Press Briefing by White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Officials 16 March

The White House

Via Teleconference

11:02 A.M. EDT

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Good morning. Thank you for joining us.

As President Biden said, recovering from a devastating pandemic will require all of us doing our part. We are not out of the woods, but we know what we need to do as a country. The President has now laid down some markers about steps to move our country back to normal activities with a fully vaccinated population, provided we all work together.

President Biden has directed the administration to deliver the two things that will most hasten our ability to recover: checks and shots. And as he said, “Help is on the way.”

With the American Recovery Act signed into law last week, Americans will finally get the support they need — most immediately, in the form of checks to American households and relief to Americans and small businesses under so much pressure from the pandemic.

Nearly 30 percent of adults and nearly two thirds of seniors have now received their first vaccination shot. And we are accelerating vaccinations in anticipation of meeting the President’s goal of being ready to be — open up all vaccinations to all adults by May 1st at the latest.

Over the last seven days, we’re now averaging 2.4 million shots per day. For those who pay extremely close attention, there was a delay in data syncing over the weekend, which resulted in a reporting cut-off time of 11:00 a.m. instead of 6:00 a.m. Eastern time on Saturday. I’m sure you’re all following that.

So, for the record, there were 3.2 million shots reported administered on Saturday and 2.7 million on Sunday. This is an enormously complex effort, and it’s a result of the work of tens of thousands of people who are going above and beyond the call of duty.

Healthcare providers across the country are doing everything they can to protect Americans from getting this infectious disease. Doctors, nurses, and pharmacists are working around the clock and vaccinating people with a modest reimbursement. This is exactly what our medical professionals have shown the country throughout this pandemic.

Now, today, we are doing more than saying thank you to all the people we call heroes. We’re announcing that the Biden administration will nearly double Medicare’s reimbursement rates for administering COVID vaccines, from about $23 per shot to $40 per shot. That’s $80 total for a two-dose vaccine.

Now, this will make it easier for more healthcare providers to get out into communities and give more COVID shots to people in need. We need this heroic team in particular to make sure that our highest-risk and underserved populations are cared for.

Second, thanks to the American Rescue Plan, the administration will now be covering 100 percent of the cost for Medicaid and children’s health insurance beneficiaries to get vaccinated. This protects states from bearing any costs associated with the increased Medicare reimbursement rates. And the Biden administration stands ready to work with states who are interested in increasing their Medicaid reimbursement rates for vaccinations so that we can make sure that we have most effectively reached vulnerable communities. This is an important health equity step, as working and lower-income Americans have faced the brunt of this crisis and must receive the resources needed to protect them.

What do these changes mean for people across the country? Well, first, it means that vaccines will continue to be free to you. You do not need insurance to get vaccinated. You do not need cash or a credit card, or worry about a co-payment or deductible. You will not get a bill. The vaccines are free, they’re safe, and they’re effective.

It also means doctors, nurses, and healthcare providers you trust will be out in your communities administering vaccines, because the federal government will now pay them more for each shot they deliver.

Now, with that, I will turn it over to Dr. Walensky and then to Dr. Fauci, and then we’ll take your questions.

DR. WALENSKY: Thank you, Andy. I’m glad to be back with you all today. Let’s begin with the data. CDC’s most recent data show cases continue to fluctuate somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 per day, with the most recent seven-day average approximately 52,500 cases per day. The most recent seven-day average of hospital admissions has also declined to just over 4,700 per day.

We also continue to see decline in deaths, with the latest seven-day average just over 1,200 deaths per day. We have come a long way from where we were in early January, but we still have much work to do.

In some parts of the country, the weather has started to warm up. And with the clocks change this weekend, our days have seen a little bit more sunshine. And with the coming warmer weather, I know it’s tempting to want to relax and to let our guard down, particularly after a hard winter that sadly saw the highest level of cases and deaths during the pandemic so far.

This past Friday, we saw more travelers pass through our airports: over 1.3 million. This is the most travelers that we’ve had in a single day since last March, before the WHO declared the global pandemic. We have seen footage of people enjoying spring break festivities maskless. This is all in the context of still 50,000 cases per day.

