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U.S. surgeon general on the ‘most powerful tools’ to combat the delta variant

Amna Nawaz and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy dive deeper into the Biden administration's efforts to combat the delta variant of the novel coronavirus and surrounding misinformation, public masking requirements and vaccination efforts amid the rise of COVID-19 cases.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The U.S. and other governments say more information from China is needed to prevent the next pandemic, even as the work to contain this one is far from over.

    We take a deeper dive on the Biden administration's efforts to combat the Delta variant with surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy.

    Dr. Murthy, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Always good to have you here.

    Help us understand now. This is confusing for a lot of people. We know that masking helps to contain virus spread. So, why not change the masking guidance, so that more people wear them now?

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    Well, it is a great question, Amna.

    So, let's review what we know. We know, yes, that masks are helpful in preventing spread. What we also know from the science that the CDC shared about two months ago is that, if you are fully vaccinated, your risk of getting sick or transmitting the virus is low.

    Now, there are circumstances where individuals may want to consider wearing masks, where counties may decide to put mitigation measures like mask requirements back in place. And those would be, for example, if they had a lot of virus circulating, as some communities do.

    If you're an individual who has kids at home who are not vaccinated, or you, yourself, are immunocompromised, those are all circumstances where counties or individuals may decide that they want to wear masks again.

    I actually think that, in a moment like this when we're seeing COVID spreading so widely because of the Delta variant, that it's prudent to err on the side of caution, because, again, a lot of people are getting infected right now, primarily unvaccinated, but, again, bears being cautious depending on your situation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So what do you do about areas that — where you have leaders where there's a large amount of COVID and spreading right now?

    Florida, for example, where you're joining us from, has one of the highest COVID rates in the country. Governor DeSantis has said he opposes any mask mandates, especially when school restarts this fall.

    What do you do about those areas?

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    Well, what I can just tell you from a public health and science perspective is what we have learned, which is that the masks help, and that, especially when you have got a lot of virus spreading, and you don't have high vaccination rates, which is the case in parts of my home state of Florida, that masks absolutely can be a useful tool.

    And, look, I understand that people are tired of so much of what we have dealt of this past year, wearing masks, not seeing your friends, just going through the uncertainty of COVID. It's been exhausting for all of us. And we have made a lot of progress.

    But this is one of those moments, Amna, with the Delta variant spreading so quickly, that we have got to take measures to reduce spread. And vaccination is important. Look, we have got to get vaccinating people quickly. But if you're trying to reduce spread in a short time frame, in the order of days to weeks, then it is measures like masking and distancing that are among our most powerful tools.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But, Dr. Murthy, the Delta variant was spreading back in mid-, back when the CDC chose to relax that masking guidance.

    In hindsight, looking back now, was that a mistake? Did that send the wrong message, that we were past the worst of it too soon?

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    Well, I think the CDC made that decision because, at the time, the cases were actually dropping significantly. The science was telling us that fully vaccinated people were, in fact, quite well-protected, and nothing's 100 percent, but that their risk of infection and transmission was low.

    And I think what the CDC was also seeing at that time was, yes, there was Delta, but it was at very, very low levels at that time. What we seen since then is, Delta has really surged. It's more than 83 percent of cases that we're diagnosing of COVID right now.

    But what the CDC is also saying here is not that people shouldn't wear masks, but they what they did 60 days ago is give counties and individuals the flexibility to determine when they use masks, based on their risk tolerance and based on how much infection was in their community.

    Amna, one of the things that we're seeing is, as we — our vaccinated population is increasing, we're seeing COVID become a more local and regional phenomenon. The whole country is not flaring at once, but we are seeing rises and surges in pockets where the unvaccinated population is high.

    I think it makes sense to direct mitigation members — measures to those areas. And for counties that are putting mask measures in place because they see infections rising, I think it's a very reasonable step to take.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, the vaccination rates have plateaued somewhat, right?

    We're about 500,000 or so; 56 percent of the eligible American population has now been fully vaccinated. So, what, for you, is the goal? What percentage do we need to get at where you say we're at herd immunity, we have a more comfortable level now where that virus spread can slow?

