Press Briefing by White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Officials

2 years ago

Via Teleconference

11:05 A.M. EDT

MR. ZIENTS:  Good morning.  Today, before I turn to Dr. Walensky, Dr. Fauci, and Dr. Nunez-Smith, I want to start by talking about why our vaccination program is so critical.

All along, we have said that by getting fully vaccinated, Americans protect themselves, their loved ones, and their communities.  Already, in just over five months, thanks to our whole-of-government effort and the hard work of local leaders in communities across the country, more than 182 Americans — 182 million Americans have taken action and rolled up their sleeves to get a shot, and nearly 160 million Americans have gotten fully vaccinated.

Just yesterday, we got a powerful reminder about what’s at stake in our vaccination effort from a new report by experts from the Yale School of Public Health.  The study states the vaccination campaign markedly curbed the U.S. pandemic and concludes the pace at which we have vaccinated the country has saved more than 100,000 American lives and prevented up to 450,000 hospitalizations.  This is further evidence that our whole-of-government strategy is working and has prevented significant further tragedy and disruption to Americans’ lives and livelihoods. 

More than two out of three adults have at least one shot.  As a country, we’re closer than ever to ending this pandemic and getting back to normal. 

But the sad reality is that, despite our progress, we’re still losing people to this virus — which is especially tragic given, at this point, it is unnecessary and preventable.  Virtually all COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in the United States are now occurring among unvaccinated individuals.  And to be clear, there will likely continue to be an increase in cases among unvaccinated Americans and in communities with low vaccination rates, particularly given the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant. 

At the same time, we’ve already fully vaccinated nearly 80 percent of seniors — those 65 and older and those most at risk.  So, despite a potential increase in the number of cases, there will likely be fewer hospitalizations and deaths.  The bottom line is there’s simply no reason that anyone 12 and older should be severely impacted by this virus. 

So our focus is on reaching those who have still not made the choice to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their communities.  Over the last six months, we’ve seen vaccine confidence increase steadily from 34 percent to 68 percent.  That is because we’ve worked hard to get the word out about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, and because so many Americans have stepped up, gotten their shot, and done their part. 

Now, we know that most people who are not yet vaccinated still have to make up their mind.  As such, each person in this phase will take longer to reach, but that makes them no less important.  And the spread of the Delta variant, which poses a particular threat to our young people, only strengthens our resolve to reach everyone.

Our job is to keep doing all we can to reach Americans where they are, to answer their questions, and to make it as easy as possible for them to get a shot as soon as they are ready.  And our goal is simple: Get more and more Americans fully vaccinated.

As the science makes crystal clear, individuals who are fully vaccinated have a very high degree of protection and those who are not fully vaccinated are not protected.  So every individual that we vaccinate is a step forward.  And across the summer months, we’ll vaccinate millions more individuals. 

As the President said, we do this by going community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, person by person; by partnering with local leaders, governors, mayors, doctors, school administrators, employers, faith leaders, and community organizers — leaders that people know and trust.  One shot at a time.  One person at a time. 

And the good news is we know this local, community-by-community approach works.  In June, we focused much of this work in places with some of the lowest vaccination rates.  We worked with local organizations in these communities to make sure people knew where to get a vaccine and how effective the vaccines are against COVID-19.  We focused much of this work in states including Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Texas — states with some of the lowest vaccination rates.

Across June, vaccination rates in these states grew faster than the overall national vaccination rate.  So we’re going to stay at it and continue to make progress.  We will get vaccines to more and more family doctors so Americans can get a shot at their doctor’s office. 

Across the last few months, we’ve already nearly doubled the number of medical practices receiving vaccine, with tens of thousands of family doctors now administering shots.  We will build on this progress and work with pediatricians and other healthcare providers who serve younger people to push to get younger people vaccinated as they see their doctors for back-to- school checkups or get physicals for fall sports. 

