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As a new vaccine becomes available, CDC chief warns against rolling back safeguards

​The first batch of a new COVID vaccine from Johnson & Johnson began shipping around the U.S. on Monday. But as some states began loosening pandemic restrictions, the CDC cautioned about opening too quickly. Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, former advisor to the Biden transition team on COVID and vice provost of global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The first batch of a new COVID vaccine from Johnson & Johnson began shipping around the country today. All told, nearly four million doses are expected to be delivered this week, 20 million by the end of the month.

    Unlike the vaccines, this vaccine is given as just one dose. A number of states are loosening COVID-related restrictions. Massachusetts lifted its capacity limits on restaurants entirely and partially on theaters today. Governors in Iowa and Montana lifted mask mandates recently.

    Today, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky warned that states should be careful about opening too widely.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained.

    These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress. Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, not when we are so close.

    We have the ability to stop a potential fourth surge of cases in this country. Please stay strong in your conviction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Elementary schools in at least seven states began reopening. California has struck a deal to do so by the end of the month.

    We look at the latest with Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel. He is a former adviser to the Biden transition team on COVID, and he is a vice provost of global initiative at the University of Pennsylvania.

    Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    We just heard Dr. Rochelle Walensky of the CDC warning of perhaps restrictions being lifted too early. Is that a serious concern?

  • Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel:

    I totally agree with her. It is a very serious concern.

    We have a lot of that British U.K. B117 variant. It is much more transmissible. It seems to be more lethal. And we are seeing good news, big declines in deaths, big declines in cases. But we should not celebrate too prematurely.

    And the idea of lifting restrictions on the number of people who can dine indoors, getting rid of masks, that's too premature. We need to have many more people vaccinated. We need to go through the next two to three months of getting more people vaccinated before we really lift those restrictions.

    We can do it. The peak was just six weeks ago. We have been in this heightened state of public health alert for the last six, seven weeks. We should not just rush out and reverse all of the advances we have had, especially with these new variants. She is 100 percent right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, how widespread are these variants in the United States? And why exactly are they such a worry?

  • Ezekiel Emanuel:

    We don't know exactly how widespread they are, because we're not doing enough genetic testing of the viruses and variants.

    We're getting to about 14,000, I think, is the latest count, and a lot of us experts think we need to be at 50,000 genetic sequences per week. But if you look at places like California, Florida, Georgia, a lot — almost all of their new cases are these variants, and that is very worrisome, because they are 40 percent to 50 percent more transmissible.

    They double every 10 days or something. This is the kind of sequence we saw in Britain, Portugal, and other countries that had many more people in their hospitals, many more people requiring the intensive care unit. We have just come off this very, very bad surge.

    The peak was, like, January 8 in cases and January 21 in deaths just six weeks ago. We don't want to repeat that with these new variants by easing up. And the new variants are worrisome, and we need to take a lot more precaution, and not just celebrate the good news of the graphs coming down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, that is concerning. I do want to ask you about the new vaccine that has been approved, Johnson & Johnson, one dose.

    And, by the way, we want to note Johnson & Johnson is a funder of the "NewsHour."

    But this vaccine being out there, how much difference is it going to make in ensuring that Americans all — who want it get vaccinated?

  • Ezekiel Emanuel:

    Well, we have so far vaccinated 50 million people, 25 million who have had two doses of the mRNA. We're going to get maximum 20 million doses in March. So, that's 20 million more people who are vaccinated by Johnson & Johnson, in addition to the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccine.

    So, it is helpful. It is additive. And it is also very good for communities where getting the people back for a second dose may be difficult, people who are released from jail, people who are homeless.

    But we shouldn't restrict it to just the vulnerable populations and giving it a very bad reputation. It should be available to lots of people, but make sure that the people where recall for the second dose is harder to do.

    So I think it is helpful. And we will still take many more months to get to 70 percent of the population vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I do want to ask you about the Johnson & Johnson, Dr. Emanuel, because, as you know, it is shown to be more than 60 percent efficacious, very effective against preventing severe cases and deaths.

    But people, if there is some question about whether people take Pfizer or Moderna, with higher than 90 percent effective, vs. Johnson & Johnson, in the sense that vulnerable populations, people of color, are getting the Johnson & Johnson, how can we be sure those decisions are made fairly?

  • Ezekiel Emanuel:

    Well, first of all, if someone came and offered me the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, I would take it in a nanosecond, as soon as possible, just right here, please.

    It's 100 percent effective at preventing hospitalization and death. It is 86 percent effective against preventing severe disease that might not require hospitalization, but is very severe for you. That is very effective. And that's a vaccine I would want.

    The way to prevent the sort of bad taint of this vaccine is not to focus on the 66 percent, but to focus on what we really care about: How much does it prevent hospitalization and death? How much does it prevent severe disease?

    Second of all, we have to make sure that the people getting this vaccine are not only minorities, and that it becomes somehow a second-class vaccine. It is not a second-class vaccine. As I said, I would take it in a heartbeat.

    I would recommend my children, my brothers take it in a heartbeat. I have recommended it to people who have been offered that. So, I think it is actually quite a good vaccine, and we should make sure that it is broadly used and not targeted only to people who are vulnerable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Zeke Emanuel, we thank you, as always.

  • Ezekiel Emanuel:

    Thank you, Judy. Nice to be here.

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