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    Yes, so, Amna, this is like the million-dollar question.

    And I use the proof is in the pudding example, which is that I don't think there's a specific number that we're targeting, because, quite frankly, we don't know what that number is, because it changes based on how contagious the virus is. And now we're dealing with the more transmissible variant, which means the — quote, unquote — "number" you need to reach to reach herd immunity is actually greater in terms of percentage of the population vaccinated.

    But here's how we will know we got there. When cases come down and stay down for a sustained period of time, we will know that we're at the point where we have hit a good vaccination target. We are not seeing that yet in the country.

    And while some areas are actually doing pretty well that have greater than 80 percent vaccination rates, many other parts of the country, we are seeing surges among the unvaccinated.

    Amna, one really important point, though, that is — I think we have got to make sure everyone understands is that the increases in cases we're seeing is not evidence that the vaccine doesn't work. Quite to the contrary. What we are seeing is that 99.5 percent of deaths from COVID now, 97 percent of hospitalizations are among those who are not vaccinated, which means, again, if you are fully vaccinated, you are well-protected against the worst outcomes, severe illness and death from COVID.

    That's why it's still so important for people to go out there and get vaccinated.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You have said repeatedly, officials have said repeatedly you have to get the right messengers to those people who are unvaccinated.

    And, recently, we have seen a number of Republican lawmakers in particular who were previously largely silent on vaccinations now publicly speak out and urge people to get vaccinated.

    But we are still, in terms of our vaccination rates, now lagging other countries that we were once far ahead of. So is all of that a sign that even that messaging shift isn't really going to make a difference?

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    Well, I think every person who speaks up influences the people who believe in them.

    And I think seeing more political leaders step up to do that, seeing leaders and business and an education step up, seeing faith leaders increasingly step up in their communities to talk about the importance of getting vaccinated, I think this is actually very promising.

    Now, it takes people a little bit of time to absorb those messages and then to make the decision to get vaccinated. Once they get vaccinated, it takes several weeks for them to actually increase and get the protection that they need from the virus.

    But I think this is, overall, very encouraging. This is what we need to keep doing more of. The thing to remember here is that, as powerful and as important as doctors and nurses are as messengers, we actually have recent data that tells us that all of us, family members and friends, can be powerful messengers as well.

    One in five of people who were on the wait-and-see category, if you will, as far as vaccines are concerned in January made the decision to get vaccine and got vaccinated. And when asked what changed their mind, they said it was talking to their family, to their friends, seeing their family and friends get vaccinated and do well.

    So I say that to remind everyone that, in this phase of the vaccination campaign, it is up to us to also talk to our family and our friends, those who trust us. Ask them if they got vaccine. And if they haven't, have them go to vaccines.gov to find a place how to help them answer questions.

    But we have got to help each other get vaccinated. That's how we're going to end this pandemic once and for all.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Murthy, lastly and briefly, if I may, you have said that the social media companies, the tech companies you have been in touch with need to do more to stop the misinformation that's out there and keeping people from getting vaccinated.

    What specifically else do you want them to do that would help to end the pandemic sooner?

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    Amna, the reason I issued a surgeon general's advisory on health misinformation last week and called on technology companies and other stakeholders to do more is because health misinformation is harming our health.

    It's all of us that — we deserve to be able to make the right decisions for ourselves based on accurate information. A lot of people don't have that.

    There are eight things that we laid out for technology companies to do. But a few that I will mention to you here, number one, acting more quickly to get disinformation reduce on their site. Number two, changing their algorithm, so they don't continue to serve up more and more misinformation to people and encounter it for the first time.

    And third is being more transparent with their data, so we understand how much misinformation is actually being transacted on their site. When they say we have removed X-number of pieces of misinformation, that doesn't mean much if we don't know how many actually existed on the site. Four million out of four billion is very different from four million out of five million.

    So we need more transparency. We need them to make more product changes to reduce the spread of misinformation. They have the ability to do that. We just need them to act with greater urgency, because lives depend on it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, joining us tonight.

    Dr. Murthy, always good to see you. Thanks for the time.

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    Great to see you, Amna. Take care and be well.

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