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NIH director optimistic about teen vaccinations, says it’s ‘time to roll up your sleeves’

On Wednesday afternoon, a key advisory panel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended allowing Pfizer's COVID-19 shots for children aged 12 to 15. Many parents have been eagerly awaiting this decision, but it's far from universal. Dr. Francis Collins is the director of the National Institute of Health and joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the planned rollout for that age group.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The push to vaccinate adolescents and teens in the United States got a big boost today.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending Pfizer's COVID vaccine for those between the ages of 12 and 15. Many parents have been eagerly awaiting this decision, but that view is far from universal.

    Dr. Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health, and he joins me now.

    Dr. Collins, thank you so much for joining us.

    Let me start out with this news that the CDC has authorized the use of the vaccine for 12-to-15-year-olds. How much difference do you think this is going to make in the fight against this pandemic?

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    Oh, I think it can make a huge difference.

    So, this is an exciting day, Judy. Certainly, FDA issued their emergency use authorization recommendation just Monday, and then CDC voting 14-0, with one recusal, endorsed that same recommendation. And the CDC director signed off on it about an hour ago.

    So, yes, kids 12 to 15, time to roll up your sleeves. And I think a lot of them are going to want to do that, including my 14-year-old granddaughter, who is already making an appointment, because this is a chance to have those high schoolers and some middle schoolers get themselves in a place where it's safe to go back to school, to go to sleepovers, to play in sports, all the things that they have been deprived of for the last year.

    So, I think this is a very good step. And I must say the data from the trial that was reviewed today by the CDC committee is extremely compelling as far as safety and efficacy for kids this age.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    At the same time, Dr. Collins, how do you overcome either hesitancy or just outright opposition from parents? There's a new Kaiser poll showing something like 40 percent of parents say they are reluctant or completely opposed to having their child get this vaccine.

  • Francis Collins:

    You know, I always wonder with polls, because we have seen over time how those opinions can change.

    I think a lot of parents were waiting to see, OK, what really is the data here that says this is safe and effective? That data is out there now. People can look at it. I think a lot of parents will come around.

    I think a lot of teenagers will come around and say, mom and dad, I'm all ready to go roll up my sleeve because I want to be able to get out of this circumstance I have been in for the last year.

    So watch the space and see. I know there will be some families that are already resistant for themselves in vaccination, and they will probably be resistant for their adolescent kids as well.

    But I think, as we see this moving along, more and more people are beginning to get convinced this is really a wonderful opportunity. Waiting and seeing was a good thing for a while, but maybe we don't have to wait anymore. People have now been vaccinated for many months. There doesn't seem to be any long-term surprise.

    And the effectiveness, when you look to see what's happening in our country now, with cases coming down, especially in older people, is just hard to argue with. We are on a good path.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Dr. Collins, with the Biden administration now pushing very hard to get this vaccination effort out into the community, right down to virtually the neighborhood level, they're saying they want to get 70 percent of Americans vaccinated by July 4.

    Is that realistic? Do you think that can be done?

  • Francis Collins:

    I think it can be. We are at 59 percent today of adults who have received at least one dose, on the way to 70. That seems like that's within reach by July 4. And something like 116 million Americans are fully vaccinated. We want to get that to 160 by July 4.

    I think that's reachable as well. Immunizations, they went back a little bit per day a couple of weeks ago, but they're holding up pretty well right now. And there's a whole lot of ways for people to find out where they can go.

    So, if you haven't already heard about, there is this opportunity to text 438829 and punch in your zip code, and you will get immediately three places near you that have vaccines in stock. Or you can go do Vaccines.gov. And there you can also find out which of those sites have the Pfizer vaccine, because that's what the adolescents need to get ,because that's one that's been approved for them.

    Lots of ways for this to be easier for people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have got it memorized. Helpful.

    Dr. Collins, just quickly, you said 160 million. Is that — so that's a number of Americans that is going to give you, what, peace of mind?

  • Francis Collins:

    One hundred and sixty million being fully immunized.

    That would be about 63 percent of adults. I'd like to see that go higher. But if you have above that number, the ones that have gotten at least one dose, that is 70 percent, that's getting into the place where we would think, at least in communities that have been pretty faithful about this, the infection rates really should start to go down.

    I don't know if we ought to be talking quite so much about herd immunity, as if there is some bright line where you get to that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Francis Collins:

    But it is the idea that, when more and more of the population is immune, the virus doesn't have so much to do anymore. And then we can send it packing. And that's what we all want to do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two other important things I want to ask you about, Dr. Collins.

