Press Briefing by White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Officials, February 17, 2021
11:05 A.M. EST
MR. ZIENTS: Good morning, everybody. It’s been 27 days since the President launched his comprehensive whole-of-government strategy to beat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Central to the strategy is vaccinating all Americans. When we started this work 27 days ago, we inherited many challenges: There was not enough vaccine supply. There were not enough vaccinators to help get shots in arms. And there were not enough places to get vaccinated.
And 27 days later, while we’ve made a lot of progress, there is a long road ahead. We’re executing our strategy across multiple fronts, and that execution is yielding results. Today I will give you the latest update on our execution in those three key areas: vaccine supply, number of vaccinators, and places to get vaccinated.
We’ll also hear from Dr. Walensky on the state of the pandemic, Dr. Fauci on the latest science, Dr. Nunez-Smith on our equity work, and Carole Johnson, White House Testing Coordinator, will discuss important progress on testing.
First, I’ll start with vaccine supply. We’ve acted aggressively to increase the vaccine supply. Yesterday we announced another increase in the weekly allocations of vaccine doses to states, tribes, and territories from 11 million doses last week to 13.5 million doses this week. That’s an increase in vaccine allocations of 57 percent during the first four weeks of the Biden-Harris administration.
In addition, we’re doubling the weekly vaccine supply to local pharmacies from 1 million to 2 million doses. And thanks to the President’s leadership, we’re on track to have enough vaccine supply for 300 million Americans by the end of July.
Second, we’re mobilizing teams to get shots in arms. We signed an order to allow retired doctors and nurses to give shots. Today we’ve deployed over 700 federal personnel as vaccinators. The federal government is funding 1,200 National Guard members who are serving as vaccinators. For the first time, we have activated over 1,000 members of the military to support community vaccination sites, and we’ve deployed an additional 1,000 federal personnel to support community vaccination sites in operational roles. We continue to take action to increase the number of vaccinators and federal support teams.
Third, we’re creating more places where Americans can get vaccinated. We’ve expanded financial support to bolster community vaccination centers nationwide, with over $3 billion in federal funding across 40 states, tribes, and territories. We’re bringing vaccinations to places communities know and trust — community centers, high school gyms, churches, and stadiums nationwide. And we’re standing up innovative, high-volume, federally run sites that can give over 30,000 shots a week. We’ve also launched efforts to get vaccines to pharmacies and community health centers.
And the data shows that we’re making progress. As you can see in our weekly vaccination progress report, our seven-day average daily dose administered is now 1.7 million average daily shots per day, up from 1.1 million only four weeks ago. Our seven-day daily average of 1.7 million compares to an average of 892,000 the week before President Biden took office. That is almost double in just four weeks.
Throughout this work, we’re putting equity front and center, partnering with states to increase vaccinations in the hardest-hit and hardest-to-reach communities; increasing supply to convenient and trusted locations like community health centers; deploying mobile units; and improving data collection so that we have a better understanding of the inequities currently experienced.
Let me be very clear: We have much more work to do on all fronts, but we are taking the actions we need to beat this virus. There is a path out of this pandemic. But how quickly we exit this crisis depends on all of us. That’s why I encourage everyone to take the advice of Dr. Walensky, Dr. Fauci, and Dr. Nunez-Smith. Follow the public health guidance. Wear masks, social distance, and get vaccinated when it’s your turn.
We will do everything we can as a federal government to defeat this virus, but it will take all of us stepping up to do our part.
With that, let me turn it over to Dr. Walensky. Dr. Walensky.
DR. WALENSKY: Thank you. I’m so glad to be back with you today to share the latest information on the status of the pandemic.
Let’s first begin with an overview of the data, and then I want to briefly discuss with you what CDC knows about recently detected COVID-19 variants and what we’re doing in response.
COVID-19 cases have now been declining for five weeks. The seven-day average in the past week — cases have decreased nearly 22 percent to an average of slightly more than 86,000 cases per day. Similarly, new hospital admissions have been consistently declining since early January, with a 21 percent decline in the seven-day average over the past week, averaging approximately 7,700 cases per — admissions per day.