Equally concerning are the resurgences we are now seeing in some European countries — countries that have had strikingly similar trends and surges during the pandemic as the United States. Each of these countries has had nadirs like we are having now, and each took an upward trend after they disregarded known mitigation strategies. They simply took their eye off the ball.

I’m pleading with you, for the sake of our nation’s health. These should be warning signs for all of us. Cases climbed last spring. They climbed again in the summer. They will climb now if we stop taking precautions when we continue to get more and more people vaccinated.

Please follow our recommended public health prevention precautions and be ready to get your vaccine when it is available to you. We are just starting to turn the corner. The data are moving in the right direction, but where this goes is dependent on whether we all do what must be done to protect ourselves and others.

We continue to see positive information emerge from our vaccines. A new CDC MMWR published today, looking at data from mid-December to mid-February, found that the vast majority of people getting both doses of these vaccines within the recommended timeframes. Based on the report, only about 3 percent missed their second dose, and systems were in place to make sure that those missed doses were not wasted — a very encouraging finding.

We also found that 96 percent of people who got both doses did so within the recommended timeframe: on or within four days of the 21 days for the Pfizer vaccine and 28 days for the Moderna vaccine.

These findings are incredibly reassuring as we continue to scale up our vaccination efforts. They show that our systems are working and that people are taking vaccination seriously, even when it means taking time to show up for their second appointment. It is remarkable what we can do as a nation when we are united against the virus.

This report also shows that a small percentage of people did miss their second dose. It may be hard for some people to get back for their second dose, but it’s essential for everyone who receives a two-dose vaccine to get both shots and get the full protection of these vaccine offers — this vaccine offers.

CDC is working across the government and with state and local partners to identify and address barriers to getting both doses. Some strategies include working with trusted messengers and communities to spread science-based messages on the importance of getting fully vaccinated; partnering with jurisdictions and vaccination providers to schedule both vaccination appointments upfront or schedule the second appointment when you get the first shot; and having systems in place to send appointment reminders to patients, reschedule canceled appointments, and repurpose missed second doses to avoid vaccine wastage; and finally, making available the second — the single-dose vaccine, Johnson & Johnson, as a terrific option for individuals who may prefer a one-dose vaccine.

Importantly, we have a role to play. I encourage those who can to help others get vaccinated. This can be as simple as helping family members and other loved ones with scheduling their appointments, reminding them about their appointments, and driving or accompanying them to their appointments. These small acts will go a long way toward protecting health and helping to end the pandemic.

Finally, I want to briefly discuss a technical update to our vaccination data on the CDC website. I know many of you watch our data closely, and when something changes, it can prompt questions.

Last Friday, CDC implemented an improvement to how we calculate the age of people who have received vaccinations. This was done to correct for differences in how states report date of birth to CDC and to more accurately determine the age of people getting vaccinated. As a result, there was a slight change in our age distribution of those vaccinated, with the percentages in all age groups under 75 increasing slightly, and those 75 or older decreasing slightly.

This largest shift occurred among people aged exactly 75 when more than 1 million individuals previously classified as 75 were reclassified as age 74. This should not be concerning as we’re vaccinating exactly the right cohorts, and those people will be 75 sometime in the next 12 months.

As CDC Director, a key principle is leading with transparency. And reflecting this principle, I believed it was important for me to clarify this new approach to our public-facing data.

Thank you. I look forward to your questions. And with that, I’ll turn things to Dr. Fauci.

DR. FAUCI: Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky. I’m just going to give a brief what we’ll call “science update” on something that is being asked much more consistently, is that: How do we approach the entire issue of pandemic preparedness currently and for future pandemics?

If I have the first slide.

There are three components that have been pursued now for some years. The first is, priority pathogens pick out a pathogen that you think might be risky in the future. That could be Nipah, that could be Ebola, that could be any of a number. The other is to develop platform technologies. We’ve already spoken about the, really, advances that have been made with messenger RNA technology.