    One is this sort of growing chorus of skepticism directed, and even criticism, at the CDC and its guideline, saying they're just too cautious.

    And Dr. Leana Wen, who's an emergency physician here in Washington, former Baltimore City health commissioner, she commented for us today on the fact that the CDC is still recommending masks in certain outdoor settings, even for vaccinated people, for youth to wear masks at summer camp. And it also has not yet provided guidance for employers, even when everyone is vaccinated.

    If you could just listen for a moment to what she had to say.

  • Dr. Leana Wen:

    Public health guidance has to make scientific sense and it has to make common sense. And right now, the guidance from the CDC is making neither.

    Look at what the CDC is currently saying about being outdoors. We have overwhelming evidence at this point that being outdoors is extremely protective. And, actually, that's the best place for unvaccinated people to be.

    I think, also, the CDC being so slow and so overly cautious, I understand they want to wait for perfect information to come in. But we're in the middle of a global pandemic, when we also need quick decisions. And this is what local officials and employers and businesses all depend on as well.

    And so, if the CDC is too slow, then these other entities end up moving on without the guidance of the CDC. And there is a real harm there, because the CDC loses its credibility, it loses its relevance. And people are just not going to follow the recommendations at times when it really matters.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Collins, how would you respond?

  • Francis Collins:

    Well, I know Dr. Wen.

    And I think she's voicing an opinion that probably a lot of people are feeling a bit frustrated about, like, hey, we're all getting vaccinated. Could we have a little more freedom now, please?

    But let's recognize CDC is in a tough spot here. And Dr. Walensky, the director, is always trying to balance these issues about trying to give people the opportunity to get out there, which we are all now doing. My wife and I, we can have family, other groups come to our house for dinner, if they're all fully vaccinated. We take our masks off. This is great.

    We can have a little street party with people who are already immunized and take our masks off. This is great. CDC says those things are fun.

    But if CDC goes a little too fast, and we end up with a surge as a result because we weren't quite careful enough, then what have we done? So always this difficult balance, but I think you are going to see CDC relaxing a lot of these restrictions in the coming days and weeks, because they're watching this closely.

    And they have nothing to gain by telling people to do things that aren't important or necessary anymore. They're on the same side that we all are.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I know a lot of people have questions. And they're going to continue to watch those CDC guidelines.

    The last thing I want to ask you about, Dr. Collins, is the — what's going on in the rest of the world. We know — and even as we celebrate how many Americans are vaccinated, we — you and I have just been talking about it — other parts of the world — and it's not just India and Brazil, which we keep hearing about, terrible, terrible situations in both of those countries.

    But now we're hearing about Asia, particularly Southeast Asia. Are you comfortable with the U.S. decision to hold off at this point sending vaccines overseas, the AstraZeneca vaccine, when it's available, and particularly the decision now to vaccinate younger Americans, children, adolescents, who aren't, frankly, as vulnerable as older people elsewhere?

  • Francis Collins:

    Well, we do have a great responsibility to the rest of the world.

    The United States has always been in that place of thinking about our global neighbors and trying to do everything we can to help when there's a crisis. And God knows there's a crisis now. And you probably know we are sending materials to India, in terms of ventilators and oxygen tanks and materials for them to make their own vaccines at the Serum Institute, which is one of the largest manufacturers in the world for vaccines.

    South America also in real trouble. We have doses of AstraZeneca that are going to be shipped there as soon as FDA clears them to be sure that they're OK. So, there's a lot of intention here. The U.S. is also the largest donor to the COVAX effort; $4 billion have gone into that, which is intended for vaccines for low- and middle-income countries.

    So, we're trying to do what we can. But I have a real heart for global health issues. So I'm also deeply troubled when I see what's happening. And we should push out all the stops, now that we're getting in a better place in our country, to try to help our neighbors.

    And, yes, no vaccinating the kids, you could say, well, they don't get that sick anyway. Well, that's part of it. But some of them do; 300 kids have died of COVID-19. More than three million have had infections. Some of them are affected with long COVID, where you don't get better after you have had the acute illness. We don't understand that. And those kids may be sick for a long time.

    So nobody should minimize the risk. Plus, the other aspect of this is, we know that adolescents are often the place where the virus gets started and then spreads to others. And if we're really going to stop this pandemic, we have to stop that chain of transmission. And that involves adolescence too.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, it is always very good to have you as a guest. Thank you very much.

  • Francis Collins:

    Thanks, Judy. Great to be with you.

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