We will also intensify our efforts to bring vaccines to where many people spend the most time during the week: at workplaces and on school campuses. 

At the same time we work with communities to get more shots and arms, we’re also mobilizing COVID-19 surge response teams to provide additional support to states in dealing with outbreaks among the unvaccinated. 

The COVID-19 surge response teams have begun working with several states to identify and support the state-specific or county-specific needs.  This includes states such as Missouri, Nevada, Illinois, and Arkansas.  These efforts include providing expert support from the CDC on outbreak investigations; working with local health officials on getting more treatments for people with COVID; and helping states increase vaccine confidence, answer questions, and expand access to vaccinations and testing. 

In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to make sure states have access to the specific federal resources and capabilities they need to fight the virus.  And as always, we will continue to keep equity at the center of everything we do, because every person in every community matters. 

In closing, America is coming back.  Millions are safely living a more normal life.  And we have a huge swath of the country vaccinated.  We have moved from getting Americans vaccinated at a speed and scale never seen before, to focusing on reaching each individual who remains unvaccinated to ensure they are protected as well. 

We push forward with a singular focus: Every shot matters; every individual that we vaccinate is progress.  It’s another life protected, another community that is safer, and another step toward putting this pandemic behind us that has sadly taken more than 600,000 lives here at home and a total of 4 million lives around the world. 

With that, let me hand it over to Dr. Walensky.

Dr. Walensky.

DR. WALENSKY:  Thank you, Jeff.  Good morning.  Let’s begin with an overview of the data.  Yesterday, CDC reported a little over 14,000 new cases of COVID-19.  Our seven-day average is about 13,900 cases per day.  And this represents an increase in cases, of nearly 11 percent, from the prior seven-day average.

The seven-day average of hospital admissions is about 2,000 per day.  This also represents an increase of about 7 percent from the prior seven-day average. 

And the seven-day average of daily deaths is about 184 per day. 

These numbers and what we are seeing across the country reveal two truths about the current state of the pandemic.  On the one hand, we have seen the successes of our vaccination program over the last eight months, with cases, hospitalizations, and deaths far lower than the peaks we saw in January.  And yet, on the other hand, we are starting to see some new and concerning trends.  Simply put, in areas of low vaccination coverage, cases and hospitalizations are up.

Further, we are seeing some small clusters and larger outbreaks of COVID-19 in locations such as camps and community events where proper hard-learned prevention strategies are not enforced and the virus is readily able to thrive. 

Meanwhile, the Delta variant is spreading rapidly throughout the country.  This week, the Delta variant is estimated to be the most prevalent variant in the United States, representing over 50 percent of sequenced samples across the country, up from 26 percent from the week ending June 19.

And in some parts of the country, the percentage is even higher.  For example, in parts of the Midwest and Upper Mountain states, CDC’s early sequence data suggests the Delta variant accounts for approximately 80 percent of cases. 

Although we expected the Delta variant to become the dominant strain in the United States, this rapid rise is troubling.  We know that the Delta variant has increased transmissibility, and it is currently surging in pockets of the country with low vaccination rates. 

We also know that our authorized vaccines prevent severe disease, hospitalization, and death from the Delta variant, and results — these results have been observed not just here in the United States, but in other countries as well. 

Of course, widespread vaccination is what will truly turn the corner on this pandemic.  Please know if you are not vaccinated, you remain susceptible, especially from the transmit — transmissible Delta variant and are particularly at risk for severe illness and death.

I want to share with you my concerns about what we’re seeing across the country in areas of low vaccination coverage and in counties with increasing case rates.  As shown on the left map in blue, there are 173 counties in the United States that have case rates of greater than or equal to 100 cases per 100,000 people over the last seven days.  On the right side of this slide, shown in purple, are the counties in the U.S. that have both vaccine coverage less than 40 percent and cases of greater than or equal to 100 per 100,000 people over the last several days. 

