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Surgeon general on booster shots for Americans, vaccinating the world

The White House is now strongly recommending booster shots for vaccinated, a move that comes as more than 1,000 people died from COVID on Tuesday — the first time the count has been that high since March. It also comes as the delta variant accounts for more than 98% of new cases. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, a member of President Biden's COVID task force, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The White House announced today several new actions in an effort to combat the resurgent spread of COVID-19.

    The most significant is the recommendation of booster shots for all vaccinated adults to be available starting September 20. Other actions include requiring vaccinations for workers in long-term care facilities, directing the U.S. Department of Education to help schools open safely, and extending federal reimbursement to states for COVID-related expenses.

    The moves calm as the U.S. reported more than 1,000 people died from COVID on Tuesday. That's the first time the daily count has been that high since March. It also comes as the Delta variant accounts for more than 98 percent of new cases.

    U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is a member of President Biden's COVID task force, and he joins me now.

    Dr. Murthy, thank you very much for being here.

    Explain for everyone watching and listening, exactly what is it that the administration based this decision on to offer boosters?

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    Well, thank you, Judy.

    So, let me lay out what we announced today and why we actually made this decision. What we announced is that, beginning September 20, we plan to offer booster shots to adults who are 18 and up who have received the Moderna or Pfizer mRNA vaccines. This would be a third dose of vaccine.

    And this will be pending the full and independent evaluation of the FDA, and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. The reason we made that decision is as follows. We have been tracking data closely over the last many months to understand the level of protection that the vaccines are giving us.

    And here's the good news. The protection that the vaccines give us against hospitalization and death has remained very high. That's positive. But what has concerned us is that the protection against mild disease and moderate disease seems to be declining.

    And, as we look forward, if that decline continues, we may start to see an increase in breakthrough hospitalizations and deaths. So, in an effort to plan ahead and look forward, we have put together the best scientific minds and medical minds at the Department of Health and Human Services. We have looked at the data together. We discussed it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    And it was our judgment that that decision to boost was important, and that doing it in the September time frame, which would be the eight-month anniversary, would be appropriate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, how soon — how close do you think we may be to seeing the vaccines lose enough effectiveness that they do lead — that people are subject to severe illness and death, because it's clear that that is something the administration sees down the road?

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    Well, and that is the purpose of the vaccines, is to prevent exactly what you said, Judy, severe disease, hospitalizations, and death.

    And the good news is, in the data that we presented and published and pushed out publicly today, you can see that the protection remains high against severe disease, hospitalization and death.

    But the goal here, Judy, is for us to be ahead of the game. We are anticipating where Delta is going, what the vaccines will be doing in terms of their level of protection. And we're doing what is actually very common with vaccines, which we are offering a boost.

    And so I want people to also know this, that booster shots are very common with other vaccines. This is not unusual, what is happening, but this will help extend the excellent protection that we have gotten to date from the vaccines.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just a couple of brief questions. How long will protection from the booster last?

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    Well, we will have to follow that, but we have good reason to believe that, just as our prior vaccine doses, the first stock shot and second shot, have given us protection for many, many months, that we will get protection for a while from the third shot.

    There are other vaccines also which require, for example, a three-dose series, like hepatitis B…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    … where, after you get that, then you're protected for years and years and years.

    So, time will tell. We will look at the data closely. But this is the step we think is going to be important to continue our protection against COVID-19.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And this, again, refers to individuals who have received the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccine.

    What about individuals who've received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson, the J&J vaccine? When are they going to learn about boosters?

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    Yes, so let's talk about J&J.

    So we rolled out the Johnson & Johnson vaccine about 70 days after the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. So people who had those vaccines are still not near and close to that eight-month mark.

    But we do anticipate that J&J recipients will likely need a booster as well. We are anticipating some data coming in from the company about the second doses. We have some studies looking at what are called mixing studies looking at different combinations of vaccines.

    And as soon as we get that data and evaluate that, have the FDA do their thorough usual evaluation, we will be able to make a recommendation on boosters for J&J recipients.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Murthy, as you know very well, the World Health Organization has asked the so-called wealthy countries of the world not to offer boosters until the end of September, because there are so many hundreds of millions of people around the world who don't have any vaccinations yet.

    We heard President Biden say today he disagreed with that assessment. But isn't the U.S., isn't the government, the administration making a choice here, putting American lives ahead of the lives of others?

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    Well, Judy, here's something we're very clear-eyed about. We know that ending this pandemic for America and for the world will require vaccinating Americans and people around the world, the billions of people who need doses of vaccines.

    But what we also know is that, when the data is telling us and suggesting that protection is declining and may actually decline to a point where we're going to see more hospitalizations and deaths, so we have to act. And we have got to act to protect people here.

    But we also need to continue and accelerate our efforts to vaccinate the world. This is not an or choice. It's not this or that. We have to do both if we want to end this pandemic. And that's why we are going to continue to accelerate our efforts to donate vaccines to the world, to push the companies to produce more that they can give to the world, and to work with other countries to stand up manufacturing capacity, so we can ultimately supply the vaccine that the world needs.

    Judy, we will not stop in this effort until Americans and the rest of the world are protected against COVID-19.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Dr. Murthy, about those Americans who are still not vaccinated, I looked again today, the percentage of all Americans are vaccinated just over 51 percent.

    It appears the efforts to get people to get the shot is just not progressing very much. Does the administration have a plan for how you're going to get more people to agree to take the vaccine?

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    Well, Judy, it is absolutely essential that we get folks who are not vaccinated, who have not had a single dose, that we get them to start their vaccine series.

    We know that the vast majority of people who are hospitalized and who are dying from COVID-19 are those who are unvaccinated.

    But here's actually the good news. If you look at the last few weeks, we have seen a significant increase in vaccination rates, particularly in states that have been hardest-hit by the COVID-19 Delta surge.

    And so while that is encouraging, that's not making us stop our efforts to continue to increase that pace. And that's why we are continuing to work with trusted messengers on the ground. We are continuing to increase the number of mobile units that are bringing vaccine to where people are.

    And we're continuing to get vaccine into doctor's offices, because we know that people want to be able to talk to their doctor and ideally get a shot right there when they're in the office.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we are watching that along with you.

    And thank you very much, the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy. Thank you.

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    Thank you so much, Judy.

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