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U.S. Surgeon General On The Delta Variant, Vaccinations And Masks In The Fall


Vaccinations have stalled, infections and hospitalizations are up, and the highly infectious Delta variant is raising alarm across the country. The pandemic is not over, but it could be if more people would get vaccinated, a point that's been made repeatedly by the Biden administration. Joining us now is Vivek Murthy. He is the U.S. surgeon general and also a fellow Miamian. Welcome to the program.

VIVEK MURTHY: Hi, Lulu. It's good to be with you again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm glad to have you. I'm actually going to start in our home state, which is why I mentioned our Miami connection. Twenty-three thousand new cases there over the past week, one of the highest in the country - is Delta to blame, and how worried are you about this new variant?

MURTHY: Well, Lulu, I'm really worried about the Delta variant, and it is driving a rise in infections, not just in our country but in many other countries around the world. We have seen, with the Delta variant, a version of COVID-19 that is more transmissible than any variant we have seen to date. The rise of more cases, especially in Florida and in many other states, is concerning, but here's the good news. Our vaccines appear to work and work well against the Delta variant. They have a very high success rate in preventing hospitalizations and death, and they are still effective at a high rate in preventing, you know, symptomatic infection. So the bottom line is get vaccinated quickly. It is the best way to protect against the Delta variant.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Quite. About 56% of adults are fully vaccinated, for example, in Florida, higher than the national average, but still well below where they need to be. Vaccination, as I'm sure you know, has been highly politicized. I want to play some coverage from FOX News.


UNIDENTIFIED FOX NEWS REPORTER #1: The equation is very unfavorable for vaccination of anyone below age 30.


UNIDENTIFIED FOX NEWS REPORTER #2: ...Everything we have to make sure that students are not going to have to live in a medical apartheid because they don't want to get the vaccine.


UNIDENTIFIED FOX NEWS REPORTER #3: On the COVID issue, government and so-called public health experts are trying to force your kids to get injected with an experimental COVID vaccine, whether you want them to or not.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, we've seen red states, especially in the South, doing worse in vaccination rates and now in infection rates. I mean, what is the plan to try to get people on board?

MURTHY: You're right that we have an ongoing challenge to get people vaccinated. But that said, we've been able to administer more than 320 million doses of vaccine in our country, which is extraordinary. And the vaccinations, if you - especially if you look at seniors, where we were seeing the greatest proportion of deaths and hospitalizations - that has been extraordinary. We have close to 90% of seniors who have had at least one shot. So a lot of progress in the older groups, but I am concerned in particular about younger groups.

What's really worrying me, Lulu, though, is the misinformation that is circulating about the vaccines. We know from polls that two-thirds of people who are unvaccinated either believe the common myths about COVID-19 vaccination or think they may be true - myths like you can get COVID from the vaccine, which is absolutely not true, or myths like the vaccine causes infertility, which also has no basis in evidence. And so what we have to do is think about how to better combat this misinformation.

We've got a few strategies to do it. No. 1, we're working closely with doctors and nurses and other health care providers, given that they are extraordinarily trusted sources. Eighty percent of people say they want to talk to their health care provider before making a decision about the vaccine. So we are working with them, including getting vaccine into their office. We're also trying to make it easier for people to get vaccinated by creating more on-site vaccination efforts, particularly with employers and schools, as well as more mobile units that can help bring vaccine to where people are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Murthy, though, some say getting full FDA approval for the vaccines would help. You can hear there on TV, on FOX, it being called an experimental vaccine, which it isn't, of course. But why hasn't full approval happened yet?

MURTHY: Well, it's a very important point you're raising, which is that it is not experimental. And that's an important thing to emphasize here, because we have more experience with this vaccine and with many other vaccines at this stage because of how many people have received it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why hasn't it been fully approved yet?

MURTHY: The FDA now has the data and the application from two companies, Pfizer and Moderna, for the, you know, full approval, if you will. Now, the FDA is going through its process. We've got to let them look at those reams and reams of data that have been submitted. And my expectation is that they will issue a decision, you know, as quickly as possible. They know what's at stake here, which is they know that some people, you know, will feel more comfortable with the vaccine once they...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are we talking weeks, months?

MURTHY: Well, I think it's possible we will see something toward the end of the summer or early fall. But, you know, the bottom line is the FDA has to pursue its process thoroughly and completely. What we don't want, Lulu, is we don't want people to say, oh, this was a rushed process. They're going to be careful about this, but they're going to move as quickly as they can.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Murthy, did we drop mask mandates too soon, though, looking at these rising infection numbers? I mean, President Biden declared victory. Was that too early?

MURTHY: President Biden did not declare victory. What he did declare is signs of progress. And this is a very important point because we are not done with this pandemic by any stretch. And I can tell you from my personal conversations with the president that he knows that. The bottom line with masks, though, and what they see - when the CDC announced six weeks ago or so that people now have a choice about whether to wear masks because people who are fully vaccinated had both a low risk of both transmitting the virus and getting the virus themselves - that decision did not mean that localities cannot make decisions about mask mandates based on what is happening in their community.

And you're already starting to see that some communities where vaccination rates are low and where cases are rising are making the decision to go back toward having more restrictive mass guidance. And that's OK. You know, you want this guidance tailored. We've gone, I think, beyond the point where we're going to issue a broad mandate for the entire country, because there are parts of the country, Lulu, where vaccination rates are really high and cases are really low. My concern, though, is that there are many pockets where vaccination rates are so low. That is where we are seeing the growth of cases, especially driven by the Delta variant.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. Thank you very much.

MURTHY: Thank you so much, Lulu. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.