Of the 173 counties with the highest case rates, the vast majority — 93 percent — have less than 40 percent vaccination of their residents.  These counties are where more than 9 million Americans live and work, and are the locations in the country where we are seeing the increased hospitalizations and deaths among unvaccinated individuals.  Many of these counties are also the same locations where the Delta variant represents the large majority of circulating virus.  Low vaccination rates in these counties coupled with high case rates and lax mitigation policies that do not protect those who are unvaccinated from disease will certainly and sadly lead to more unnecessary suffering, hospitalizations, and potentially death. 

Indeed, as I stated last week, preliminary data from several states over the last few months suggests that 99.5 percent of deaths from COVID-19 in the United States were in unvaccinated people.  Those deaths were preventable with a simple, safe shot.

COVID-19 vaccines are free and available to everyone age 12 and up.  Vaccinating — vaccination is our leading public health strategy to stop the Delta variant and bring case rates down in these counties.

We are seeing that communities and counties that have high vaccine coverage and low case rates are getting back to normal.  Turning the corner on this pandemic, getting back to normal, and stopping the Delta variant requires all of us to do our part and to get vaccinated. 

Thank you.  I’ll now turn things over to Dr. Fauci.

DR. FAUCI:  Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky.  As you heard from Dr. Walensky, the Delta variant is assuming more and more dominance in this country, particularly in those areas of low vaccination.  So the logical question one asks: Is that the vaccines that our — they are — that we are using, how effective are they against the various aspects of disease associated with a Delta variant? 

If I could have the first slide. 

First, let’s take a look at the mRNA vaccines, which are two out of the three vaccines that are used in this country — and mRNA, overwhelmingly, used the most among vaccines. 

The real-world setting, as shown here if you ask, cases protected against — the Scotland study — showing that two doses of Pfizer are about 79 percent protective.  Symptomatic disease — a study from England — again, two doses of Pfizer: 88 percent.  And hospitalizations — again, in England — two doses: 96 percent real-world effectiveness.  You can make a quite reasonable assumption that data that are applicable to Pfizer are also applicable to Moderna. 

Then the next slide, please. 

The question is — I’ve just spoken about the mRNA vaccines: What about the J&J vaccines?  There’s indirect and direct evidence for effectiveness of J&J against the Delta variant.  Because if you look at a comparison between the J&J and the Oxford-AstraZeneca, or the AZ vaccine — because they use similar adenovirus vectors.  We have clinical data with AZ in real-world effectiveness.  And as you can see, when you look at infection versus symptomatic versus the important number on the bottom of the slide — 92 percent effective against hospitalization from the Delta variant. 

Next slide. 

But there’s also other types of data, namely looking at the antibodies that are induced by vaccination with J&J.  A recent study that came out a few days ago, looked at the blood studies from individuals vaccinated with the typical single dose of J&J vaccine.  And it covered the Delta variants and other variants really, effectively, quite well. 

Next slide. 

In a similar, related paper, when you look at the durability of the humoral and cellular immunity using the J&J vaccine — again, against the Delta and other variants — again, shows not only good protection projected by the antibody test, but also a good durability of that protection out to eight months. 

So what’s the bottom line of all of this?  We’ve heard about the threat from Dr. Walensky about the increasing in infections.  The question is: If you get vaccinated, are you protected?  And the answer is —

Next slide. 

As shown on this study — or this story from the New York Times, the world is understandably worried about the Delta virus variant, but studies showed, as I’ve showed you on the previous against it.  The only conclusion one can reasonably come to from looking at what I’ve told you over the last few minutes is: Please get vaccinated.  It will protect you against the surging of the Delta variant. 

Let me now hand it over to Dr. Nunez-Smith. 

DR. NUNEZ-SMITH:  Thank you so much, Dr. Fauci.  Good morning, everyone.  Very glad to be here with you today to provide an update on equity and the progress we’re making vaccinating communities that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, with a focus today on communities of color. 

