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Vaccine, mask opponents are fueling the delta variant’s death toll. Will incentives help?

Judy Woodruff discusses the latest on COVID-19's spread in the U.S. — which is surging thanks to the delta variant — and how incentives for those who are unvaccinated and anti-maskers will affect the situation with Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and a member of the Food and Drug Administration's vaccine advisory board.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Also today, Israel became the first country using Western vaccines to offer booster shots. They're being offered to those over 60 who've already been vaccinated.

    We turn now to Dr. Paul Offit. He is the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and he is a member of the FDA Vaccine Advisory Board.

    Dr. Offit, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let me first ask you your reaction to President Biden now ordering federal employees, over two million of them, almost three million, to either get vaccinated or get regularly tested.

  • Dr. Paul Offit:

    Well, I think it's the right thing to do. You could argue he didn't go far enough.

    I think, if you're going to have a vaccine mandate, then you shouldn't allow people not to get vaccinated. You know, these are federal employees. I think, when you get vaccinated, you're showing that you care about whether or not you catch and transmit this virus, knowing that there are people in this country who can't be vaccinated because they're too young or because they have chronic diseases.

    And so I think, if you're going to be a responsible member of society, then you should get vaccinated. And I think that, if you're going to be a federal employee, you should act like a responsible member of society, and if you're not willing to do that, then I think you shouldn't be able to be a federal employee.

    So I think, frankly, he didn't go far enough.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And another piece of what the president said today, Dr. Offit, is saying that he wants states, he's urging states to give $100 to people who are newly vaccinated.

    Is that the kind of incentive that will work at this point, do you think?

  • Dr. Paul Offit:

    I guess we will find out. He's choosing the carrot and the stick. I mean, it's a little sad that we actually have to pay people to do the right thing.

    It's clear that vaccines work and are safe. I mean, more than 160 million Americans have already received these vaccines. So — but if it works, great, because we don't have enough people who are vaccinated. There's probably 100 million people out there who still need to be vaccinated. And if we can get them vaccinated, then we don't have to talk about masking and social distancing.

    But right now, we're not there. It's sad, frankly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You're saying it's sad.

    We are a year-and-a-half into this pandemic. Right now, who or what has the upper hand? Is it the COVID and all of its variants, or is it the vaccine?

  • Dr. Paul Offit:

    Well, right now, it's the virus.

    I mean, yesterday, we had 84,000 cases of COVID, which is just the tip of the iceberg of the number of people who may actually have it, because not everybody gets tested. We had almost 500 deaths. Those are the numbers we saw last summer. Last summer, we had a fully susceptible population and we had no vaccine. So, why are we seeing the same kind of numbers now that we saw last summer?

    I think the answer is, it is a much more contagious virus. The Delta variant is much more contagious than the virus that circulated last summer, which was the so-called D614G variant. We also have a critical percentage of the population that's still not vaccinated.

    And I think we have loosened our behavior. We're not as good, I think, this summer as we were last summer about masking and social distancing. I mean, you see those Republicans walking down the steps proudly not wearing a mask when they were asked to wear a mask inside. It's like friends of COVID.

    When they — I'm a child of the '50s. I remember the polio virus. And I remember our fight against polio virus. There were no friends of the polio virus. I feel like now there are sort of friends of SARS-CoV-2, people who are conspiracy theorists or vaccine denialists or claim personal freedoms that they really don't have or purveyors of misinformation.

    It's just hard to watch. I mean, this virus has a lot of friends out there who allow it to continue to spread and continue to do harm and, worse, continue to create possibly variants that are more and more resistant to vaccine-induced immunity.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, you have just two days ago, Dr. Offit, the CDC issuing new guidelines saying that Americans, even if you're vaccinated, you should start to wear masks again indoors, or even outdoors in crowded spaces, if you live in a place where there's high transmission.

    President Biden actually misspoke about this at his news conference this afternoon and said if you're vaccinated, you don't have to wear a mask. The CDC new guidance is that you do if you're in one of these high-transmission areas.

    Is that — is that clear guidance, do you think, to the American people?

  • Dr. Paul Offit:

    I think it's clearer.

    I think, previously, when the administration said that if you're vaccinated, you don't need to wear a mask indoors, that assumed that every — one, everybody heard that, and that, two, everybody would follow that.

    I'm sure when I walk into the ACME around the corner here, that — and there's 50 people there. Many are not wearing masks. I'm sure many of those people who aren't wearing masks also aren't vaccinated.

    But I think now the Delta variant really has changed things. It is — if you look at the virus that was circulating last summer, the D614G variant, this virus, you shed 1,000 times more virus from your nose and throat if you're infected with the Delta variant than that previous virus.

    That really has changed the game here. So, I think, if you are indoors, around a lot of people, it's just prudent to wear a mask even if you're vaccinated, because, even if you're vaccinated, you still could have an asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic infection, in which case you could be contagious.

    But be assured that if you're vaccinated, it's extremely unlikely that you would suffer severe or critical disease. So, it works. So get vaccinated, so you don't have to be hospitalized or die from this virus.

    It's amazing that we have to make this case. I mean, is it not clear enough that the percentage of people who are hospitalized or killed by this virus are all unvaccinated?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But I do want to ask you about the science behind that, because you hear Republicans, members of Congress saying, I don't see the evidence for that, the CDC hasn't shown us exactly where this data came from.

    And there are rumors going around that it came from something in India. I mean, do we know what the science is that led to this turnaround?

  • Dr. Paul Offit:

    No, I think you're right, Judy.

    I think it would help with the CDC put out there exactly what evidence they're basing this on. It's not surprising, frankly, for mucosal virus, whether it's influenza or rotavirus or upper respiratory viruses like this one, that the vaccine would protect you against moderate to severe to critical disease, but wouldn't necessarily protect you against asymptomatic infection or mildly symptomatic infection. That's often true.

    So it's not surprising. But you're right. I think it would be of value for all of us to be able to see those data.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Philadelphia Children's and also a member of the FDA Vaccine Advisory Board, thank you very much.

  • Dr. Paul Offit:

    Thank you.

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