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NIH’s Francis Collins on how Americans can take responsibility amid spreading virus

Coronavirus is spreading across the United States more widely than it did in previous waves. U.S. hospitalizations rose 40 percent in the past month and increased across 38 states during the past week. The country saw more than 75,000 new cases Thursday; over 41,000 people are hospitalized with the virus. Judy Woodruff talks to Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As businesses, cities and states grapple with decisions over restrictions and how to stay open, the virus is hitting across the U.S. more widely now than in previous surges.

    As we heard, hospitalization rose 40 percent in the past month, and increased across 38 states during just this past week. More than 41,000 people are in the hospital with COVID right now. And more than 75,000 new cases were reported just yesterday.

    Thankfully, death rates are much lower than they once were. But there has been an average of more than 775 deaths a day for the past week.

    This makes it a good moment to speak with the director of the National Institutes of Health. He's Dr. Francis Collins.

    And, Dr. Collins, we welcome you back to the "NewsHour."

    So, these numbers don't look good. They don't sound good. How do you describe what's going on right now?

  • Francis Collins:

    It's very significant and very serious.

    And goodness knows our country has suffered, our world has suffered already a great deal from this virus, with the loss of life and economic distress. And yet, if anybody tries to say we're done with it, it certainly, right now, looks quite the opposite.

    You mentioned yesterday, in the United States, over 75,000 cases in a single day. That's the second highest ever since this started. And I will be surprised if it doesn't go higher than that when you look at the shape of the curve.

    And this time, very much in the Midwest, the Rocky Mountain areas, this is a different kind of spread, because it's not just the cities. It's the rural areas as well. And the best chance we have, while we're waiting for the vaccine — and it may come in a few more weeks or months — but, meantime, it's kind of up to all of us to try to do what we can to limit the spread.

    And if there was ever a time for people to take responsibility and do so, it's right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you said for anybody to say that it's behind us,

    I'm just looking at what the president said last night. He said, we're rounding the corner.

    Does that sound realistic?

  • Francis Collins:

    Well, if you look at the maps of the U.S. and see where the disease is and where it's going even more rapidly, it would be very hard to say that we're not in a tough spot.

    And if you look at the curves, we're on this third slope that's headed upward. I don't know whether to call this the third wave or whether we're basically still in the first wave, because we never really drove down to the baseline, after what happened back in March, April and May.

    But no question about it, this cold weather that we were concerned would lead to greater spread does seem to be happening, and we have some tough weeks ahead.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Interesting that it's not even clear which surge we're in.

    You know, separately, last night, former Vice President Biden talked — took a very tack. He talked about we're heading into a very dark winter.

    Does that sound realistic? I mean, is that too pessimistic, or does that sound about right to you?

  • Francis Collins:

    Clearly, the next few weeks are going to be rough.

    And, again, we have something we can do about it. I don't want to sound so fatalistic, like, OK, we're just in for it and there's nothing we can do.

    We know that this is a disease that spreads between people because of close proximity without masks. We know that 40 percent of the people who get this are not aware that they're infected. And so they may be spreading it without knowledge. That's why we ask everybody to put a mask on.

    If you're the young person who thinks it doesn't apply to you, well, you might be the super-spreader that's infecting your neighbors or your grandparents.

    We have seen in other instances — it happened in the Southeast — we had this big outbreak, and then it was possible to kind of bring it down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Francis Collins:

    This time, I think, because it's so widespread in the country, it kind of needs to be everybody.

    So, it's those three W's, wear your mask, watch your distance, wash your hands. We can all do this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Francis Collins:

    It's not too late.

    I know people are tired of the pandemic, but the virus is not tired of us. It is out there having a great old party, and we need to shut it down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Collins, several things to ask you.

    I know you and Dr. Fauci, who is, of course, head of the Infectious Diseases Division at the NIH, both of you have said you haven't met with the president to discuss the COVID directly in several months.

    The president has called Dr. Fauci just in the last few days very wrong. He said he's a disaster. He said the — that he and other scientists working on this are idiots.

    Is that anything close to your perception?

  • Francis Collins:

    I have the greatest respect for Tony Fauci. He's probably the most widely respected infectious disease expert in the world.

    I have the privilege of talking to him virtually every day and many times in the evening as well. And his wisdom and his experience, having served six presidents and gone through many previous pandemics, is just of incredible value.

    And he's also a wonderful communicator. But he is also sort of one of those people who just tells you what the facts are. And, sometimes, that gets him in a little bit of trouble.