We continue to see the daily number of reported deaths fluctuate. The latest data indicate deaths declined by 0.6 percent to an average of 3,076 deaths per day from February 9th to February 15th. These numbers are a painful reminder that we have — of all those we have lost and continue to lose — our family members, our friends, our neighbors, and our co-workers — to this pandemic.
While cases and hospitalizations continue to move in the right direction, we remain in the midst of a very serious pandemic, and we continue to have more cases than we did, even during last month’s — last summer’s peak.
And the continued spread of variants that are more transmissible could jeopardize the progress we have made in the last month if our — if we let our guard down. As of yesterday, we have confirmed 1,277 cases of the B117 variant across 42 states, including the first case of the B117 variant with the E484K substitution that had previously been found in the UK. Nineteen cases of B1351 variant have been found across 10 states, and three cases of the P1 variant has been found in two states.
Reflective of our commitment to communicate openly and often about the latest science on variants today, CDC is releasing two studies in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, as well as a commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association, on variants specifically.
In the MMWR reports, one study describes the different ways eight people in Minnesota were infected with the B117 variant that emerged late last year in the UK. None of the eight individuals had traveled to the UK, but three of them appeared to have been infected during international travel to other destinations, and three during travel to California. One person was exposed to the virus in their home and another in their community.
The second report examines the initial spread of the B1351 variant in Zambia, where the average number of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases increased sixteen fold from December to January, which coincided with the detection of the B1351 variant in specimens collected in December.
The B1351 variant was first detected in South Africa. And Zambia shows substantial commerce and tourism linkages with South Africa, which may have contributed to the transmission of this variant across the two countries.
In the JAMA viewpoint, co-authored by Dr. Fauci, we provide a synopsis of what we know about the primary variants circulating in the United States and the interagency steps the federal government is taking to address these variants. I know these variants are concerning, especially as we’re seeing signs of progress. I’m talking about them today because I am concerned too.
Fortunately, the science to date suggests that the same prevention of actions apply to these variants. This includes wearing a well-fitting mask that completely covers your nose and mouth; social distancing when around others who don’t live with you; avoiding travel, crowds, and poorly ventilated spaces; washing your hands often; and getting vaccinated when the vaccine is available to you.
It is more important than ever for us to do everything we can to decrease the spread in our communities by increasing our proven measures that prevent the spread of COVID-19. Fewer cases means fewer opportunities for the variant to spread and fewer opportunities for new variants to emerge.
Finally, a quick comment on masking. As I stated last week, the science is clear: Consistently and correctly wearing a mask is one of the most effective tools we have to stop the spread of COVID-19. For reasons supported by science, comfort, cost, and practicality, the CDC does not recommend routine use of N95 respirators for protection against COVID-19 by the general public. Abundant scientific laboratory data, epidemiologic investigations, and large population-level analyses demonstrate that masks now available to the general public are effective and are working. And there is little evidence that, when worn properly, well-fitting medical and cloth masks fail in disease transmission.
CDC continues to recommend the use of masks that have two or more layers, that completely cover your nose and mouth, and that fit snugly and comfortably over your nose and the side of your face.
Thank you, and I look forward to your questions. I will now turn it over to Dr. Fauci. Dr. Fauci?
DR. FAUCI: Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky. I’d like to spend the next couple of minutes addressing an issue that we have been asked about continually since the successful demonstration of the high efficacy of the vaccines that are currently being implemented right now in our country: the mRNA vaccines of Pfizer and of Moderna.
And the question is — we do know now that we have a 94 to 95 percent efficacy in preventing clinically recognizable disease, but the looming question is: If a person gets infected, despite the fact that they’ve been vaccinated — we refer to that as a “breakthrough infection” — does that person have the capability of transmitting the infection to another person? Namely, does vaccine prevent transmission?
And I had mentioned to you that we, together with the Moderna company — and the Pfizer group is going to do it also — are also going to be looking at the viral load in the nasal pharynx to determine if, in fact, a person who’s vaccinated but has a breakthrough infection, compared to a person who’s unvaccinated and has an asymptomatic infection, is there a difference in the viral load? That will be very important.
What has happened over the past couple of weeks is there have been some studies that are pointing into a very favorable direction that will have to be verified and corroborated by other studies.