So when we consider the data that we have on race and ethnicity — and, of course, we have to acknowledge there are still notable data gaps and some caveats remain — but still, the data indicate the majority of individuals receiving vaccines over the past two weeks identified as people of color. 

And so, more specifically, 12 percent of individuals getting their first shot these past two weeks have identified as Black.  That’s roughly equivalent in terms of the group’s representation in the general U.S. population.

Latinos make up 17 percent of the total U.S. population, and over these past two weeks have accounted for 34 percent of individuals getting their first shot. 

So, we do see progress, and particularly so when we look at the federal vaccination channels, and those were set up in the very first few weeks of the administration. 

You know, at our community health centers, more than 75 percent of people vaccinated at those locations are people of color.  Nearly two thirds of those vaccinated at dialysis centers are people of color.  And over the past two weeks, 58 percent of doses administered at pharmacies have been to people of color.  And over 50 percent of vaccines administered at the federally run vaccination centers went to people of color. 

But despite this progress, we still have more work to do.  And as the President said on Tuesday: This summer, the work — it’s going to be hyperlocal, person by person to help folks get vaccinated.  And each one of us is worth the effort.  And every vaccination is a victory. 

So we will continue to make vaccination easy and convenient.  We’re going to continue to address structural barriers, both to accessing accurate information, as well as accessing vaccination resources, meeting people where they are, especially younger folks.

So you’ll see more mobile units in neighborhoods across the country and at summer gatherings.  We’ll continue to work with employers on paid time off, and to provide on-site vaccination opportunities.  And, of course, we’ll continue to lift up best and promising practices, finding innovative ways to bring vaccinations to people. 

One example: On Mondays and Fridays, the Chicago Transit Authority is partnering with the Chicago Department of Public Health to implement pop-up COVID-19 vaccination station clinics.  The Chicago Transit Authority has retrofitted buses that will make stops along the L Line stations to administer vaccines where rates have been lower. 

And today, we’re pleased to announce that four of the nation’s largest childcare providers — that’s Bright Horizons, KinderCare, Learning Care Group, and the YMCA — have agreed to continue providing free drop-in childcare for parents and caregivers getting vaccinated through Labor Day, which is September 6th — extended from their initial commitment, which was through the Fourth of July.  So, thank you to all of our partners. 

And, of course, we’re going to keep partnering with community faith-based organizations all across the country.  Those partners are trusted and trustworthy.  And so whether that’s a house of worship, a barber shop, a medical practice, or a local community center, working together to build vaccine confidence and increase access. 

And importantly, we have to continue to get the message out to remind everyone vaccination is free; government-issued ID is not required; proof of insurance is not required; and we will always, always commit to maintaining data privacy.  And last but certainly not least, we’ll continue to strengthen the data environment to inform equity interventions and commit to prioritizing long-term health equity policies. 

So, communities are the experts in what they need, all the time.  So partnership and collaboration — that’s how we’ll get through this together.  And thank you so much to everyone on the ground, showing up every day to advance equity. 

And with that, I’ll turn things back over to you, Jeff. 

MR. ZIENTS:  Okay, thank you, doctors.  Let’s open it up for a few questions. 

MODERATOR:  Thanks, Jeff.  And we are very limited on questions and timing today, so please keep it to one question.  First let’s go to Yamiche at PBS. 

Q    Hi.  Thanks so much for taking my question.  This one — if I can go to Dr. Fauci — I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about mask wearing.  You said that you would possibly wear a mask if you were in a community with low vaccination rates.  And is there any sort of thinking that we might have to go back to wearing masks indoors in the fall if things get even worse?  And it’s for vaccinated people, of course.

DR. FAUCI:  Yeah.  Yeah, so let me clarify that.  When I was asked a question about wearing masks when you are vaccinated — and the question that was “If you would go to a place with a high degree of viral dynamics and a very low level of vaccine, what you might do?”  And I underscored “might.”  And that is the discretion that people have, even if you are vaccinated. 