    It is unfortunate that somehow telling facts can be something that will cause people to resent you. And I worry very much that now Tony has some fairly serious threats being levied at him. But he is a treasure. And I'm proud to be his colleague and pleased at the moment that we at NIH can try to keep our eyes focused on the science and move this agenda forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, what about the fact that the person the president does listen to on a regular basis, his chief adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, is not an infectious disease expert at all? He's a radiologist.

    With so much at stake, does that worry you?

  • Francis Collins:

    I haven't had a lot of opportunities to talk with Dr. Atlas.

    Certainly, I would want the president always to have the most accurate advice possible at a critical time like this. And, again, I think there is a lot of information right now that can be kind of encouraging, but also things where we need to take action.

    The task force, which is ably led by the vice president, continues to meet regularly. But we have not, as the task force, been asked to meet with the president recently.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I want to ask you about the course of vaccines.

    But, also, we know that there are human trials under way. You and others have spoken about when those may produce a vaccine. But, in the meantime, you have many states that have relaxed standards, whether it comes to masks, whether it comes to indoor gathering. I think the Wisconsin state legislature right now is considering doing away with the mask mandate.

    Can this virus, Dr. Collins, be brought under control unless there's some kind of strong federal — national measure, steps taken at the national level? Or does it have to be left up to the states?

  • Francis Collins:

    Well, I hope it's being left up to every American to look at the evidence.

    Frankly, folks who are listening, masks are the way in which this virus can have its spread stopped. This is not a matter of scientific debate. The need for masks for all of us, not because we're so much protecting ourselves, but we're protecting other people from us, if we happen to be that unwitting infected person.

    This is just so straightforward. To argue against that must be kind of like the same thing against arguing against seat belts. It's just good common sense to save lives.

    And, basically, I am really troubled that that public health message has not been able to take root across this country, at a time where people are dying. And this is such a simple thing we could do.

    Yes, it would probably be a good thing if this was required. But, even if it's not required, hey, we're Americans. We're not stupid. We can figure out what the evidence shows and act accordingly. Come on, people. We can do this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But when you have state legislative bodies saying masks can't be required, we're heading in another direction.

    I do want to ask you about a vaccine. You have said — you and Dr. Fauci have said these trials may produce early results by the end of this year, and front-line workers, health care workers may have access to the vaccine, but that it may be many more months before Americans broadly, before hundreds of millions of Americans have access.

    People do want life to get back to a semblance of normal. When could that be? I mean, are we talking the summer of 2021, fall/winter of 2021? What do you think?

  • Francis Collins:

    Well, first of all, let me say, the progress of vaccines is simply breathtaking.

    To be where we are in October, when we only knew about this virus in January, is moving about five years faster than has ever happened before for vaccine development.

    And just today, you may have heard two of the vaccines that had been in a pause because of concerns are being reactivated. So, we have four vaccines now going forward in large-scale phase three trials, two of them having pretty much finished their enrollment already, and now beginning to look to see for efficacy of the vaccine to protect people against getting sick.

    It does look fairly optimistic that one or more of these will reach the point of being judged safe and effective, assuming that they are, by the end of this year. And there will be tens of millions of doses of each vaccine ready to go, if they are at that point, to the most vulnerable people.

    But let's be honest. It's going to take quite a few months to manufacture doses for additional Americans, for those that are lower risk. And until we get to the point where maybe 70 percent or 80 percent of the population is immune, we will still need to practice this good public health measures to keep the virus from coming back.

    So, let's be prepared for the fact life is not going to feel like it did in 2019 for about another year.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Another year from now. So we're looking at October, the fall, end of next year?

  • Francis Collins:

    Again, I'm — let nobody tell you that they can say precisely how this timetable is going to play out.

    But that would be sort of the general estimate of what it's going to take, if you want to get everything to the point where it's going to be completely OK to go back to the kind of life that we had before COVID-19 came along.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then you have the reluctance of many people to even think about taking the vaccine. But that's another mountain to climb.

  • Francis Collins:

    And a big mountain.

    And, in fact, what I'm talking about, getting back to normal by a year from now, will not happen if half the population refuses the vaccine, because then the immunity is not there. And then this virus could go on for years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's sobering.

  • Francis Collins:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Francis Collins, we thank you for joining us on this Friday night. We appreciate it.

  • Francis Collins:

    Judy, it's always good to talk to you. I'm glad to come any time.

    And I hope it doesn't sound that grim. We are making great progress, and we are going to get through this. I am absolutely sure of that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're hearing your message.

    Thank you.

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