But let me spend a minute to just describe it to you. The real question is: Is there a relationship between viral load and transmissibility? We know from ample studies over many years with HIV is that there’s a direct correlation between the viral load that an individual has — usually measured in the blood — and the likelihood that they will or will not transmit their infection, for example, to a sexual partner. The lower the viral load, the less likelihood of transmissibility. The higher the viral load, the higher the likelihood of transmissibility.
Well, when you’re dealing with COVID-19, you’re talking about viral load in the nasopharynx. So a study has just come out about a week and a half ago from Spain that directly looked at it with a group of 282 clusters of infections. And what it showed, in a Lancet article that came out on February the 2nd, was something that we were hoping we would see: that there was a direct correlation with the viral load and the efficiency of transmission, very much the same as what we’ve seen in diseases like HIV, only now it’s in the nasopharynx. In other words, higher viral load, good transmissibility; lower viral load, very poor transmissibility.
Now, together with that is another study that came out on February the 8th on an online journal, which I believe is worthy of being noted here — even though, as I mentioned, you want corroboration with other studies. It was a study from Israel. It looked at the following question: If, in fact, you assume that decreased viral load is due — will result in a decreased transmission, when you follow breakthrough infections in the individuals in Israel who had been vaccinated, compared to infections in individuals who were not, there was a markedly diminished viral load in those individuals who were vaccinated but had a breakthrough infection, compared to individuals who were not.
It’s very interesting the Israelis were able to do that study. It is noteworthy that when you look at the amount of vaccinations per hundred people — mainly how many vaccinations were given per hundred people — Israeli — Israel is way up there, with 78 doses per 100 people, compared to the United States, which is 16.7 doses per 100 people. So we have been hearing and seeing in the press that Israel has a remarkable diminution in cases associated with the efficiency of their vaccine.
The reason I bring this out to you is that it is another example of the scientific data starting to point to the fact that vaccine is important not only for the health of the individual — to protect them against infection and disease, including the variants that Dr. Walensky has mentioned just a moment ago — but it also has very important implications from a public health standpoint for interfering and diminishing the dynamics of the outbreak.
So the bottom-line message is one that you just heard from Dr. Walensky that I said the last few times that we had these press briefings, and that is: When your turn to get vaccinated comes up, get vaccinated. It’s not only good for you and your family and your community, it will have a very important impact on the dynamics of the outbreak in our country. And with that, I’ll hand it over to Dr. Nunez-Smith.
DR. NUNEZ-SMITH: Thank you so much, Dr. Fauci. So, over these past few weeks, you know, I’ve been — it’s been a great pleasure to be here giving updates in how we’re centering equity in our response. You know, spent time describing the critical need for data, in particular from states and localities, you know, to guide an equitable response.
And last week, I introduced you to the individuals selected for the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, a group that will convene to develop recommendations to inform the work.
So today, just very briefly, I wanted to zoom out a little bit and, just at a high level, describe some of the elements of an equitable COVID-19 response that we’ve built and that we are building so far.
So in terms of the federal COVID-19 response, we have developed robust efforts in three key areas on the continuum of COVID-19 impact, and that’s vaccination, treatment, as well as testing.
So first, vaccination, as we’ve been discussing so far today, is just critical. And the federal programs — those include the community health center partnerships, retail pharmacy program, the community vaccination centers, and the mobile vaccination sites — those are being executed to make sure we also reach the hardest hit. And we’re working directly with state and local leadership on these programs.
So second, I want to spend a little time today discussing equity in COVID-19 treatment options. We have been working very closely with the Food and Drug Administration to discuss the promise and the potential of three antibody therapies authorized for emergency use. And in brief, these therapies have been shown to reduce hospitalization and improve outcomes for high-risk patients diagnosed with COVID-19.
You know, the potential for these therapies is especially high in the communities that have been most affected by the pandemic. And in fact, the 25 locations currently participating in the administration’s rollout of these therapies include 32 percent of the American population, and also includes significant racial and ethnic diversity. You know, from Houston, to Detroit, L.A., to Atlanta — in coordination with community leaders in these areas, we have the ability to reach 38 percent of the black community, 42 percent of the Hispanic/Latino community, and 41 percent of the Asian community in the country. And we also have reached into rural populations. So with regard to these therapies in particular, we will continue to keep you updated.
And then third, we have been hard at work developing robust efforts in COVID-19 testing as well.
