What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

U.S. surgeon general on delta variant, vaccine hesitancy and COVID long haulers

Health officials are sounding the alarm this holiday weekend about the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus that is causing an increase in COVID-19 cases in the United States. Its greatest threat is to those who are unvaccinated. Judy Woodruff discusses the variant and vaccination progress with the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, health officials are sounding the alarm this holiday weekend that COVID-19's highly transmissible Delta variant is causing an increase in coronavirus cases in the U.S. And its greatest threat is to those who are unvaccinated.

    I spoke about this a short time ago with the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy.

    Dr. Murthy, thank you very much for joining us.

    We see the reporting that the Delta variant is now in all 50 states. How prevalent is it?

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Well, Judy, it is quite prevalent. It is all over the country. It's doubling nearly every two weeks, and it will very quickly become the dominant variant in the United States.

    What's deeply concerning about, Judy, is that it's highly transmissible, perhaps the most transmissible variant that we have seen to date. But the good news is that the vaccines that we have appear to be effective against the Delta variant, and, if you are vaccinated, you're in good shape. You have a high degree of protection.

    My worry is for those who are not vaccinated, because this virus stands to spread even more quickly than other variants among the unvaccinated population. That's what we're seeing in Missouri and Nevada. And I worry that, unless we quickly get more people vaccinated, we will see that in other states as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, that does suggest that the biggest worry is going to be in those places, whether it's rural areas or urban, those states where there is a lower vaccination rate.

    Are we looking at a — sort of two different pictures of the country here, where people — where there's a high vaccination rate and a low vaccination rate?

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Well, Judy, right now, we are a divided country in terms of vaccination rates.

    We have some parts of our country that have 70 percent, 80 percent vaccination rates. We have others that are below 30 percent in parts of their region. So, I'm worried about that, because that means that there are some parts of our country that are at significant risk, while others are relatively safe.

    And what we don't want to see is a scenario over the summer and in the fall where we have surges in those regions where we have low vaccination rates. But I fear that that is where we are headed, unless we can quickly increase vaccination rates.

    That's one of the reasons, Judy, that the administration is also putting together a surge effort to help build teams that can go to areas that have been hard-hit either by microsurges or that have low vaccination rates and can bring a series of resources to them, from assistance with expanding testing, to vaccine administration, to technical assistance to support their public health departments, and also to get therapeutics to them, like monoclonal antibodies.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I hear you saying that. And we know the administration has been trying a number of different tactics to try to persuade people to be vaccinated.

    But we have a new poll we have been reporting on in the last couple of days, Dr. Murthy, showing that 28 percent of Americans are saying they do not plan to be vaccinated. How do you change the minds of people who are just dead-set against it?

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Well, Judy, one of the things I learned during my time practicing medicine and working with patients from a wide variety of backgrounds and points of view is that you really have to understand where people are coming from, what their concerns are, and also who they trust.

    We're a big country. People trust different institutions, different individuals. Not everyone's going to listen to officials from federal government or state government or local government. About 50 percent of people in polls say that they want to hear from a family member or friend as they make their decision about the vaccine.

    About 80 percent of people say they want to talk to their doctor or another medical professional about making a decision. That's why it's so important that we keep focus on this effort to mobilize trusted messengers to help people connect with informed individuals in their communities, whether those are doctors and nurses or faith leaders or family members.

    The problem we have Judy, right now is that there is a lot of misinformation floating around. Two-thirds of people who are unvaccinated either believe common myths about COVID-19 vaccine or think those myths might be true, myths like you can get COVID from the vaccine, which is absolutely not true.

    So we have got to dispel that misinformation. But the most important piece here are those trusted messengers. We're used to the notion that information is power, Judy, but what we have learned is that information alone isn't power. Information, plus trust is what creates power.

    And, in that sense, all of us have the ability to talk to our friends and family, help them get the information they need, help them go to vaccines.gov and find a place close by to get vaccinated. And that's how we can help protect the people we love.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in the meantime, the advice is to people who are vaccinated, it's OK to go without a mask, but if you are unvaccinated, you should still be wearing a mask? Is that correct?

  • Vivek Murthy:

    If you are unvaccinated, you are still at risk.

    And so you absolutely — you should still wear a mask, especially when you're in indoor settings with people from outside your household. You should keep distance from others, just like we have been advising people throughout the pandemic.

    If you are fully vaccinated, that means two weeks after your last dose of the vaccine, the science tells us that your chances of getting sick with COVID or transmitting the virus to others is low. And that's why the CDC gave people the flexibility to go without masks indoors or outdoors if they're fully vaccinated.

    With that said, Judy, there are some people who might still make the decision that they want to keep wearing masks. Maybe they're in a higher risk setting based on their own health. Maybe they live at home with people who are unvaccinated. Or maybe, in their community, there's a lot of spread of COVID-19 right now.

    And it's OK for people to make those decisions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is the Delta variant, Dr. Murthy, now the main reason for people to get vaccinated?

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Well, I think it is certainly the most clear and pressing reason that we have right now for people to get vaccinated.

    Not only is it spreading fast, Judy, but what we have also learned in recent weeks and recent months is that it is not only hospitalizations and deaths that we worry about with COVID-19. But, increasingly, we are seeing people with what's called long-haul symptoms, with shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, brain fog that lasts for months beyond their infection.

    And we have seen this also with people who've had mild to moderate infections and, in some cases, even with asymptomatic infection. So, if you're someone who's out there thinking, gosh, I'm not really at high risk, if I get sick, it might just be mild, but I won't get seriously ill, what we worry about is that, even if you don't get hospitalized, that you may be at risk for long-haul symptoms.

    We have seen this in young people too. So these are all just more reasons for us to get vaccinated. But the Delta variant makes getting vaccinated even more urgent than it was before.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Vivek Murthy, the United States surgeon general, we thank you very much.

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Thank you so much, Judy.

    Take care. And happy Fourth of July.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you too.

Listen to this Segment