For example, if you are an elderly person or if you have a person with an underlying disease, you might want to go the extra mile of protection of wearing a mask if you are indoors in an environment with a high degree of infection in the community and a low level of vaccination. 

That is not a mask recommendation; that’s just for consideration of each individual has their own level of the risk that they would like to take.  And there are many individuals who would feel — because of age, or because of an underlying condition — that they might want to wear a mask. 

Having said that, let me emphasize that if you are vaccinated, you have a very high degree of protection and therefore you do not need to wear a mask.  So I wanted to make sure I clarified what I had said and what was interpreted with what I had said. 

MR. ZIENTS:  Okay.  Thank you, Dr. Fauci.  Next question. 

MODERATOR:  Alice Park at Time.

Q    Hi.  Thank you.  Just wanted to follow up on that and ask: Can we take from that then — and this is for both Dr. Walensky and Dr. Fauci — that — are we going to be looking at going the way of the UK and start leaving it up to individual people to decide how and when to wear masks, and how and when to continue practicing social distancing and other mitigation measures? 

MR. ZIENTS:  Dr. Fauci and then Dr. Walensky.

DR. FAUCI:  You know, Alice, it really is consistent with what I had just said.  I mean, you look for what the general recommendation is from the CDC — and I’ll let Dr. Walensky comment that in a moment — the general recommendation is that you have a high degree of protection, and if you are vaccinated, you do not need to wear a mask indoors or outdoors. 

The point about individual discretion: We, of course, leave it up to individuals to make an evaluation of the level of risk.  Some people are very, very risk averse, and they say, “Even though you’re telling me that I have a high degree of protection, for myself, I would opt…” — for any of the number of reasons: the two that I gave a moment ago, age or underlying condition; or just a great degree of risk aversion.

You have the option of making your personal choice of whether or not you would like to wear a mask indoors in an area where there’s a high degree of viral dynamics and a low degree of vaccination.

But, Rochelle, why don’t you comment further.

DR. WALENSKY:  Yeah, I don’t have a lot to add except to say that we do know that you are protected, if you are vaccinated, from hospitalization, severe disease, and death.  Data in our country and numerous other countries have demonstrated that.

I want to emphasize, however, that if you are not vaccinated — first, you should go get vaccinated.  But second, until you are fully vaccinated, you’re definitively not protected from disease that is around you, and in those situations, we would absolutely continue — suggest continuing to wear a mask.

MR. ZIENTS:  Next question, please.

MODERATOR:  Josh Wingrove, Bloomberg.

Q    Thank you for doing this.  Dr. Walensky, can you follow a little bit up on the map you showed?  It looked like, in particular, the hotspot in sort of southern — southwestern — western Missouri and northern Arkansas. Do you have any sense of what has been driving this? 

And broadly, Jeff, can you speak a little bit to the question about when borders would reopen and how you will make that determination on travelers from the European Union or other countries where vaccination levels are rising?  Thank you.

MR. ZIENTS:  Dr. Walensky?

DR. WALENSKY:  Thank you, Josh.  Yes.  You pointed to some areas we’re following closely both because of their low vaccination rates, as well as because we’re seeing increasing cases there and in other areas around the country, which is why I thought those two maps were very informative.

In those areas, again, we’ve demonstrated high rates of disease, lower rates of vaccination.  We are really encouraging people who are not vaccinated yet will get vaccinated and wear a mask until you do.

MR. ZIENTS:  Good.  And, Josh, on international travel, you know, we’ve made, as we just discussed, significant progress on the pandemic, and we’ll continue to put public health first when making decisions about borders and international travel.  Any decisions about reopening international travel will be guided by our public health and medical experts. 

I don’t have any specific update for you on any reopening plans.  We must remain vigilant, particularly given the spread of the Delta variant, and we’ll reopen when the health and medical experts believe it’s safe to do so.