And so, with that, I want to pass it over to my colleague, Carole Johnson, to describe the latest developments in the efforts to streamline and increase COVID-19 testing. Carole.
MS. JOHNSON: Thank you, Dr. Nunez-Smith, for your leadership on testing, on equity, and on so much more. I’m really delighted to be here with you today. I’m Carole Johnson, the COVID Response Team Testing Coordinator.
For the last three years, I served as a Human Services Commissioner for the state of New Jersey, providing healthcare and social services for our most vulnerable residents. So when COVID came early and quickly to our state, I experienced firsthand the difference access to accurate, affordable testing could make in slowing the spread.
I’m here today because while we’re working around the clock to vaccinate folks, we also need to continue doing what we know works to protect public health, and that includes robust testing. We need to test broadly and rapidly to turn the tide of this pandemic. But we still don’t have enough testing and we don’t have enough testing in all the places it needs to be.
Today, we’re taking a critical step along that path. Thanks to Pre- — President Biden’s leadership and his commitment to testing, we’re announcing that the federal government will invest $1.6 billion in three key areas: supporting testing in schools and underserved populations, increasing genomic sequencing, and manufacturing critical testing supplies.
First, we’ll invest $650 million for testing to begin to help schools with reopening and to reach underserved populations. While this funding will serve as a — only as a pilot until the American Rescue Plan is enacted, we want to act quickly to help get support underway in these priority settings. The Department of Health and Human Services will use these funds to create regional coordinating centers that will partner with labs to leverage their underutilized testing capacity. They’ll use that capacity to support schools, underserved communities, and congregate settings.
Too often, testing can be hard to implement in non-medical settings or it can be hard to find the right partner to make testing work. These coordinating ceters [sic] — centers will help match lab capacity with demand from schools, congregate settings like homeless shelters or other underserved populations. These are places that typically don’t have the resources or the bandwidth to build partnerships with academic or commercial testing labs, and that’s where the government can be a facilitator. We’ll identify existing testing capacity, match it to an area of need, and support and fund that testing.
Second, we’ll invest almost $200 million to rapidly expand genomic sequencing to identify, track, and stop the COVID-19 variants that we’ve all heard and talked much about. Essentially, genomic sequencing is the process that tells us which COVID variants are in the country. And this surge in funding will result in a threefold increase in CDC’s genomic sequencing capacity to get us to 25,000 samples a week.
As a result, we’ll identify COVID variants sooner and better target our efforts to stop the spread. We’re quickly infusing targeted resources here because the time is critical when it comes to these fast-moving variants.
Finally, we’ll address the shortage in testing supplies. Talk to anyone who has focused on COVID testing over the last year, and they’ll tell you the same thing: Our nation faces a shortage of critical supplies and raw materials, including pipette ti- — tips; the specialized paper used in antigen tests; and the specialized molded plastics needed to house testing reagents, as a couple of examples.
So our administration will invest $815 million in building and surging domestic manufacturing capacity of these critical testing supplies. We need to build — to build the capacity to produce these materials or we’ll continue to face shortages that will sidetrack our work in expanding access to testing.
To be clear, these resources are a significant help in the short term, but they are far from what’s necessary to meet the need for testing in communities across the country. They are merely a bridge until Congress passes the American Rescue Plan to fully expand testing and ensure that any American can get a test when they need one.
With that, I’ll turn it back over to Jeff.
MR. ZIENTS: Well, thanks, Carole, and thanks, team. I want to emphasize the importance of testing. Carole just laid out the case, but I just want to add my two cents here. We have too little capacity for diagnostic screening and genomic sequencing. It can take way too long to get a test and there are too many barriers to widespread testing and screening.
Quality, affordable testing can be important to reopening our businesses and schools, and keeping them open. And genomic sequencing testing is how we will spot variants early, before they spread. So we need to make a significant investment and ramp up testing across the country.
We’re using available funds, so we can pilot programs and make progress. But make no mistake: We need the American Rescue Plan to double testing capacity, promote innovation, and drive down costs per tests.
Finally, before we open it up for Q&A, I want to make one last point. We know that millions of Americans have lost their health insurance as a result of this pandemic. This week, the administration opened a Special Enrollment Period to get more people covered. Between now and May 15th, Americans can go to Healthcare.gov and enroll in quality, affordable healthcare.
