Anthony Fauci described it during the White House briefing today, COVID won't be eradicated, but we can learn to manage it better. You know, if it comes back season after season, it will be more predictable, more like the flu.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: Sooner or later as we begin to live with it, what she was referring to is that virtually everybody is going to wind up getting exposed and likely get infected. But if you're vaccinated, and if you're boosted, the chances of you getting sick are very, very low.

AUBREY: You might get mild symptoms, but you'd be very unlikely to end up in the hospital.

SHAPIRO: He said sooner or later as we begin to live with it. That's not exactly a precise timeframe. What's he talking about there?

AUBREY: (Laughter) Yeah, you know, Dr. Fauci was talking about the long run here, Ari. Not everyone is going to get infected during this current surge, though millions of people are. The World Health Organization has warned that about 50% of people in Europe will be infected with omicron in the next six to eight weeks, according to some models, and it could be similar here in the U.S.

SHAPIRO: There is also some new data on the severity of omicron infections. What does it show?

AUBREY: You know, a new study out from Kaiser Permanente Southern California shows that compared to delta, the omicron variant does seem to cause less severe illness. Kaiser Permanente is a very large health care system. Researchers there reviewed the medical records of about 69,000 patients with COVID. They found that patients with omicron were about half as likely to end up in the hospital compared to those with delta. And when they did get hospitalized, they got better more quickly. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky spoke about this study during the White House briefing earlier today.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: When compared to delta, infections with omicron were associated with a 74% reduction in adjusted risk of ICU admission and a 91% reduction in adjusted risk of mortality. No patients with omicron required mechanical ventilation.

AUBREY: Hospital stays were shorter, too - five days on average with delta but just a day and a half for omicron infections.

SHAPIRO: That sounds like really good news. What does it imply about what we're likely to see in the weeks ahead?

AUBREY: You know, I mean, because omicron is so contagious and there are so many cases, it's likely we'll continue to see a high number of hospitalizations. And that's because, you know, a small fraction of infected people, particularly those who are not vaccinated, will get sick enough. And many ERs are already slammed.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks a lot.

AUBREY: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: And I want to bring in Dr. Ashish Jha, a physician and Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, who's been listening in. Dr. Jha, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ASHISH JHA: Hey, Ari. Thanks for having me back.

SHAPIRO: We were just talking about what this looks like in hospitals. I gather you are in the hospital now. What are you seeing?

JHA: I am. I'm on clinical service, seeing patients in the hospital who are admitted. I'm seeing a lot of people with COVID - some people incidentally infected with COVID but there for something else.

SHAPIRO: Oh, meaning they're there for something else, but they happen to test positive.

JHA: Yeah. Exactly. And you expect that when you have this much infection in the community. There's so much COVID out there. But we're also seeing a good number of people being admitted because of COVID. And in that group, it's almost exclusively people who are unvaccinated or high-risk people who are vaccinated but not boosted. I personally in the last couple of weeks have not seen a single boosted person admitted as a complication of COVID. Boosting really makes...

SHAPIRO: Not one.

JHA: Not one. It's not that it never happens. It's just - it's infrequent. And in my sample size, it hasn't happened. But it is really infrequent.

SHAPIRO: So let's talk about the statements we heard from Dr. Woodcock and Dr. Fauci about most Americans are likely to be infected at some point with COVID-19. What do you think the most important takeaway from that is?

JHA: Yeah, so I think first of all, there is a little bit of fatalism on the current surge, where people are saying, oh, everybody is going to get infected with omicron in this surge. I don't think that's true. I do think 20 to 30% of Americans - which is still, you know, 60 to 100 million people - are going to probably end up getting infected in this surge, before this surge is over. That is a lot, but obviously not everybody. I think the key here is that over the long run, sure, most Americans will end up getting infected. But, you know, we're going to have a lot more therapies. We need to get more people vaccinated. Eventually, we will get to a point where this virus no longer poses a mortal risk to people, does not overwhelm our hospitals, does not disrupt our schools. And we want to...

SHAPIRO: You say we'll get there eventually, but right now if someone is boosted and they're hearing you say, well, I haven't seen anybody boosted in the hospital, and they're hearing...

JHA: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...These administration officials say everyone is going to get it eventually, I can imagine someone saying let's have a chicken pox party and get this over with.

JHA: Right.

SHAPIRO: How would you respond to that?

JHA: I would say two things. First of all, even for boosted people, just because you don't end up in the hospital, you can still be pretty miserable for a few days. Not sure why you need to seek that out. And second, we don't know what the long-term immunity is from getting infected. So it's not like you get infected and you're done for life. So there is no reason whatsoever to go out and seek getting infected. And we're going to get better tools over time. We're going to get more therapeutics over time. So anything we can do to delay more infections - they may be inevitable, but there's no reason to do it now.

SHAPIRO: Masks are obviously one way to delay more infections, and there's been this move away from cloth masks towards N95 and KN95s. The CDC says it's not changing its recommendations, but what guidance are you giving patients right now about what masks to wear?

JHA: Yeah. So No. 1 is wear a mask that you can wear comfortably for an extended period of time. That is the most important thing. A well-fitting mask is essential. And there are some good three-ply cloth masks that are fine. There is no question in my mind that a higher quality, higher filtering mask like an N95, KN95, KF94 - these are out there. You can get them. They clearly make an enormous difference. And the key is to find one that's comfortable, that you can wear for an extended period of time. No mask is any good if you can't wear it reliably.

SHAPIRO: Does all of this guidance change if you are the parent of a child under five who cannot get vaccinated? And I know there's a lot of frustration out there among those parents. Some of them are friends of mine.

JHA: Yes, some of them are friends of mine as well. It is a frustrating moment to know that you have a kid who can't get vaccinated. First of all, I'm hoping that in the next month or two, we will see real progress on vaccinations for kids under 5. So it is a little bit of hold on, that's coming too. Until then, I think, you know, the key is what we know about kids is kids get their infections from adults around them. And so if we have adults around those kids vaccinated, boosted, that's going to make an enormous difference in protecting those children.

SHAPIRO: And finally, just in a sentence or two, how does this calculation change our approach to schooling and teaching in person versus remotely?

JHA: Yeah, I think we now have all the tools we need to do in-person education. Everybody in school should be able to get vaccinated. We've got high-quality masks. We've got billions of dollars out there for improvements in ventilation testing. I don't think we really should be talking about remote schooling at this point. We can get all the kids back and the kids and teachers safe.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, always good to talk with you. Thank you.

JHA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.