CDC director on vaccinating children, booster guidance, vaccine hesitancy

New COVID-19 cases in the U.S. are down nearly 60% and deaths have fallen by nearly a third. Americans are getting boosters, and young children may be able to start getting vaccinated as soon as next week. But the U.S. still lost nearly 1,400 people a day the past week. Judy Woodruff discusses the pandemic with Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the battle against COVID, the U.S. is in a substantially better place than it was even a month ago, during the peak of the Delta variant. New cases are down nearly 60 percent since then. Deaths have fallen by nearly a third.

    A growing number of Americans are getting boosters. And younger children may be able to start getting vaccinated by the end of next week. But deaths are still far too high, nearly 1, 400 a day over the past week.

    We look at the latest now with Dr. Rochelle Walensky. She's the director of the Centers for Disease Control.

    Dr. Walensky, thank you so much for joining us again.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director:

    Thank you so much for having me. Delighted to be here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we know that we are getting closer to seeing approval for vaccines for young children, 5 to 11. And we also know that many parents are eager for their children to get the vaccine. But there are also a number of parents who are worried, who are concerned.

    Are you going to be urging every parent of a child in this age group to get vaccinated, get their child vaccinated?

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    Right.

    So we heard from the FDA advisory committee, and we're the FDA authorization. And then, next week, I'm really looking forward to the conversations and deliberations of the advisory committee to the CDC, after which I will make my recommendations.

    And I will make my recommendations based on those deliberations. So, I don't want to get ahead of the process.

    But what I do want to say is, after we hear those deliberations, and should all of this move forward, we have work to do, the same work that we have done with the general public about how we educate the public, deliver information, communicate, and make sure that parents have all of the information that they need as their children move forward to roll up their sleeves to get vaccinated.

    And that is the work that we are doing, absolutely, right now. We're working with our professional organizations, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and making sure we get trusted messengers to those parents, making sure these vaccines are delivered to pediatrician's offices, children's hospitals, federally authorized health care centers and pharmacies.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I'm asking, in part, Dr. Walensky, because we know there are some scientists out there, specialists, who are saying that they're — they don't believe that the vaccine is right for every child, that they would like to see some specific guidance, that, for some children, yes, but, for others, they don't need the vaccine.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    Here's what we know about how COVID has impacted children.

    First, we know that elderly people, people with underlying conditions don't fare as well as young people. That is true.

    But it's also true, if we look at the data over the last 20 months, that COVID has been one of the top 10 killers of our pediatric population. We know that we have seen over 700 pediatric deaths over the last year-and-a-half.

    And just to ground that, the typical deaths in pediatrics from a typical flu season are somewhere between 100 and 200. So, we are seeing severe disease. We see those Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in children, as well as long COVID.

    So there are many reasons to get our children vaccinated for both severe disease and death, as well as for just averting infections, not only in their children, but on what they could bring home.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, it sounds like you're going to be recommending that most parents, if not all parents, seriously consider getting — or just that they get their child vaccinated.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    Well, so, I want to see what the advisory committee says and hear those deliberations.

    But I think that there's a lot of evidence that this is not necessarily just a benign disease in children, and a lot of evidence that our children can potentially transmit in our households to people who are vulnerable and can't necessarily be protected, either because that they have younger siblings or because they live with older vulnerable people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In that same vein, Dr. Walensky, I want to ask you about booster shots, because we are now seeing news reports several scientific advisers at the CDC and FDA are saying that the data show the vast majority of Americans don't need boosters, that they are protected without them, with the original dose.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    Yes, this is important.

    Last week, we took an important step in boosters in this country, and we have now recommendations for all three of our vaccines, for the J&J vaccine, the Moderna, and the Pfizer vaccine.

    To be clear as to what our booster recommendations are, for those who got the J&J vaccine, if you got that vaccine more than two months ago, we are seeing waning with that vaccine, and we do recommend a booster shot.

    For the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines, if you're more than six months out of your second dose, we are absolutely recommending a booster shot for those over the age of 65, as well as for those over the age of 50 and have underlying medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

    And then the one thing I do really want to make sure is very clear is, we are working to optimize protection of our vaccine with these booster shots. But, really importantly, we still have 64 million Americans who have not rolled up their sleeves for the initial vaccine, and that is critically important as we work to move ourselves out of this pandemic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I'm asking about boosters because there's been more reporting in the last several days, interviews with scientists who study the vaccines.

    The New York Times reported several of them, and I'm seeing one in particular, feeling obligated to green-light the booster, in part because of the way the federal agencies framed the question to them about it.

    And, in connection with that, Dr. Celine Gounder, who you know, she's an infectious disease specialist. She was advising the Biden administration. She said what preceded the recommendation on boosters, the presidential announcement, and then she called mixed signals, she said it was a confusing mess.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    Yes, I think that this is important to convey.

    First, we were starting to see waning data both in the United States and in Israel, in countries that were ahead of us, early in August. And so the announcement early in August was really, we are planning. We are doing everything that we need to in order to plan, so that, when we have a recommendation for boosters, we are ready to give them. And that was the hard work, really, of August and September.

    By September 24, when the FDA met to have a discussion about boosters, and then we followed, we saw data that there were certain populations that have waning protection from severe disease. And those are our elderly populations, our long-term facilities populations, and people who are medically vulnerable.

    We also made it possible for people who live and work in high-risk settings, our health care workers, our front-line workers, we made it possible for them to also get a vaccine. But that's really where our recommendations lied with regard to who really should absolutely get a vaccine now and who is eligible to get their vaccine now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we — it caught our attention, of course, because here's somebody who was advising the administration, but calling it a mess.

    But I want to go on and quote — this is a member of the CDC advisory committee on vaccines, another infectious disease expert. Her name is Dr. Sarah Long. She also weighed in, in The New York Times, and said, some administration officials — quote — "pay lip service to science and the evidence," in other words, that her sense is that this was being driven by something other than data.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    We were absolutely following the data.

    I was absolutely following the data. In the recommendations to have people be eligible if they live and work in high-risk settings, I wanted to be very clear. These are people who are eligible to receive the vaccination. We want to make sure that our health care workers have eligibility to receive a booster.

    And if we did not make those folks eligible through our recommendations, then they would have not have access to a booster. So this is really about access for our front-line workers, making sure we have equitable access, and that was really — it was a science-driven, evidence-based vote.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Final question.

    I mentioned in the lead-in, even though the number of cases and deaths is going down, we know the number of deaths still far too high in this country. Do you see a day coming in near term, medium term, when the number of deaths from COVID is going to be about what it is for the regular flu? Do you see that coming?

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    You know, I'm really encouraged with our case rates falling. But, as you know, our death rates are too high.

    Here's what we know. We know that the people who are dying from this disease are 11-fold more likely to pass if they are unvaccinated. And so what I would say is, it's up to us. And we have the power to get a hold of this.

    And, really, the work that we're doing now is to provide the information that people need one-on-one, trusted messengers, outreach to make sure people have the information that they need so they get vaccinated, because we anticipate that most of the of those deaths at this point are preventable deaths.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of CDC, we thank you so much.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    Thanks so much, Judy.

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