We encourage people to check out their options and to take steps to protect you and your family.
With that, let’s open it up to questions.
MODERATOR: All right, first up we will go to Tamara Keith with NPR.
- Q Thank you so much for taking my question. I appreciate it. And the question that I have is for Carole Johnson. As you say, there is this really big problem of a shortage of testing, and many experts say that the U.S. needs a lot of very inexpensive paper-strip antigen tests to finally provide enough testing. You’ve mentioned this money, but what else is being done? What are the steps that need to be taken to finally make that happen and, you know, make it so that schools potentially really could do screening testing?
- MS. JOHNSON: Yeah, thank you so much for that question. What we’re doing today is trying to take what steps we can with the available resources that we have. But what we need to do is have the resources that are in the American Rescue Plan to really give us the opportunity to scale testing at the way we need to do it, and to build up not only the testing itself and the manufacturing capacity for the testing, but the testing services that make sure that testing isn’t just a product, but it’s actually a service. And we know how non-medical settings, like schools and other settings, can actually adopt testing.
And so we need a range of options here, and we need — and that includes easy-to-use and simple and affordable options. And so that’s what we’re focused on with the resources from the American Rescue Plan.
- MR. ZIENTS: Yeah, I’ll just add that as testing scales, when the American Rescue Plan resources are invested, that’ll both improve the quality of tests and dramatically drive down the cost of tests. So that’s why it’s very important we make that investment.
- MODERATOR: All right. Next we’ll go to Carl Zimmer with the New York Times.
- Q Thank you very much. I am — just a question about the $200 million for the genomic surveillance. Is that — could you talk about where that initial amount of money is going? Is it going specifically to contracts for private labs, or is there — will there be any focus on, for example, trying to get a more representative sampling across the country in all states, including ones that don’t have big resources of their own? And is there — anything going to be done in terms of the metadata that you actually need to make sense of these? Thank you.
- MR. ZIENTS: So, Carole, why don’t you start and then, Dr. Walensky, you should also add your perspective.
- MS. JOHNSON: Thank you so much for the question and for raising what is a key issue, which is ensuring that there is diversity — geographic diversity in the collection of these samples.
So the resources really are intended to go to CDC to help them ramp up their capacity here, in terms of both what they do and what their partners do, but with a focus on making sure that we have that geographic diversity.
But I will turn it over to Dr. Walensky for more.
- DR. WALENSKY: Great. Thank you, Carole. And you’re exactly right. We need the geographic diversity. We’re partnering with the states to make sure that we have representation from all the states. We’re partnering with commercial labs. We’re partnering with academia. And we want to expand those partnerships.
So all of those are being done so we can increase both volume and geographic diversity. And then, as you know, it’s not just the tests and getting the tests done; we need the computational capacity, the analytic capacity to understand the information that’s coming in.
- MODERATOR: Next, we’ll go to Zeke Miller with the Associated Press.
- Q Thank you for doing the call. Forgive me, I have a three-parter. First, on the latest data that Dr. Walensky (inaudible), is there — are we seeing any impact of the current pace of vaccines, (inaudible) the reduction of new cases, or guess — or when do you expect to see the impact of the vaccination program in the COVID data in terms of the current cases?
Second, on the genomic sequencing: How long will it take to get to that 25,000 sequencing per week? You know, is that something that you can turn on in just a couple of weeks, or is that going to take several months or even longer?
And then, finally, Jeff, if possible, can we get a status on the J&J vaccine? There’s been a lot of confusion about how much Johnson & Johnson has ready to deploy, assuming they get the EUA. Anything along those lines would be very helpful.
- MR. ZIENTS: Okay, Zeke, let’s start with Dr. Walensky on the data question and the genomic sequencing.
- DR. WALENSKY: Yeah, thank you for the question. You know, right now we have about 54 million Americans who have had — received — or 54 million shots that have been given. About 5 percent of Americans have been vaccinated twice.
And so what I would say is we’re not at the place where we believe that the current level of vaccination is what is driving down the current level of disease. We believe that much of the surge of disease happened related to the holidays, related to travel.
And so we believe that now we’re coming down from that. So I would articulate really loudly that if you’re relying on our current level of vaccination rather than the other mitigation efforts to get us to remain low, that we shouldn’t rest in that comfort.