Next question.

MODERATOR:  Anne Flaherty, ABC.

Q    Hi, thanks for taking my question.  One clarification on the Delta variant.  Can you say how accurate you think the 51 percent estimate is and if that’s a possible undercount?  And then, also, Jeff, if you could respond to the Missouri governor saying he doesn’t want government officials going door to door pushing the vaccine and he’s ordered his health department to ensure that that doesn’t happen.

MR. ZIENTS:  Dr. Walensky?

DR. WALENSKY:  Sure.  What I can tell you is, over time, we get an increasing number of sequences that we continue to sequence and then update our estimate.  So this 51 percent is an estimate of about the first 600 sequences.  It has some uncertainty around it, but that’s our best estimate at this point.  And in fact, generally, we think that those are relatively stable as we get more — more sequences over time, and we will continue to update those.

MR. ZIENTS:  Good.  On the door-to-door — you know, as we’ve said from the beginning, all of the studies, all of our experiences — the best people to talk about vaccinations with those who have questions are local trusted messengers: doctors, faith leaders, community leaders. 

So, as part of our efforts, trusted messengers may go door to door — these very doctors, faith leaders, and community leaders that people look to for this type of advice. 

And as we talked about earlier, we’ve seen movement by going person by person, community by community in states where neighbors have contacted neighbors.  This is important work that’s leading to more vaccinations, and it’s done by people who care about the health of their family, friends, and neighbors.

So, I would say: For those individuals, organizations that are feeding misinformation and trying to mischaracterize this type of trusted-messenger work, I believe you are doing a disservice to the country and to the doctors, the faith leaders, community leaders, and others who are working to get people vaccinated, save lives, and help end this pandemic.

Why don’t we do one more question.

MODERATOR:  Kaitlan Collins, CNN.

Q    Thanks very much.  Two questions.  Jeff, could you weigh in on the Olympics and the — given the new state of emergency?  You know, should the First Lady still go?  And what is your perspective of this? 

And then, secondly, should vaccinated people be getting tested on a regular basis to know if they are breakthrough cra- — case, if they’re carrying the Delta variant or any other variant, for that matter?

MR. ZIENTS:  Let me actually turn to Dr. Fauci on the Olympics and Dr. Walensky on your second question.

Dr. Fauci?

Q    Yeah, Kaitlan, I mean, obviously, as we always do, we leave the situation of the kinds of restrictions that are going to be put on people coming to the Olympics to the local authorities who know best of what’s going on.

With regard to the athletes themselves, the protocols that are in place to protect them are really quite strict and stringent.  Many of them — maybe the majority of them, I think — are going to be vaccinated.  But the care that’s being taken to avoid the spread there is really something that I think is really quite impressive, from what I have heard about it. 

The question about the First Lady going there: I mean, I think that’s going to be up to the First Lady.  I believe that there’s no reason, right now, given the situation, that — the protocol to protect her health, I think, will be also rather stringent, so I don’t have a concern about that. 

But the final choice of what she’d do, obviously, is up to her.

MR. ZIENTS:  Dr. Walensky, the testing question.

DR. WALENSKY:  Yeah.  Thank you, Kaitlan.  Our current guidance for fully vaccinated people is that if you have symptoms that could suggest COVID-19, that you should absolutely get a test.  We don’t see any reason currently to test for those who are asymptomatic. 

But what I do want to emphasize is: Those symptoms that could potentially suggest COVID-19 — runny nose, sore throat, cough — are typical of upper respiratory symptoms that people may just ignore and — as not being COVID-19.  So what I would say is: If you have those upper respiratory symptoms and you’ve been vaccinated, you should absolutely get a COVID-19 test.

MR. ZIENTS:  Well, thank you, everybody.  We look forward to seeing you at next week’s briefing.  Thank you.

DR. WALENSKY:  Thank you.

11:37 A.M. EDT

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