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Dr. Anthony Fauci is stepping aside from job after a five-decade-long career in public health. He's been one of the leading public health voices since taking the role of director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984, and he's advised seven U.S. presidents. His exit comes amid the worst flu season in a decade and a new COVID surge. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.
After a five-decade-long career in public health, Dr. Anthony Fauci is stepping aside from his job.
He has been one of the leading public health voices in the country since he took on the role of director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984. And he has advised seven presidents.
His exit comes as the country is dealing with the worst flu season in a decade and another COVID winter surge. The U.S. has come a long way with COVID over the past three years, but the problem is not over, and hospitalizations are rising again in some areas.
For a look at all of this, Dr. Fauci joins me now.
Welcome back to the "NewsHour," Anthony Fauci.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Adviser to President Biden: Thank you, Judy. Good to be with you.
So, you are coming up on the end of your public career.
But, as we just said, COVID is still here. You were at the White House today with first lady Jill Biden encouraging people, again, to get their vaccine, their COVID vaccine, as we just said, hospitalizations up just in the last two weeks.
This is not over, is it?
Dr. Anthony Fauci:
No, by no means. It's not — it's not over at all.
And that's one of the things we want to make sure that the American public appreciates, because there are still things that are at our disposal that we can do to mitigate what you just said. We're entering into the coldest season. We're getting into the holiday season. We have flu out there. And now we have COVID that is still lingering there, in fact, upticking in certain regions of the country, which is expected as you enter into the winter months.
But what does it mean to you to be urging Americans yet again?
I don't know how many times you have been out there saying, get the vaccine, get the booster.
Well, it is frustrating, Judy, because we are appreciative of the fact that all of us are fatigued with three years of COVID.
And the public would like to put it behind them. And then, when you say we still have to update ourselves with the best possible booster vaccine that's available, the irony of it is, we have a very good booster available, and the relative percentage of people who are making use of that is small. It's less than 20 percent of the total population that are eligible.
We have got to do better than that. And that's the reason why, just today, as you said, the first lady and I and Dr. Jha were out there encouraging people to right now — not wait a week, three weeks, a month. If you're eligible now, get boosted.
And there are still people out there. I mean, you mentioned there's fatigue, but there's still skepticism out there.
Is there any question that there's a correlation between getting the vaccine and either not having COVID or having a milder case of it?
The data are so strong, they knock you over.
All you have to do is look at the data of the hospitalizations and deaths among unvaccinated individuals, and the curve is like that. You compare that curve with the vaccinated and boosted people, and the curve is like that. You don't need a statistician to explain to you the difference between unvaccinated and vaccinated and boosted. The data are crystal clear.
I'm asking in part because I still have people saying to me, well, you say people are dying with COVID, but is it because they have — because it's with COVID or because of COVID?
It's because of COVID. There is a difference between someone who will get in an automobile accident and have COVID. That person didn't die from COVID. That person died from the automobile accident.
When we're talking about the numbers now, which are still lingering around 300 deaths per day, those are deaths from COVID.
The flu, you mentioned and we mentioned it in the introduction.
What's going on with that? I mean, there's a his — almost — maybe it's not historic, but a surprisingly low percentage of Americans this season are going out and getting the flu shot. How do you understand that?
I think that's a carryover of the public being exhausted from outbreaks, from viruses, and from getting vaccinated. I think it's a spillover in people who feel they want to put COVID behind them. And then they say, oh, my goodness, another outbreak? Flu. And they have to realize we're having a particularly bad flu season.
Again, if you look at the curve, it's almost vertical in cases going up with flu. And if you compare the flu numbers at this time of the season, compared to the last decade, it's the worst that we have seen in about 10 years.
Let's talk about your career.
You, as we said, five decades or — and more, many highlights and many tough slogs you have been through. You are credited, Dr. Fauci, as being the person who drew attention, sufficient attention to the AIDS epidemic back in the 1980s, at a time when many were arguing it was a niche problem, a niche illness, it didn't deserve the research, the attention, the funding.
But you — and you have said yourself, you didn't take it so seriously to begin with.
Well, it isn't that I didn't take it seriously. It's that I didn't fully appreciate that the scientific clinical trial and regulatory structure was ill-suited to this type of disease.
And the activists, particularly the gay activists, were trying to get our attention to realize that we needed to get them involved in the planning to understand what it is like to be afflicted or be at risk for this.
Thank goodness, pretty quickly, I listened and paid attention to them and learned a lot from the activist community. And then we started to work together to make the conditions better.