We are scaling up vaccination as much as we can, but we are not at a level where we believe that the vaccination alone is what’s driving the decrease in cases right now.
In terms of sequencing, we are scaling up sequencing every day. When we will get to 25,000 depends on the resources that we have at our fingertips and how quickly we can mobilize our partners. I don’t think this is going to be a light switch; I think it’s going to be a dial.
- MR. ZIENTS: Good. On Johnson & Johnson, I want to start by saying that, you know, Johnson & Johnson is at the FDA for evaluation right now for safety and efficacy. So it’s critical that we, you know, let the FDA folks make this determination, which we anticipate will happen across the next couple of weeks.
Depending on where they come out, we could have a third vaccine, which would obviously be good and welcomed news, but at the same time, we are ensuring that both the two EUA-approved vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer, are distributed equitably and fairly. And at the same time, we are planning for the possibility of the third vaccine.
I think, Zeke, what you’re referring to is the — you know, the deal was done with Johnson & Johnson under the prior administration. And as — across the last few weeks, we’ve learned that there is not a big inventory of Johnson & Johnson; there’s a few million doses that we’ll start with.
The Johnson & Johnson contract commits Johnson & Johnson to deliver 100 million doses by the end of June. That is more back-end loaded. We’re working with the company to do everything we can — assuming they are approved by the FDA — to bring forward as much — many of those doses as possible into the earlier months.
So I want to be clear that Johnson & Johnson has 100 million commitment, for the end of June, of doses. At the same time, we’re going to be starting with only a few million in inventory, and we’re doing everything we can, working with the company, to accelerate their delivery schedule.
- MODERATOR: Next we’ll go to Ed O’Keefe at CBS.
- Q Hey guys, how are you? Thank you for doing this again. Two things. First, can you give us a sense of how the weather situation, especially in Texas, might be affecting vaccine distribution rollout and testing, for that matter? A lot of vaccine appointments would have been canceled in Texas, or other parts of the country impacted by this winter weather. How might these areas — if you guys have any sense of it — be able to get back on track with the rollout?
And then, the President once again talked about the plan for K-through-8 schools, last night, getting to five days a week. He was not asked as explicitly about high schools. Is there a realistic goal of getting them open by the end of the school year, or in your view, is that off the table at this point?
- MR. ZIENTS: Well, let me let me start with the weather delays, and then I’ll turn to Dr. Walensky on older students and why that creates greater complexity than younger students.
You know, the weather is having an impact. It’s having an impact on distribution and deliveries from the delivery companies and the distribution companies. People are working as hard as they can, given the importance of getting the vaccines to the states and to providers. But there is an impact on deliveries.
And then, as you pointed out, Ed, you know, there’s certain parts of the country, Texas being one of them, where vaccination sites are understandably closed. And what we’re encouraging governors and other partners to do is to extend hours once they’re able to reopen. You know, many vaccination sites do operate 24/7, you know, through the weekends, through the evenings. And we want to make sure that as we’ve lost some time in some states for people to get needles in arms, that our partners do all they can to make up that lost ground, consistent with distributing the vaccine to people as efficiently and equitably as possible.
Over to you, Dr. Walensky.
- DR. WALENSKY: Great, thanks. So, several points with regard to high schools. One is, the science tells us that — we know as children age, as they get closer to teenage years, that they act, in this disease, similar to adults. That is they are increased transmiss- — — they are increased vectors, in terms of transmission, and that they are increasingly sicker compared to younger kids — get increasingly sicker.
So we have to be a little bit more cautious with our high school kids because they act differently from kids who are really young. That’s thing one.
Thing two: High school kids are harder to cohort. One of our key mitigation strategies is to try and have small cohorts of kids, and it’s very hard to cohort high school kids and to convey and rely on that real high school experience of getting, you know, different classes and different levels of classes. So that’s a little bit more of a challenge with high school.
What I will say is there are opportunities for in-person learning in middle school and in high school through all of our layered — levels of community spread. The most limited, which encourages virtual learning when you’re in the red zone — the most community spread — does have opportunities for high schools to open — high schools and middle schools to open, if you can follow all the mitigation strategies.
