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Ryan Connelly Holmes
Ryan Connelly Holmes
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With the rise of the BA.2 variant in some parts of the country, many questions remain about how to best navigate daily life and what precautions should or should not be taken. White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.
With the rise of the BA.2 variant in some parts of the country, many questions remain about how to best navigate daily life and what precautions should or should not be taken.
To answer some of those for us, I'm joined by White House COVID response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha.
Dr. Jha, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Always good to see you. And thank you for braving those rains to stand out and talk to us tonight.
We should note that cases have been ticking up. And a graph we're about to show people here I know you cannot see actually shows back from October of 2021 to today. We are nowhere near the Omicron peak, we should point out, but there are a number of new cases, 33,000 just reported yesterday.
What is fueling that uptick? Is it the rolling back of some of the mask mandates?
Dr. Ashish Jha, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator:
Yes, so, Amna, thanks for having me back.
I think a major issue driving these increases in cases is BA.2. This subvariant is even more contagious than the original Omicron. And we saw it fuel case increases across Europe and Israel and elsewhere. And I think that is the major reason we're seeing it happening in the U.S. right now.
We also know that at-home testing is being used a lot more than it used to be, but often people don't report those results. Could these case counts actually be higher than we know?
Dr. Ashish Jha:
First of all, I'm a huge fan of home tests, right? I think they're great, but that does lead to some undercounting. But there are other ways that we're monitoring what's going on, right, looking at wastewater data, looking at hospitalizations.
There are other metrics we can use, so that we have a sense of how much infection there is in the community.
So, let me ask you about masking, because there is some confusion around this the longer the pandemic goes on.
You have said very clearly, as have many officials, masking is an important tool to prevent spread. But when you look at the CDC guidelines online, they only recommend masking in areas of what they call high community spread.
So, if you log on and you look at the map, the vast majority of the country is green. It is low community spread. For anyone who look so that map and says, oh, this is fine, I'm in a safe area, I don't need to mask, what would you say?
So, first of all, I think, from a historical basis, we are at low infection levels, right? Like, yes, it is true they have gone up, but it's still very, very low. And hospitalizations right now actually are at the lowest point in the pandemic.
So, I don't think that — I think that choosing not to mask up right now is reasonable. Obviously, if you're in a high-risk setting, obviously, if you're a high-risk person, in those contexts, wearing a mask is always reasonable. And people may make that decision.
I think CDC is laying out a broad framework for how to think about it for the broader public.
Well, given all of that, then help us understand why the extension of the mask mandate on — in transportation.
If people are on planes, and trains and buses and masking, but then take those masks off the minute they go out to restaurants or schools or stores, what's the impact it's actually having?
Yes, so I think the CDC decision to wait 15 days to make a more durable decision masking on planes and transportation is very reasonable.
And here's why. BA.2, the variant that we have been talking about, just became dominant over the last couple of weeks. Whether it's going to cause a larger increase and whether it's going to cause substantial increases in hospitalizations and deaths, we don't think so, but we don't know for sure.
And what CDC scientists are saying is 15 more days would give us actually a lot more data on that. And that will allow us to make a more data-driven, informed decision. It feels really reasonable to me to make that — to take that 15 days and make a better decision.
To be clear, you don't know for sure yet if BA.2 could lead to more hospitalizations, but you think within the next couple of weeks, you will know that?
We will have a lot more information, yes, so I think within the next couple of weeks.
Once something becomes dominant, usually about a week or 10 days later, you start getting a pretty good sense of what's happening with hospitalizations. Certainly, by two weeks, I think we will have a much clearer picture.
So let me ask you about vaccines then as well, because we reported earlier in the show, of course, Pfizer is seeking that approval for booster shots for younger kids.
But they have authorized the second booster, which is effectively the fourth shot, for people 50 and older and those who are immunocompromised. There seems to be some debate, even in the scientific community, about how necessary, how effective that fourth shot really is.
So what do you say to that?
Yes, the best data we have on the fourth shot is from Israel.
And the data is actually, I think, quite clear. People over 60 who got a four shot had dramatic reductions, not just in infections, which, of course, matter, but in hospitalizations and deaths, which is the thing we care most about.
So I feel like that, based on the data, people over 60 who are four or five months out of their second shot — I mean, out of their third shot, should get that second booster. I think that second booster is going to be protective; 50 to 59, the data is less clear. If you're a higher risk, it makes a lot of sense to me. And I think they should — people 50 to 59 should consider it.
But, to me, 60 and over, if you're going to follow the Israeli data, it's clear people clearly benefit from that second booster.
So, following the data with younger kids in particular, and following what we have seen across the country, there are very few younger children in America who are fully vaccinated in that age group 5 to 11. It's still about 28 percent of that population.
They are back in school. Masks are coming off. We have not seen huge outbreaks. You have — you yourself have said we don't have a reason to be excessively concerned. So what's the argument to make to parents that they should get their kids vaccinated in the first place, much less boosted?
Yes, it's a great question.
I have a 10-year-old and I got him vaccinated the first day he was eligible. And the question is, why? And it's really straightforward, right, because we know these vaccines are exceedingly safe.
And while infection numbers are low right now, they might rise again. They have been obviously higher in the past. And protecting our kids against it with a very, very safe vaccine, to me, is a no-brainer. And that's why I have been a very strong proponent of getting kids 5 and above vaccinated, because the evidence is that the benefit is substantial, and the risks are very, very small.
But, to be clear, you are asking or you're suggesting it, recommending it based on a potential future variant? Because we haven't seen that uptick in hospitalizations so far, correct?
Yes, I am saying, first of all, that, even when kids get infected — I mean, if you have a very safe, effective vaccine that prevents infection, kids should get vaccinated against that — against that virus.
And, yes, it's true we have not seen an uptick, but kids continue to get infected from this virus. Obviously, some proportion of them still do get hospitalized. And if you have something that's very safe and effective that can prevent that, I strongly recommend to parents that they get it.
So we know cases are going up. We know the virus is circulating. I can remember conversations between you and I, with other experts over the last few years. You have said very clearly, the more the virus moves, the more the potential, the greater the potential it can mutate, and we don't know what could happen next.
So how worried are you about another potentially more dangerous variant?
We're two years into this pandemic. We have seen a new variant that has caused substantial disruptions about every six months.
I remain worried about that. And the best way to prevent that, obviously, is to get as many people vaccinated and boosted in the United States, but it's also to vaccinate people globally. I mean, there is no question about it that if we let this virus run rampant across the world, it is just risking more variants.
And those variants end up eventually coming back to the United States. So, we really need a global strategy here. And we need to make sure we're vaccinating the entire world, while continuing to focus on vaccinating Americans.
In just the few seconds we have left, you have a huge portfolio now in running the White House COVID response.
What would you say at this point in the pandemic is the overall goal? Is it to try to actually prevent spread or just to keep people out of the hospital?
I think it's both.
I think we should be doing things that are sensible, reasonable to keep the infection numbers low, right? We should be encouraging people to get a test before they gather in large groups. We should encourage people, if you're going into a high-risk situation, you should think about it. If you have symptoms, you should stay home.
And there's a lot we can do to reduce spread.
That said, obviously, we care about hospitalizations and deaths a lot. And that means getting people vaccinated, boosted, getting people therapies that are becoming widely available. I don't think we have to trade off between cases and severe disease. We can do both using a different set of tools for different goals.
That is White House COVID response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha joining us tonight from the White House.
Thank you so much, Dr. Jha. Good to see you.
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Amna Nawaz joined PBS NewsHour in April 2018 and serves as the program's chief correspondent and primary substitute anchor.
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