And what would you say you learned? Because, at the time, as you say, the activist community…
… was very angry with you.
You have written about this, spoken about it.
Yes. You learn to listen to the people who are being involved with what you're trying to deal with.
If it's an outbreak, it's a disease, it's the people who are suffering or at risk for it, you have to include them in the discussion. It can't be top down from the regulators, the scientists, the physicians, and the people who are involved. You have got to involve them right from the very beginning.
And, thankfully, that's what we ultimately did. And it made the situation much better.
Are there other lessons that jump out at you or that you feel you have ingrained over the years about being in public health?
Yes, well, the thing that's been so distressing and painful for me over the last three years is witnessing what happens when you have a common enemy, like a virus that is causing COVID, the SARS-CoV-2, that has already killed over a million Americans, and you have such divisiveness in society that sound, obvious public health principles are not followed because they're being influenced by ideological considerations.
There's absolutely no excuse for that. We have a common enemy. It's sort of like you're in a world war. You shouldn't be fighting with each other when you're fighting the enemy. Just the way we came together on 9/11, we have got to do that when we're dealing with a formidable challenge like COVID-19.
On COVID, as you know, there's been praise for what you have done. There's also been criticism. We have heard people say, in particular, that you and others who were in charge of getting the word out to the American people sent the message that we needed to keep things closed for too long, and that there were states like Florida that opened up earlier than the federal government was recommending, and they did relatively OK.
How do you look back on the advice about being closed and for how long?
Well, you always have to evaluate to try and open as quickly as you can as safely as you can. No one likes to shut down anything, be it general society, the economy or schools. We all felt strongly that it was a difficult decision. And you want to open up as quickly as you can, as long as you use the shutdown period for a purpose, an endgame.
Namely, at the time that the recommendation was made to essentially close down a bit, you might recall the hospitals were being overrun in New York. Remember Elmhurst Hospital, with the cooler trucks out there putting the bodies in. We had to do something.
That doesn't mean you do it indefinitely. You use that time to get hospital beds in better shape, to get more PPE, to get the proper number of ventilators.
When you're in a situation where you have vaccine available, the only time you would want to restrict society is to give you time to get your population vaccinated, which, in fact, is the reason why we believe the Chinese have made somewhat of a mistake in shutting down rigidly, but not at the same time vaccinating their entire population, including the elderly.
Do you think, here in the United States, though, that the guidance to stay closed down went on too long, that it should have been open soon?
Judy, it's tough to say.
No doubt that kind of restriction has saved a lot of lives. There's no argument about that. To say maybe a little bit longer or a little bit shorter, I think that's arguable. But the idea about shutting down for at least a temporary period of time clearly has saved many, many lives.
Another — as I mentioned, there's been praise and there's been criticism, but another criticism is that you and other public health officials were not transparent enough at points along the way about what you knew and what you didn't know about COVID.
That is total nonsense that we weren't transparent about it.
What the public needed to know, and perhaps we could have done a better job, is that we were dealing with a dynamic, evolving situation. The information we had in January of 2020 evolved because, as we first — we first thought it was poorly transmitted from person to person. Then we found out from China gradually it was well-transmitted, then it was aerosol transmitted, then it was transmitted predominantly, 50 to 60 percent, from someone who has no symptoms at all.
So, when we were making recommendations in January, early February, mid-February and March, the situation was changing.
You and I were just talking, as we wrap up this interview, about the reaction you have gotten from many in the American public about your work overall, especially during this pandemic.
Is there a message there for other — and a lot of it's been very ugly, as you shared.
Is there a message there for other government workers, other public servants?
It's been a tough row to hoe over the last three years, because public health officials, physicians, nurses and scientists, and public health officials have really had a lot of pushback in an anti-science, somewhat hostile approach to them.
My word of advice to them is, stick with what we're doing. It's a noble profession. You get a great deal of satisfaction and gratification about helping others. And even though we're in a somewhat bizarre situation, where there's attacks on public health officials, that will pass and we will get back to a world, I hope, where people appreciate when a group like public health officials have devoted their lives to the safety and the health of the American public.
And they should be looked upon with some degree of appreciation for that.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, stepping down after 54 years in service of the federal government, thank you very much.
Thank you for having me, Judy. Good to be with you.
Watch the Full Episode
Judy Woodruff is a senior correspondent and the former anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour. She has covered politics and other news for five decades at NBC, CNN and PBS.
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