That having been said, what we have seen with the cases coming down is that while 90 percent of jurisdictions were in the red zone last week when we spoke, this week, with cases coming down, we have about 75 percent in the red zone. So the less community spread out there — the more we do to decrease the amount of disease in the community — there are well more opportunities for our children to get back to school, even in the middle and high school ranges.
- MR. ZIENTS: I’ll just add that, you know, doing this — smaller class sizes, ensuring there are more school buses, having the equipment and the testing available — this costs money. And that’s why the passage of the American Rescue Plan — the $130 billion for schools — is so important to do. It’s so much more expensive than the $130 billion to not have our kids in school in any setting that is safe and feasible in this environment.
- MODERATOR: All right, last question. We’ll go to Tom Christopher at Mediaite.
- Q Hi. Can you hear me now? Hello? Can you hear me?
- MODERATOR: Yep.
- Q All right. Good. Yeah, I have two questions for Dr. Fauci, but obviously any of you can chime in if you like. First of all, I’m wondering if you have done any statistical analysis of how many teachers or people in teacher households have died or been hospitalized due to COVID. And have you done modeling for how many will die or be hospitalized under the various reopening scenarios? And I have a follow-up.
- DR. FAUCI: I don’t have any information on that specifically; perhaps Dr. Walensky does from an epidemiological standpoint. But I don’t — I have not seen it broken down on number of teachers who have died. I don’t think that information is readily available. I might be wrong on that, but, Rochelle.
- DR. WALENSKY: I am unfamiliar with data there. What I can tell you is most of the data that we have from schools have demonstrated that — and teachers specifically have demonstrated — that when disease comes into the school, it is not because of spread that is happening in the school, it is because the members who are attending school — teachers, staff, bus workers, and what not, bus drivers — have gotten disease from the community, not from one another in schools.
- Q Okay. And so my follow-up question is: Dr. Fauci, I’ve seen you on TV saying that, you know, you can’t vaccinate all the teachers before you reopen the schools, but I’ve also seen the President and the Vice President saying, “Look, it’s really, really important that we vaccinate teachers and they need to be prioritized.”
And so, I know you don’t have the data, but assuming that the number isn’t zero, what do you say to the teacher or the person who lives in a teacher household who says, “You know, I don’t want to be the next or last person to die of COVID because we were forced to go back to school?” Or do you say that the number is zero?
- DR. FAUCI: Well, first of all, let me just clarify the issue of having to get every teacher vaccinated before you can really open schools and get children back to schools. That really is rather impractical to make that a sine qua non of opening the schools.
At the same time that we say that, we do say and we feel strongly that we should try as best as we possibly can to vaccinate teachers. And they should be, as a high priority, within the area of essential personnel. So you definitely want to make sure that you don’t get that confused. Even though we don’t feel that every teacher needs to be vaccinated before you can open a school, that doesn’t take away from the fact that we strongly support the vaccination of teachers.
The second part of your question I think relates to what Dr. Walensky just said. When you talk about the danger of teachers getting infected, we know that when you talk about infection within the school setting, it’s what really is going on in the community that is the risk of infection to anyone, including teachers.
- MR. ZIENTS: Yeah. Let me just —
- Q But does that mean that if, like, a teacher gets COVID out in the community, are they then spreading it to other teachers in the school? Because, I mean, it sounds to me like — like that wouldn’t be very —
- DR. FAUCI: No, the data that we have right now — and Rochelle could come in and, sort of, supplement what I’m saying — is that when you see infections in the school setting, personnel or students, that it is really reflective of what is going on in the community, not a very special situation of a particular super-spreading type of a situation in a school. That’s not what we are seeing. We’re seeing it reflective of what’s going on in the community.
- MR. ZIENTS: Yeah. Let me just add one point of emphasis here and then we’ll close. You know, the President and Vice President think states should ensure teachers are prioritized, which has already being done — that prioritization of teacher teachers for vaccinations — by about half the states in the country.
Teachers should be vaccinated, as Dr. Fauci said, like other frontline workers. And like other frontline workers, we should be grateful for their service. But the President and Vice President agree with the CDC guidelines that it’s not a requirement to reopening schools.
So with that, I want to thank everybody for joining today. The next briefing will be on Friday. Thank you.
END11:47 A.M. EST