And the third is one I want to spend just a couple of minutes on, and that’s called prototype pathogens. What do we mean by how prototype pathogen approach helps us for future pandemics? Next slide.

This slide looks complicated but it’s simple, because it really tells you that this is all of the phylogenetic tree of the coronaviruses. And in red are the human coronaviruses, but, noticeably, in the yellow boxes are the four coronaviruses that each year cause about 15 to 30 percent of all the common colds that we all experience repetitively usually during the winter months.

So we’ve been studying these viruses now for decades and decades. If you go to the next slide, then in 2002, with the appearance of SARS — which we all remember — and then in 2012, with the appearance of MERS — which we all remember — we’ve gotten more and more experience within this group of coronaviruses.

And then next slide, it came — nope, go back one. Yeah, next slide comes the SARS-coronavirus-2, which is the current virus that we’re dealing with. And in the next minute or so, I want to show you how previous experience has allowed us to make the kind of advances that have been so successful in COVID-19 vaccine.

Next slide.

This is a slide from 2017, when we were attempting to make a vaccine for MERS — the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus. We had found, interestingly, that that spike protein that we talked about was unstable in its prefusion form, namely the one that we really wanted to vaccinate people with. So we made a bunch of mutations to stabilize it and to have what would be a successful MERS-CoV-2 vaccine. But, however, given the fact that MERS is smoldering right now, and even though we’re pursuing the vaccine for MERS, we use that same knowledge that we gained from the prototype pathogens of coronaviruses.

And on the next slide, what you see is what we’re dealing with now: That squiggly structure on the right-hand part of the slide is the spike protein that the messenger RNA codes for, that the adenovirus vectors express, and that the soluble proteins that we have using in the Sanofi and in the Novavax all use the same sort of structure.

And the point I want to make is that we didn’t start doing this in January of 2020. This was literally decades of fundamental research on the broad prototype pathogens of coronavirus. And these are the kinds of things that we’re going to be doing with other viruses that could, in fact, pose risks as future pandemics.

So, let me stop there and go back to Andy. Thank you.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Thank you, Dr. Fauci. Okay, let’s take questions.

MODERATOR: All right. We have time for a few questions. First question will go to Tamara Keith at NPR.

Q Thank you very much. A question about the variants. CDC had predicted that the UK variant would be dominant in the U.S. in March. Is it yet? Is it dominant in certain states? Which ones? And what effect is that having on the trajectory?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Dr. Walensky, would you like to start?

DR. WALENSKY: I can start with that. Yeah, thank you. You know, it’s not evenly distributed across the United States. We do have B117 reported in 50 jurisdictions, over 4,700 cases reported so far, and that’s just based on what we’re evaluating and sequencing.

In some states, Florida and California, it’s up to 25 percent. In other states, it’s lower. Our current models still project, by the end of March, early April, B117 will be the dominant variant.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Okay, next question.

MODERATOR: Next question, will go to April Ryan at TheGrio.

Q Thanks for doing this call. A couple of questions. Doctors, do you by any chance have solid numbers at this point on how many people have been vaccinated successfully with both vaccines, as well as the one from Johnson & Johnson? And do you have adequate numbers of the breakdown on minority numbers? Because there is now a report from Brilliant Corners that talks about the reason why black people have not gotten it. It’s not what the original thought was about Tuskegee or Henrietta Lacks; it was basically — the hesitancy was basically about misinformation or no information. Can you expand, please?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Dr. Walensky?

DR. WALENSKY: So, you know, we keep updated numbers on our CDC website. They’re updated every day. I can tell you that 37.45 million people have received two doses of — are fully vaccinated, and that 107.6 million people have been — have received at least one dose of a vaccine. I don’t have, off the top of my head, the racial breakdown this morning, but that is available on the CDC website.

I think we still have a lot to learn with regard to why, you know, some communities are not choosing to be vaccinated. Some communities are more hesitant. And I would be reluctant to say that it’s the same reason for every community. I think we have to meet people where they are as we try and get all communities vaccinated. And we have to understand that there’s not a singular underlying reason, but many reasons.

