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Dr. Fauci on delta variant, risks to children, breakthrough COVID and booster shots

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising again in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled it a "pandemic of the unvaccinated," warning of the delta variant. President Joe Biden also warned Monday to beware of misinformation. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fears are growing again today over a surge of COVID cases. Wall Street had its worst day since May, as investors worried about rising infections and whether they could lead to new restrictions on daily life.

    COVID cases have shot up almost 70 percent in a week in the U.S. It's been significantly higher in some Southern states. But Los Angeles County recorded 10,000 new cases in one week, the highest since March. Unvaccinated Americans are the hardest hit, accounting for more than 95 percent of hospitalizations. On Friday, the CDC director warned of a pandemic of the unvaccinated.

    We turn to Dr. Anthony Fauci. He's the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Biden's chief medical adviser.

    Dr. Fauci, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, a direct question. How much of a threat is the Delta variant right now?

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Adviser to President Biden: Judy, it's a significant threat.

    It clearly has the capability and the efficiency of transmitting very readily from person to person, which makes it a considerable threat. And if you look at how it's becoming dominant in this country, it went from a couple of percentages — points of the variants that were in circulation, to now it's close to 80 plus percent.

    And in some regions of the country, up to 90 percent of the variants are the Delta variant. So it has already shown its incredible ability to be able to efficiently transmit from person to person, which makes it very dangerous.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, for those Americans not vaccinated — and they — and we now know only about half of the country is vaccinated, and not including many young children — how vulnerable are they, people who have not had the shot yet?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Considerably vulnerable, Judy.

    And that's the reason why, if you look at the CDC recommendations, they really emphasize things that we have known for some time. If you are unvaccinated, you really should be wearing a mask, indoors, for sure, and even under certain circumstances outdoors, but definitely indoors. Unvaccinated people are vulnerable.

    And those are the ones, if you lack at the statistics, as you showed there just on one of your charts, 95 — 99.5 percent of the deaths in this country are due to unvaccinated people; 99.5 percent of the COVID deaths are among unvaccinated people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in addition, the risk, the danger that they are spreading it to others?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Well, there is no doubt about that.

    In fact, we're seeing that right now, when you see the clusters of cases of individuals who get infected. And since you're dealing with such a highly efficient virus in its ability to spread from person to person, that is the reason why we are seeing, unfortunately, an uptick in cases in several regions in cases.

    And the uptick in cases, Judy, correlate with the level of vaccination. So, if you have a very low level of vaccination, like 30 percent or so, in a particular state or a city or a county, that is where the uptick in infections are occurring.

    They are not occurring in those areas that have a high percentage of the population vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, to be clear, even among those who are vaccinated, we are hearing, we are reading more about so-called breakthrough infections, where people are coming down with the virus even though they have been vaccinated.

    How much at risk are they?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Well, first of all, vaccines protect very well against infection and very, very well against serious disease, but not completely protective against infection.

    In fact, if you look at the data, Judy, from the clinical trials that showed the 93, 94 percent efficacy, that was against clinically recognizable disease. It was not against pure infection, even if the infection was without symptoms.

    So, it is not surprising that you are seeing breakthrough infections. This becomes particularly prominent when you are dealing with a virus that is very efficient in going from person to person.

    The good news is that the people without do get infected, namely, breakthrough infections among vaccinated individuals, generally have either no symptoms or very mild symptoms, as opposed to going on and developing significant disease. That is the good news about it in the sobering news, where a lot of people are getting infected.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, at the same time, we know, even for those who are vaccinated, they are getting the message.

    For example, if you live in Los Angeles County, the most populous county in the country, they have imposed new masking guidelines indoors and outdoors. People are beginning to wonder, wait a minute, even if I have been vaccinated, should I now continue to wear a mask if I'm indoors?

    Should people — are there guidelines that work now across the country, or should people continue just to listen to their local authorities?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Well, the local authorities very often get it correctly.

    If you look at the overall recommendations, Judy, from the CDC, they say, overall, if you are vaccinated, you don't need to wear a mask outdoors or indoors. But there is a big however with that. And the however is, you should also pay attention to what is going on in the area where you are living.

    So, if you live in an area where you have a high dynamic of infection — and that's usually in an area where there is a low level of vaccination — if you happen to live in that area, you may want to go the extra mile and get the extra degree of protection of wearing a mask, even though you are vaccinated, for a number of reasons, to protect yourself.

    But particularly, for example, if you have at home in your own home vulnerable people, like the elderly or people who have underlying conditions, you might want to make sure you take that extra step of protection. That is what is going on in Los Angeles. They want to go the extra mile to show that you can protect yourself more, even if are you vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, you mentioned underlying conditions.

    And that — you are saying that applies even if those individuals have been vaccinated. They still need to be concerned?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Yes, I think people who are vaccinated and go into an area where there is infection, if they have unvaccinated people who are vulnerable at home or even people who might be vaccinated, but are immunosuppressed, where they may not have a very good response against the vaccine or with the vaccine, you have to be careful.

    That's the reason for the extra mile of care.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we know that — and we're beginning to hear more and more about the need for booster shots for those individuals who may be, as you say, immunosuppressed.

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    That is correct, Judy. And those data are being collected right now.

    We're doing studies to look at the effective boosters, how high you can get the response up, particularly in those people, like transplant patients, who are on immunosuppressive regimens, people with underlying disease that require medication that might suppress their immune system.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Fauci, we have been talking about this virus, as you know very well, since early 2020. We are now a year-and-a-half into it.

    We — many Americans thought it was getting better, now the Delta variant. A lot of worry right now. Do you — are you beginning to think that we will not get this virus under control, when you have got half the American people who have been told repeatedly about the dangers, but they still are not vaccinated?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    That is the big problem, Judy.

    We will not get complete control over this and not be able to fully get back to where we want to be, what we are calling normality, until we get many, many more people vaccinated. We have done very well. We have a substantial proportion of the population, particularly among the elderly. The elderly in general have done very well.

    People over 65, at least 85, 87 percent have received at least one shot. We're doing well there. But, as you mentioned correctly, we still have a substantial proportion of the population who is not vaccinated. And as long as you have that, the virus has places to go, people to infect, and the capability to continue to propagate itself.

    The only way you're going to crush this virus is by getting the overwhelming proportion of the population vaccinated. And we are not there yet. But we have got to get there if we want to get this under control.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But just quickly, Dr. Fauci, many of them are saying, I am not going to get that shot, no matter what.

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    That is true.

    And that is the reason why we will try anything and everything we can, particularly getting trusted messengers, people, not government officials, but people in the community who they trust, their physician, their health care provider, clergymen, community representatives, people they trust, to convince them why it is so important for themselves, for their family and for the community for them to get vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, we always appreciate your join joining us. Thank you.

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Thank you for having me, Judy.

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