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Another Sad Coronavirus Pandemic Milestone Is Approaching

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Another pandemic milestone is approaching. Nearly 600,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. This comes at a time when new cases have declined more than 90% since the winter highs. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to talk about this and also about a health condition that has been on the rise but underrecognized amid the pandemic. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So as we approach this 600,000 death mark, it seems like a stark reminder of the toll of the pandemic.

AUBREY: Yeah. I mean, the pandemic is easing up. And with so much of the return to normal or normal-ish, it's easy to overlook that it's not completely over. The U.S. is still losing about 375 people a day. That's a huge drop compared to the few thousand deaths a day back in the winter. But it's a reminder of how deadly the virus can be and the importance of the ongoing vaccination push. As of today, about 64% of adults in the U.S. have gotten at least their first dose. And it's clear that getting more people vaccinated as soon as possible is so important.

MCCAMMON: So the situation clearly is improving - fewer deaths, fewer cases. But there's still a lot of talk, Allison, about some of the ripple effects from the pandemic, some of the other health conditions linked to it. You've been looking into one in particular, what medical experts, I guess, call tinnitus, what a lot of us call tinnitus or ringing in the ear. What are you finding there?

AUBREY: Well, tinnitus is basically the perception of ringing in the ear when there's no external noise actually there. Some people describe the sound as a buzzing or even like crickets or a cicada-like sound. The CDC estimates that about 15% of people experience some form of tinnitus. An estimated 20 million people have chronic cases. And, sometimes, it's debilitating. There are also intermittent and temporary cases. Survey research done during the pandemic found that among people who already had tinnitus, many reported it got worse. I spoke to Eldre Beukes of Lamar University, who's one of the study authors.

ELDRE BEUKES: During the pandemic, for those people that had pre-existing tinnitus, that their tinnitus experiences were worse due to the changes the pandemic brought on lifestyle because I know there's a link between anxiety and increased stress and tinnitus either initiating or worsening.

AUBREY: So in general, people who were lonely, isolated or stressed, the more bothersome the ringing tended to be.

MCCAMMON: And so is the condition actually caused by the stress, or is stress something that makes it worse?

AUBREY: You know, the onset of tinnitus can be linked to a bunch of things. Hearing loss is one. Other potential triggers include TMJ issues, trauma to the head or even sinus pressure. And the survey found some people develop tinnitus just after a COVID infection. Now it's often hard to pinpoint the catalyst. That's the case with Elizabeth Fraser (ph). She's in her early 60s. She developed it last fall. She told me she realized that stress can heighten the intensity of the ringing in her ears.

ELIZABETH FRASER: Mine is just like this high-pitched sonic sound. And when it first started, I was mostly so highly distressed and panicked because I was bewildered. Where did this come from? What have I done wrong? And it was miserable 'cause I couldn't get away from it. It just felt like this invasion in my head. It doesn't necessarily feel like it's isolated to the ear. So I was really distressed.

AUBREY: It was as if the ringing was the only thing she could focus on, Sarah. And it was driving her mad.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, I mean, that sounds pretty awful. Was she able to do anything about it?

AUBREY: Yeah, she found a program online called Mindfulness Based Tinnitus Stress Reduction. It's based on research done at the University of California, San Francisco. Now, it doesn't take away or stop the ringing, but it does teach people how to be less bothered by it. I spoke to Jennifer Gans, the psychologist who developed the program.

JENNIFER GANS: A lot of people leave their doctor's office feeling in a panic when they experience bothersome tinnitus because it's often said, hey, there's no cure for this. There's no pill. There's no surgery that I can do for you. But actually, the results that I'm getting from the online Mindfulness Based Tinnitus Stress Reduction course are just showing that even in three weeks, people are seeing significant drops in their tinnitus bother and in their stress.

AUBREY: The ringing may not stop, probably doesn't stop, but the idea is to shift your reaction to it, to train the mind to just let go of the preoccupation with the ringing and focus on other things.

MCCAMMON: And how'd that work out for Elizabeth Fraser, the woman we heard from a moment ago?

AUBREY: She told me that learning these skills helped her immensely.

MCCAMMON: I immediately felt better. She pretty quickly takes it to the point of learning how to manage your anxiety and how to calm, you know, a hyperactive nervous system that's feeling endangered from this horrible noise in the head. And so I was practicing deep breathing, and that was helping me get to sleep.

AUBREY: Now, typically, when people are busy, when they're surrounded by others, they notice the ringing less. They're in the flow. They have plenty of distractions. But at night, when it's quiet or when they're alone, this can be challenging. The ringing can just be a lot more noticeable. So in addition to these breathing techniques, she also sometimes uses a white noise app that plays the sound of, say, falling rain, which can be relaxing and can help mask that sound in her head.

MCCAMMON: So, Allison, you say TIN-nitus. I, not being a science reporter, say tin-NI-tus.

AUBREY: (Laughter).

MCCAMMON: But regardless, ringing of the ears - really annoying. Really distressing. But is it actually dangerous?

AUBREY: You know, tinnitus itself is benign. But if it disrupts sleep, if it disrupts your quality of life, this becomes a serious health issue. And that's why seeking help can be important. The psychologist who developed the program says when tinnitus becomes very bothersome, it can be an indicator that your stress response is just kicked into high gear. So she said think of it as, like, a barometer. If the ringing gets worse, if it becomes more noticeable, it may be a signal your body is sending to say, hey, you know, it's time to take a break, to unwind and relax. That might help.

MCCAMMON: That sounds like a great idea for all of us, Allison. That is NPR's health correspondent Allison Aubrey. Thank you so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Sarah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARMS AND SLEEPERS' "UNSHIELD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.