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Biden’s pick to lead the CDC: ‘We have a lot of hard work in front of us’

When President-elect Joe Biden enters the Oval Office three weeks from now, his health team will be tasked with taking over the U.S. response to COVID-19, including the vaccine rollout. One of the members of Biden's team is Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who was named the next director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    When president-elect Joe Biden enters the Oval Office three weeks from now, the U.S. will be in the middle of what he calls some of the toughest days of the coronavirus pandemic.

    His health team will be tasked with the U.S. response, including continuing the vaccine rollout, which he said today is — quote — "falling far behind" under the Trump administration.

    One of the members of Biden's team is Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who was named the next director of the Centers for Disease Control earlier this month. And she joins me now.

    Dr. Walensky, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome to the "NewsHour." And congratulations on your appointment.

    I do want to start with the news today. Colorado public officials have said they have now confirmed the first case of this new variant, a more contagious COVID-19 variant here in the United States. They say it is a young man in his 20s. He is isolating. He has no travel history.

    What does this tell us about the presence of this new COVID variant here in the U.S.?

  • Rochelle Walensky:

    Good evening, Amna. It is a pleasure to be here with you.

    I think we — we heard about this case back in the U.K. We knew about on September 20. We saw that this new variant was leading to many, many more cases in the U.K.

    Over the last several days and week, we have seen that this variant has been in at least 14 other countries, including Canada. And, today, we have definitive data that demonstrates that we have it here in the United States, although many of us really suspected it was here during this entire period of time.

    I think it tells us several things. One is, we need to bolster our surveillance. So, if other countries were finding it before us, it tells me that we needed to do a better job both with testing, as well as surveillance, genomic surveillance, to make sure that we're not detecting these strains later than everybody else.

    But from a public health standpoint, I want to convey a couple of things. One is, we do believe, based on the data from the U.K., that this strain is likely more transmissible, somewhere between 56 and 70 percent more transmissible. And it binds tightly to the receptor in the host. So, that is an important piece of information. Has it led to increased outbreaks in the U.K., perhaps even here? We don't quite know that yet.

    But the important thing, I think, everybody really needs to understand is, there's no demonstration that the measures that we're using to protect ourselves from the initial strain without this mutation, the masking, the social distancing, all of those measures should work with this strain as well.

    So, all those measures that we have been talking about to put in place to protect yourself should actually help with this strain, regardless of whether we have the U.K. strain or not.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Have you been briefed on this new strain by the Trump administration? Do you know what they know?

  • Rochelle Walensky:

    I have been getting agency review team briefings from the CDC. And I would — I don't know whether the review teams have been hearing about this through the Trump administration.

    I imagine our review teams that are briefing me are hearing about it through the CDC. That has been fluid.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Could I ask you also about the vaccine rollout? We heard president-elect Biden express concern today that it's not moving as quickly as it should. There's also growing concerns about how it's being rolled out, which is relying on states.

    And states are out of money, and their health departments are strapped. And they pass it on to the hospitals and clinics and front-line workers, who are also still trying to address the pandemic. It is worryingly similar to the testing rollout, which, as you know, has not really worked.

    So, what else should the federal government be doing to make sure that the vaccine rollout doesn't mimic the testing fiasco?

  • Rochelle Walensky:

    Right. It's a really critical thing and something that the administration is really working on through this transition.

    First, to say, there have been about 2.1 million vaccinations that have gone into people. Nearly 20 million vaccinations have been — well, 11.4 million vaccinations have been distributed. So, we are not going to hit the 20 million mark that was proposed.

    And I think that this tells us several things. First, perhaps that was an ambitious benchmark, but also that this is going to be hard. We have a lot of hard work in front of us. We are fortunate that, 11 months into this pandemic in this country, we have not one, but two vaccines that demonstrate efficacy, and we perhaps have even more that are coming down the pipeline. So that is all really good news.

    But now what we really need to do is exactly as you said, to take some of that money, and we are going to need more resources to invest in the distribution and getting that vaccine that has been developed into people's arms.

    And I don't think we can underestimate exactly how hard that is going to be. So, we are going to need coordination. We have an amazing down payment in the $8.75 billion that has been just passed by Congress to give $4.25 billion to the CDC, as well as $4.5 billion to the states, localities, territories and tribes, to work towards that distribution.

    But that is just a down payment, when you see the extraordinary work and the resources that are going to be moving ahead. The president-elect has articulated that he is going to leave no stone unturned in terms of how — the actions that he is going to take to make sure that we get those vaccines into people. And that includes using the Defense Production Act.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about some of the actions you might take as the head of the CDC. We know the CDC has been issuing guidance on who should be priority for receiving the vaccine.

    We also know that this pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color. When you look at the numbers, it is so clear. You see Black Americans, Native Americans and Latino Americans disproportionately affected and dying, as compared to white Americans, there in that chart.

    Is there any sense that you should move these communities up in the priority line? Could the CDC guidelines change, so that these communities are prioritized for vaccination, as they have been the hardest-hit?

  • Rochelle Walensky:

    Right. It's a great question.

    So, ACIP, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, from the CDC has made some recommendations on how these things get prioritized, recommendations that look at both morbidity and mortality, as well as preserving the social functions of the United States and making sure that the United — the country can keep moving on.

    So, in those guidance, there is an underpinning of equity in all of those spaces. So, as we look at how we're going to be rolling out, either by age or by essential workers or by health care workers, equity is really in the underpinning of all of that.

    When I think about the work that I need to do at the CDC, certainly, we need to get out of this COVID pandemic. And that is going to be the highest priority that I have, with leading through science, leading through trust, transparency, communication, both to the scientists at the CDC, as well as the American people, of what we're learning, and then to distribute vaccines, to scale up testing, to do all of those things, with an essential eye towards equity, as you say, four-and-a-half times the number of hospitalizations in brown and Black communities, two-and-a-half times the rates of deaths.

    That cannot continue in this next phase of this pandemic.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In the minute we have left, I just want to ask you briefly if you can give us any kind of a timeline, based on the Biden plan for vaccine rollout, based on your math.

    Some people have said we need to be doing 3.5 million vaccinations a day with a two-dose vaccine to get to herd immunity by June. So, what is your timeline looking like?

  • Rochelle Walensky:

    You know, as, I think, the president-elect indicated today, I think things are going to get worse before they get better.

    As we look at what happened through Thanksgiving and the surges that we're seeing now, we are seeing a lot of people over the Christmas holiday and then what's going to happen over the New Year's holiday. Things are going to be even darker when the president-elect takes off office at the end of January, early February.

    The vaccination timeline has not been exactly as we had planned, not as we had anticipated or was promised. And so we are working. The president-elect has said that he would like to get 100 million vaccinations into 100 million arms in his first 100 days. That's an ambitious, but achievable goal.

    It will only be achievable if we have resources to accompany it. So, I think we still have to be patient. I think the spring looks better than the dark days of winter. And I would hesitate to put a timeline on this, because so many factors are at play here in terms of how much manufacturing we have, how quickly we can get it distributed, where the bottlenecks are in that distribution, and then, of course, the willingness of the American people to take this vaccine.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we appreciate you taking the time to speak with us tonight. That is Dr. Rochelle Walensky, president-elect Biden's pick to lead the CDC.

  • Rochelle Walensky:

    Thank you so much, Amna.

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