DR. FAUCI: Yeah, let me just, maybe, extend that just for a minute. We also are very, very much involved in trying to get better access for the minority populations. It is, you know, not just the idea of hesitancy, but the fact that we have been in — and you’ve heard the President, himself, say very clearly that with the community vaccine centers; with the community health centers; with the pharmacies that we’re giving vaccine to, particularly in areas where minorities are represented; as well as the mobile units that are going out — so we are right now being very actively — in going out in a proactive way to make sure that any inequities that exist we can then, essentially, eliminate them. And that will be one of the things that are now, going forward, we’re putting a lot of effort into.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: It’s critical. Okay, next question.

MODERATOR: Next we’ll go to Elizabeth Weise at USA Today.

Q Thanks so much for taking my question. We’re hearing so much about other countries requiring some type of vaccination proof to enter those countries. Is there anything under discussion at the federal level to provide some type of vaccine, for want of a better word, “passport”?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Yeah, let me take this, Elizabeth. It’s an important question as more people get vaccinated. Americans are asking the question: How will I be able to demonstrate, reliably, that I’ve been vaccinated?

And, you know, we have a couple of core beliefs about that. One is that it’s not the role of the government to hold that data and to do that. But we do believe that when that gets done, there is a right way and a way that’s not as good. And the right way is: It needs to be private; the data should be secure; the access to it should be free; it should be available both digitally and in paper, and in multiple languages; and it should be open source.

So, those are the right kind of principles for someone to be able to have — be able to demonstrate that they have had a vaccine. And we know that there are — there are efforts that are underway, led by nonprofit collaboratives and the private sector, all working on exactly that type of thing.

Next question.

MODERATOR: Next, we’ll go to Anne Flaherty at ABC.

Q Hi, thanks for taking my question. I wanted to ask about this study that found that three feet in schools might be safe, as long as they’re masked. Dr. Walensky, are you revisiting the CDC guidance on this? And also, can you tell us where the six feet came from? Was that ever studied with masks?

DR. WALENSKY: Thank you for that question. Yes, we’re looking at this carefully. The six feet data came from early studies, with and without masks, from all other — from respiratory viruses, flu viruses, as well as SARS, and other coronavirus — the MERS virus that Dr. Fauci just spoke about — and how distant air — how far aerosols and droplets can travel in that context.

As soon as we put out our guidance, among the biggest challenges that we were aware of was the fact that schools were having a hard time with the six foot guidance, and that, of course, prompted more studies to say: Is six feet necessary in the context of mask wearing?

The study that you’re remarking on is the first study that has been published that looked at three feet versus six feet. It was in Massachusetts schools where there was 100 percent mask wearing. And it demonstrated that students, when there was 100 percent mask wearing, had similar infection rates when it — at six feet versus three feet, as well as staff had similar infections rate at six feet versus six [sic] feet when they were masked.

We are looking at these data carefully. The question actually prompted more studies to be done, so we know more are forthcoming. We’re taking all of those data carefully and revisiting our guidances in that context.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Great. Next question.

MODERATOR: Next we’ll go to Shira Stein at Bloomberg.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Shira, you with us? Kevin, maybe we should take the next question and come back.

MODERATOR: We’ll come back to you, Shira. We’ll go to Zeke at AP.

Q Thanks all for doing the call. I was hoping you might be able to explain what your assessment is of the early rollout of the J&J vaccine. The CDC tracker right now show — it’s showing under 1.3 million doses administered, with 3.7 million distributed, but obviously, those doses have been distributed now for a couple of weeks. Are you seeing any hesitancy with the uptake in that shot versus the two-dose regimes? Thank you.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Well, let’s start this way: Let me ask Dr. Fauci if — for people who haven’t heard the review before — for you to talk about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and how people should view it relative to the other two vaccines, the Moderna and Pfizer. Then I’ll more specifically go into your question.

