Dr. Walensky on the omicron variant, testing, vaccines and mask rules

President Joe Biden is out with new plans and new appeals to control the spread of COVID-19. He spelled them out Tuesday as the new omicron variant sweeps largely unchecked across the country. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, joins Judy Woodruff to expand on the president's plan.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For more on the president's plan to combat the Omicron variant, I spoke moments ago with Dr. Rochelle Walensky. She is the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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

    The president announced a number of moves today, but we also know Omicron is said to be spreading like wildfire across the country. Are these steps going to come soon enough to blunt its impact?

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director:

    You know, I know people are concerned that things are moving quickly, so let me step back and sort of tell you where we are.

    So, we have announced today that we have about 73 percent of cases now are projected to be Omicron. And we anticipated this because this is what we have been seeing, this rapid rate of rise in other countries. And what the president announced today is really all of the preparation and work that we're doing right now to address what we're anticipating with the Omicron variant here.

    So, increasing support for hospitals, increasing access to testing, increasing capacity to do vaccinations. And what I really want to emphasize in this moment is that we have the tools we need to address the Omicron variant. And those tools include what we have been saying.

    You really do need to get vaccinated. If you're eligible, you really do need to get boosted. And you need to practice all of those prevention measures, including wearing a mask in public indoor settings, even if you're vaccinated and boosted.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Dr. Walensky, with regard to testing, I know 500 million sounds like a lot of tests, but there are 330 million Americans.

    Who's going to be first in line?

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    Yes, this is a really important question.

    The government is working together to do a lot in testing. And we know we have more work to do, so, 500 million rapid at-home tests, but also 20,000 PCR sites are available now to do PCRs. And we are actually ramping up and doing more federal testing sites. And we're targeting those testing sites even right now in places that have increased demand.

    And then, of course, as you noted, 500 million more rapid tests to be distributed to those who have had less access to testing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As you know, there are questions being raised about whether testing was ramped up quickly enough.

    We see what you're doing today. The president said Omicron has come on so fast that it wasn't anticipated. But there are people out there, there are critics who were saying the administration has known for months that there was going to be a need for more testing, and you should have done more, the administration should have done more sooner.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    Yes, and we have been ramping up that supply. We have now eight FDA-approved — well, eight FDA-approved at-home tests now available, and five more that have been authorized and are on the way.

    Increasing accessibility to PCR testing, as well as these rapid testing, is a key part of what we're doing right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, was the administration caught off-guard? I heard you say a moment ago you knew this was coming. But then the president said today that Omicron has come faster than anyone realized.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    Right, really important question.

    We heard about Omicron in the last weeks of November, and since that time, we have been following carefully with our colleagues and other countries. In those places, we have seen doubling times of this virus in a 1.5-to-three-day rate.

    And with those doubling times, we anticipated that we would be seeing this kind of increase from 3 percent of cases to 73 percent of cases in around this period of time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you're saying you knew this was coming?

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    We have been following carefully the science, and we have been working hard as we anticipated this, because we knew Omicron had this capacity to increase at this rate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me ask you about booster shots, Dr. Walensky.

    We know people are advised to get them at the appropriate time. But we're hearing from respected scientist Dr. Peter Hotez, who's a virologist. I believe you know him. He said today that people should look at getting another booster shot if it's been three months since their first Pfizer booster, in other words, a fourth — a fourth shot.

    What is the CDC saying about this? What's the recommendation?

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    Yes, we currently don't have any data on that approach. And that is not our current recommendation.

    But let me tell you about our current recommendation, which really is to make sure that you have those two shots of your mRNA, your Moderna or your Pfizer vaccine, and if you are eligible, six months out, to get your booster shot.

    What we know now is that, if you're unvaccinated, you have a 20 times' increased risk of death, compared to people who are actually boosted, a 10 times' increased rate of being a case if you're unvaccinated compared to if you're boosted, which is why right now, at this moment, with a variant that has so many mutations that really does need that extra layer of protection, now is really the time to go out and get your booster shot, especially for those who are more vulnerable, our older populations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is the CDC looking at this question of fourth shot?

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    So, we're working with pharmaceutical agencies, and we're also working with FDA.

    And we haven't seen any data yet. What we do know is, all the preliminary data suggests that, with your booster shot, that you are protected very well from severe disease and death even against the Omicron variant, which is why it's so important right now to get your booster shot.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And another — and a question about masking.

    We know the administration is recommending wearing masks in — wherever there's a congregate setting and people who you don't know whether they're vaccinated. But we also know that the N95 mask is considered safer.

    Is the administration — should the administration — are you looking at whether you should be recommending that people N95s regularly, rather than just a typical surgical mask, which is what so many Americans are doing?

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    Yes, we want to make sure that people have access to really well-fitting masks.

    Our guidance very much articulates that you need to have a mask that is well-fitting, snugly fit, that if — it is two layers of cotton, at least, and that you often have a wire bridge around your nose to keep that snug fit.

    If people want extra layers of protection, the KN95 or N95s do offer that. But what I also want to really emphasize is that you need to be able to keep them on for — when you're in those settings. Those KN95 and N95s are often not as comfortable.

    So, if you're going to take it off, the really important thing to do is make sure you're masking the entire time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Dr. Walensky, the president today emphasized again and again — and you just have now — to people who are not vaccinated to get vaccinated.

    But we also know that something like 30 percent of all Americans still are not vaccinated, after the administration basically putting out this message day after day since the — for the past year. Do you see any evidence that this message is getting through?

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    We're working one person at a time, one vaccine at a time, one community at a time.

    We certainly know that now, in our hospitals, the vast majority of people who are in them are unvaccinated people. And our job is now the hard work of rolling up our sleeves and speaking to communities, speaking to individuals.

    I have done so personally, and I will continue to do so to get the message out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think that's working?

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    I consider every person that we vaccinate a success. So, yes, one at a time it's working, and it's working slowly, but it's working.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who's the director of the Centers for Disease Control, thank you very much.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    Thank you.

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