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Pennsylvania sees a dramatic surge in COVID cases driven by the Delta variant

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, we mentioned that we're going to go to one of the places reporting a surge in cases. We're going to Pennsylvania. COVID hospitalizations in that state are up 24% in the last two weeks. Dr. Jeffrey Jahre is an infectious disease expert with St. Luke's University Health Network, which is based in Bethlehem, Pa.

Welcome to the program.

JEFFREY JAHRE: Good morning. Glad to be with you.

INSKEEP: If we walked around one of your network hospitals, what would we see?

JAHRE: Well, what you would see is that all of our beds are full. And we have many patients that are in our emergency room that are waiting to be admitted. The bulk of these patients do not have COVID. But the numbers of patients that do have COVID are producing a tremendous burden on our entire system. And we know that this is primarily due to unvaccinated individuals.

INSKEEP: You said that most of the people in the hospitals are not people with COVID. But the number of people with COVID is rising. Are COVID patients pushing other people out of the hospital, as has happened in earlier phases of the pandemic?

JAHRE: Well, so far, it hasn't. And of course, we don't know where the peak is going to be. Currently, the numbers of patients that we have with COVID in our hospital actually is higher than it was last year, when we didn't have vaccinations. And of course, we're heading into a season where we can expect that there is likely to be even greater numbers. So we don't know where this is going to peak off. And we haven't even discussed whether the omicron virus is going to have any implications for us.

INSKEEP: I guess you don't...

JAHRE: All of the patients that we're seeing currently have delta.

INSKEEP: OK. So you don't even know what omicron's going to do. But we did say, in Pennsylvania, 24% rise in cases over just two weeks. We don't want to look too far ahead. But suppose that continues for another two weeks, another 24% increase. You just said the beds are full. What happens to your hospitals in two weeks?

JAHRE: As with most hospitals, we have surge capacity plans and contingency measures. But with any contingency measure, you can actually have something that overwhelms the system. So we're hopeful that that won't happen. We're prepared for what we think is the worst. But the problem here is that you really don't know where this is going to peak off.

INSKEEP: How are you advising people in your community to handle the holidays?

JAHRE: The main thing that we're trying to get across to people, since the burden is due to unvaccinated individuals, that is, for those who haven't been vaccinated - and as you know, in our state, 35% to 40% of individuals have not been vaccinated - to please do so. You're not only doing this for yourself, but you're, obviously, doing this for your loved ones and your community. Secondly, as you have already indicated in your previous interview, we know that the effect of the vaccines in the number of populations does wane after six months. So anyone who's actually had full vaccination before June should take advantage and get a booster. And as you point out now, that's - anyone who's over the age of 16 is eligible.

INSKEEP: Dr. Jahre, would you address someone in the audience - and there may be very many people who have this opinion - someone who has said to themselves or to other people they're choosing not to get vaccinated, and they say, my choice not to get vaccinated affects no one except me? If someone tells you that, how do you respond?

JAHRE: Of course, we hear that all the time. It's my body, and my choice. And in some situations, that might be a perfectly reasonable thought. It is not a thought when what you do is - has a direct effect on others. And that's the situation when you're dealing with a contagious disease that we are. So this is not just about your body. It also is about your responsibility. So...

INSKEEP: Would you spell that...

JAHRE: ...That's what we actually...

INSKEEP: Would you just...

JAHRE: ...Tell people.

INSKEEP: ...Spell that out? Do - the very basic things. How is it that my body affects somebody else if I choose not to get vaccinated?

JAHRE: You have right now a virus that's highly transmissible and that can affect individuals who may be vaccinated, who have immune compromise, who may be elderly and, obviously, can affect those who are also unvaccinated. So your choice has direct implications for those around you. And that's why you have to take responsibility along with your rights.

INSKEEP: If I choose not to get vaccinated and that raises the hospitalization rate in my community, might I even end up effectively denying care to somebody when it runs out?

JAHRE: Well, we know it - that's a possibility. Last year, there were certain hospitals that ended up being barred from doing elective procedures. Because of that, a number of people put off what they absolutely needed to get done. And that's part of the problem that we're seeing right now where we have another surge of patients who actually have very advanced disease because they didn't get the care that they needed last year.

INSKEEP: Dr. Jeffrey Jahre of St. Luke's University Health Network in Bethlehem, Pa., thanks so much.

JAHRE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.