DR. FAUCI: Yeah. Thanks, Andy. You know, just to reiterate what we’ve said multiple times on these briefings: that we have three highly efficacious, safe vaccines that are now available to the American public. They have not been compared one to the other, which the only way you could effectively do that would be in head-to-head comparisons.

So that’s the reason why you’ll hear all of us always say continuously is that the way to look at it is that there are three vaccines that are highly efficacious. If you go into a place and you have a certain vaccine available to you, take that vaccine rather than waiting for another vaccine because all three of them are highly efficacious.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Yeah. And I’ll — let me address the other part of your question. So, look, we watch this data, as you can imagine, incredibly closely, and we don’t have reason for concern at this point.

To remind everybody the Johnson & Johnson vaccine came out with a — it’s no secret — a relatively small amount of doses. Given that, we know that states are metering the — you know, how they’re putting out the doses to be a little bit more straight line. And then, third, that, you know, we are seeing it continue to ramp. There was a day this weekend where we saw 300,000 Johnson & Johnson doses.

So I think it continues to climb. We’re — I think the key operative word in your question is “early.” When we get — by the time we get to the end of the month, I think we will see the ramp pattern where we expect it to be.

Next question. Kevin —

Q Thanks, all.

MODERATOR: Making sure you were there. Great.

Q Yep. There we go. Sorry about that earlier. Can you tell me why you decided to change the — change the reimbursement number for the Medicare administration of vaccines? And then, can you also talk — it looks like you’re going to be doing some more public service announcements to provoke vaccination. What’s the budget for that?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Well, look, I think CMS — who focuses on making sure that our nation’s seniors and our nation’s — people who live on low and fixed incomes are getting access to the same high-quality care that they deserve and that others in the country should get — determined that an additional level of reimbursement was going to increase vaccination rates, particularly in hard-to-reach communities. So asking people to do, as Dr. Fauci indicated, mobile vans, reach out into communities, and make the extra effort to meet people where they are to reimburse them.

You know, we believe that the medical professionals that are on the frontlines of this vaccination effort — by the way, the same people that are on the frontlines of this entire pandemic — need to be taken care of. And we think that’s going to do a job of both increasing vaccinations as well as improving equity. And that’s — that’s the reason behind it.

Your second question was about education campaigns? Is that — was that what it was?

MODERATOR: Yep.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Yeah. So, look, let me say this: Today, I think the latest data shows — from, I believe, Pew — that 69 percent of Americans are definitive in saying that they either have taken — have had a vaccine or plan to take a vaccine. That’s significantly higher. It’s at least 10 points higher than it was a short while ago and more significant than from when the Biden administration began.

We think this is for a number of reasons. These are very good vaccines with an incredible track record — large clinical trials; years, as Dr. Fauci has indicated, of research into them.

And many Americans got vaccinated early. And the people who I think have been watching this and seeing the process and seeing how it has had an impact on them and in their communities, that it increasingly makes them want to take the vaccination.

So we believe this is edu- — in some respects, the easiest education effort ever is if we let people see the truth and not get information on, say, Facebook, or somewhere where there’s less reliable information. People are capable of making these decisions for themselves. We know that people are not looking to be convinced by the government or by some other entity; they want to have conversations with people locally in their community, whether it’s a doctor, their pharmacist, or other people that they trust. And our job — and I think the CDC had been doing a marvelous job at this — is to get reliable information out to people. These briefings are another example of this — very clear scientific information, the good and the bad.

Now, we will — we will be supporting that effort with all kinds of additional education efforts, including some paid efforts, including other types of conversations. But it’s most important that the people who are the local, trusted people continue to have the reliable information about these vaccines. And we believe that will continue the pattern that’s already begun, which is that more and more people will be comfortable taking the vaccine.

Kevin, is that —

MODERATOR: All right, we’re going to squeeze one more question in from Brian Karem at The Bulwark.

Q Thanks. I’ll be brief. I want to follow up on April Ryan’s question about the number of people — the millions that have already been fully vaccinated. Today we heard that 30 percent of the adults, or 20 percent of the seniors had received some vaccination. Is that — you know, are the 20 percent seniors a 20 percent of the total number, or is that a subset of all adults? First.

