STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's take stock of the pandemic as the United States of America sets another record. This is the first country in the world to surpass 5 million cases of coronavirus. The number of deaths is also rising, although different parts of America are having different experiences. So NPR's Allison Aubrey is here to talk us through the moment. Hi there, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Five million cases of coronavirus - that is a cumulative number. One-hundred sixty thousand deaths - also a cumulative number over several months - in what direction are we heading right now?
AUBREY: You know, nationwide, new cases appear to be plateauing or even declining in some places. But keep in mind, Steve, cases have nearly doubled since the end of June. It's kind of staggering to think about that. And to put this 5 million milestone into perspective, Brazil has about 3 million cases, India about 2 million cases. So we have a lot of virus here. And we have a lot of deaths too - a little more than a thousand deaths a day. That's about 40 people an hour. So coronavirus is on track to be the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. this year, behind cancer and heart disease.
INSKEEP: We can get numb to these numbers, so I just want to keep perspective. In the spring, officials were hoping that there would only be 60,000 dead, which was a disaster. And now we're at 160,000. How much higher could that go?
AUBREY: That's right. Well, some models predict the death toll could reach nearly 300,000 by the end of the year. Now, it could be less, but it depends on what we do, Steve. So people need to stay vigilant on social distancing and masking, and many experts say we need to change our testing strategy. You know, testing has really dogged the U.S. since the beginning of this pandemic. It continues to be a problem. Here's former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. He spoke on "Face The Nation."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")
SCOTT GOTTLIEB: We need to implant more low-cost tests, tests that can be done at the point of care or at the point of school or work. But right now, we don't have the testing available to implement the kind of oversight that we'd like.
AUBREY: You know, ideally, teachers would be tested as they return to work and students, too. We know kids get infected, right? And according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly 100,000 kids tested positive in just the last few weeks of July.
AUBREY: That's an increase. And many are from states that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, so this is a concern.
INSKEEP: Scott Gottlieb mentioned the latest hope for testing. He was talking about low-cost test, a saliva test.
AUBREY: That's right.
INSKEEP: How would they be different than what we have now?
AUBREY: Sure. Well, these are faster alternatives. I mean, the diagnostic tests we've been relying on are very accurate, but they can be expensive and time-consuming. I spoke to Marty Burke at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He has helped to develop one of the saliva tests, which is actually being used on his campus now. In fact, it's going to be required, Steve. There's no swabbing, no sticking anything up your nose. You hand over a sample of your saliva, and you can get the result back in hours.
MARTY BURKE: So our average is about three to six hours. That's absolutely the key. If you don't get results back for one, you know, or two days beyond that, it's pretty much useless. And so, in contrast, if you get your results back in hours, you can quickly isolate individuals - right? - who are tested positive. And then this can have a very large positive impact on mitigating disease spread. So fast and frequent is the key, and that's why we focus so much on that.
AUBREY: And given the strategy, they plan to test everyone on campus two times per week. So this is a place to keep an eye on as we enter this kind of experiment of opening schools and campuses during a pandemic.
INSKEEP: Are other campuses doing that much testing?
AUBREY: You know, many institutions just say they simply don't have the capacity. They can't get their hands on the tests. We've seen a spate of announcements from colleges that will hold classes online, go all virtual, from Johns Hopkins to Howard University. But for campuses that are opening their doors and their dormitories, some are attempting a closed-campus approach. They're restricting visitors and student comings and goings saying, you know, once you've arrived on campus, you're not supposed to leave. I spoke to David Paltiel, a professor of public health at Yale University, about this. Now, his research suggests that without frequent testing, it's going to be tougher to limit the spread of this virus. And he says this walled garden approach of trying to create kind of a bubble over a school just isn't very realistic. There are just too many reasons students may need to come and go.
DAVID PALTIEL: There are inevitably going to be exceptions that are going to need to be made for these special circumstances, and every one of those exceptions is going to poke a little hole in the wall that you think you're erecting around your campus. It's akin to creating a no-pee zone in a swimming pool. It doesn't work.
INSKEEP: (Laughter) Allison, thanks for bringing us that amid all this disastrous news. We've got to get our laughs where we can.
AUBREY: That's right.
INSKEEP: You did say at the beginning, amid all these somber numbers, you said plateau. You said decline. Are we doing any better as a country?
AUBREY: You know, when it comes to doing better about social distancing and masking, I think it's a real mixed bag. I mean, New York has brought the rate down to 1%, which is very impressive. But yesterday, the mayor of Kansas City, Mo., Quinton Lucas, said on CBS that, you know, people just aren't paying attention to public health recommendations.
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QUINTON LUCAS: House parties of up to hundreds of people, a lot of backyard parties, and a lot of folks and families in other informal settings that aren't following social distancing rules, aren't wearing masks. And that has helped fuel the spread both here and in the states around us.
AUBREY: And he says it's this type of behavior that could fuel new outbreaks. So as we've said many times, Steve, we all need to do our part.
INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey, reporting from home, as she has been doing for months.
AUBREY: That's right.
INSKEEP: Allison, thanks so much for your work.
AUBREY: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.