And secondly, if we use the number of shots that we are getting on a daily basis, the number of new cases, and the number of people who have been fully vaccinated, can you all — using those metrics — give us a better idea of when we’ll either reach herd immunity or be in the clear? And thus, when can we start sharing our dosage of vaccines with our allies and neighbors internationally?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: It sounds like an SAT math question. So let me first clarify the basic of the numbers, because I think they may not have come through clearly.

We are talking about close to two thirds of seniors and close to 30 percent of all adults that have now received their first shot. And I think it’s important — for reasons that I think both Doctors Walensky and Fauci can articulate — that people get their second shot, largely because of the durability and the variants.

So as we report these numbers out, this is to report on the progress and the very hard work of tens of thousands of people, but it’s — by no means should be perceived as declaring victory. There’s much more — much more work to do.

I think the question that you’re asking in some sense is: “When will we reach herd immunity? When will we have enough doses, et cetera?” And what I will tell you is that, as the President articulated last week, we believe that we will have enough for the adult population — produced by the end of May. And with some time after that, those vaccinations will have — will have occurred. And it is with that that the President indicated that if we all do our part, by the 4th of July, we should be able to take the really important step to bringing the things to people — the events in our lives — back into our lives. That’s an “if.” That’s — that’s really on all of us.

So no matter what math you use, we will have enough vaccine doses. We do need people to actually get vaccinated. We do need everybody that’s been doing this enormously important work to keep doing it. And if we do that, we should be in a position right around then, when the adult population will have the vaccines they need.

Now, if you’re asking questions about our supply, we have indicated that there are other pieces of our supply that are important to us, and Dr. Fauci has mentioned this several times: teenagers, adolescence, children, potential booster shots down the road, other things.

So it’s a very big equation with a lot of scenarios in it, and our job is to be prepared for every scenario.

Now, having said all that, I think there was a part of your question about the world, about the globe, and so maybe I can ask Dr. Fauci to talk about the efforts that we have undertaken already, even as we vaccinate our country, to make sure we’re playing a leadership role in the globe.

DR. FAUCI: Yes. Thank you, Andy. So, as you well know, on the first day of the President’s presidency — his tenure — he had me go out early in the morning and make a speech to the executive board of WHO, saying we’re going to rejoin WHO and we’re going to be part of COVAX, which means, A, that we’ve made a commitment of $4 billion that the United States will be giving to COVAX — which is a multi-organization, multi-country effort to help those countries that do not have the resources to be able to vaccinate their people to get them vaccinated.

In addition, it’s become clear that after we get our people in the United States vaccinated — and remember, we’ve suffered terribly with over 530,000 deaths thus far, so our responsibility of getting all people vaccinated first, before we start giving doses to other countries — which, we will be doing that if and when we do have a surplus, which it looks very much like we will. But that will not occur until we actually have our people vaccinated.

But the $4 billion has already been implemented. Part of it, $2 billion, and then $2 billion to come. So we’re very actively involved in thinking about and caring about the plight of other countries.

Andy, if I might just make one comment that was made part of the question. We should not get so fixated on this elusive number of herd immunity. We should just be concerned about getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can because herd immunity is still somewhat of an elusive number. We made a projection of it would likely be — I’ve said many times — somewhere between 70 and 85 percent, but we don’t know that for sure. So rather than fixating on that, why don’t we just say, get as many people vaccinated as quickly as you possibly can. And every day that goes by now, with more than 2 million doses going into people, we’re getting closer and closer to control of this pandemic.

Thanks, Andy.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Great, thank you. And thank you all for listening in. And I really want to thank again the doctors, nurses, physicians, vaccinators, people around the country who have been — and continue to be part of this extraordinary effort that we need to keep going.

We will be here Wednesday to do this once again. Thank you.

11:37 A.M. EDT

To view the COVID Press Briefing slides, visit https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/COVID-Press-Briefing_15March2021_for-transcript.pdf

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