Press Briefing by White House COVID- 19 Response Team and Public Health Officials 6 August

The White House

Via Teleconference

11:13 A.M. EDT

MR. ZIENTS: Good morning. And thanks for joining us. Dr. Walensky, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Murthy, and I will keep our comments brief this morning, so we can get to your questions.

I’ll start with an update on the progress we’re making in our fight against the pandemic. Driven by the more transmissible Delta variant, cases are continuing to rise. These cases are concentrated in communities with low vaccination rates.

In fact, over the past seven days, Florida and Texas have accounted for about one third of new cases and more than one third of new hospitalizations nationwide.

In seven states alone — Florida, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi — states with some of the lowest vaccination rates account for about half of new cases and hospitalizations in the past week, despite making up less than a quarter of the U.S. population.

Vaccinations are the very best line of defense against COVID and the Delta variant, and we’re doing everything we can to keep getting shots in arms. And we are seeing results.

Over the past 24 hours, we’ve recorded 864,000 vaccinations — the highest in a day since July 3rd — and, importantly, 585,000 first shots — that’s the highest since July 1st.

For the fourth week in a row, we have increased the daily average number of Americans newly vaccinated, and importantly, we’re seeing the most significant increases in states with the highest case rates.

We have more than doubled the average number of people newly vaccinated each day over the past three weeks in the states with the highest case rates. In fact, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Mississippi are now vaccinating people at a pace not seen since April.

And other states that have been lagging in vaccinations are also picking up their pace. Tennessee has seen a 90 percent increase in first shots over the past two weeks. Oklahoma, an 82 percent increase. And Georgia, a 66 percent increase in first shots over the past two weeks.

Clearly, Americans are seeing the impact of being unvaccinated and unprotected. And they respond by doing their part, rolling up their sleeve, and getting vaccinated.

In addition to getting more shots in arms, we are spurring action on vaccination requirements. Last week, the President announced new vaccination requirements for all federal workers and federal contractors. And he called for strong vaccination requirements from the private and public sectors to help protect lives and keep our economy strong.

Already, we’re seeing momentum in vaccination requirements across the country. Businesses know vaccinations are a way to keep their workers and customers safe, and to keep their doors open.

And today, Yelp is announcing a new feature that allows consumers to search for businesses with fully vaccinated workers or businesses that require proof of vaccination to enter the business.

Small businesses across the country are stepping up. A recent study shows that half of America’s small businesses are likely to require their employees to be vaccinated.

Just this week, Saffron, a family-owned business in New Orleans, announced their staff is 100 percent vaccinated and they are requiring vaccinations or a negative test for all their customers. Tuesday was Saffron’s first night of service under their new rules, and the owner said the community response has been overwhelmingly positive.

At the same time, nearly 650 colleges and universities are already requiring on-campus employees and students to be vaccinated. And yesterday, leaders of America’s historically Black medical schools decided to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for all of their medical students.

Nationwide, over 100 hospital and healthcare systems, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, are requiring vaccinations for their healthcare workers. In fact, just this week, more than 30 healthcare employers, including Kaiser Permanente — one of the country’s largest — announced vaccination requirements for their healthcare workers.

So, America’s businesses, large and small; universities and medical schools; and many other institutions are stepping up on vaccination requirements.

And our message is quite simple: We support these vaccination requirements to protect workers, communities, and the country.

As we double down on getting more Americans vaccinated, we’re also stepping up our work to help states experiencing rising cases due to the Delta variant. Our COVID-19 Surge Response Teams are now working with 16 states to address their specific needs.

We have deployed hundreds of federal personnel to provide in-person support to address a range of needs, from increased testing, to getting shots in arms through mobile vaccination clinics, to encouraging more physicians to use antibody treatments, to helping states address hospital capacity issues.

Let me close with this: From the beginning, we have known that the virus is unpredictable. And we have been relentless — relentless — in our efforts to get people vaccinated. Our whole-of-government response will continue its relentless efforts to end this pandemic and deliver progress each and every day.

With that, let me turn it to Dr. Walensky.

Dr. Walensky.

DR. WALENSKY: Good morning. And thank you, Jeff. To keep things brief, I will simply give you an overview of the data and the state of where we are as a country.

Yesterday, CDC reported 103,444 — -45 new cases of COVID-19. Our seven-day average is about 89,463 cases per day. This represents an increase of 43 percent from the prior seven-day average.

The seven-day average of hospital admissions is about 7,348 per day, an increase of about 41 percent from the prior seven-day period.

And seven-day average daily deaths have also increased to 381 per day, an increase of more than 39 percent from the previous seven-day period. We saw 614 new deaths reported to CDC on Tuesday.

Eighty-three percent of our counties in the United States are experiencing moderate or high transmission with Delta variant continuing to be the predominant circulating virus.

Across the board, we are seeing increases in cases and hospitalizations in all age groups. Those at highest risk remain people who have not yet been vaccinated. Now is the time to get vaccinated. We know these vaccines are working and we know they save lives.

Thank you. I’ll now turn things over to Dr. Fauci.

DR. FAUCI: Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky. I’d just like to spend a minute or two addressing a concern that I continue to hear regarding the speed with which the vaccines were developed. And this is usually among people who have a degree of vaccine hesitancy or reluctance to get vaccinated.

It really relates to two things that have gone on that people need to appreciate. One is the logistics and the investment in resources that was made, and others is the decades of basic and clinical research that antedated the development of the vaccine.

What about the logistics and the resources? Generally, when you develop a vaccine — the thing that usually takes years to do — you do it in a sequential fashion. In other words, in order not to waste money, as it were, you do something preclinical, phase one, phase two, phase three, and then you start manufacturing the product. You do that sequentially because if the first one doesn’t succeed, you don’t want to go to the second, third, and fourth step.

Because of the wise investment in Operation Warp Speed — and we give credit to the Trump administration for doing this, particularly Secretary Alex Azar, who was an important component of that — what you did was make an investment to prepare for phase two and phase three, even before you knew that phase one worked or not, and to start manufacturing.

So when you do that, you make a major investment in resources. If the vaccine doesn’t work, you’ve lost a lot of money; if the vaccine does work, you save a lot of time. And that’s exactly what happened.

In addition, we had the clinical trial sites that we had built decades earlier for HIV and influenza, which were used to do the clinical trials.

And third, unfortunately for us, but fortunately for the vaccine trials, we were in the middle of the summer surge when the phase three trials were initiated.

So, next comes the decades of basic and clinical research, both in platform technology and immunogen. It didn’t start in January of 2020 when the sequence was put on a public database.

The data — the experiments on mRNA approach, which was funded predominantly by the NIH and also industry was involved, started decades earlier to develop an mRNA molecule that could be used as an immunogen for a vaccine. In addition, the vector-based approach, such as the one that J&J did, was again done 10 or 20 years earlier with HIV.

And the now very, very elegant work of the development of an immunogen that would be highly immunogenic to get the kind of high efficacy and effectiveness that we got was work done at the NIH Vaccine Research Center and by many of our grantees over the previous, literally, one to two decades.

So when people say, “I’m concerned that this went too fast,” it did not go too fast. It was a major investment, both in the logistics, the resources, and the clinical and basic research.

So I’ll hand it now back to you, Jeff.

MR. ZIENTS: Let me hand it over to Dr. Murthy. Dr. Murthy.

DR. MURTHY: Well, thanks so much, Jeff. And it’s great to be with all of you again this morning.

I think we all know as cases have risen across the country due to the Delta variant, there are Americans who are wondering what this really means for them and their families. And today I want to emphasize one fact that remains true, and that is that the vaccines are working against the Delta variant. They are highly effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death. And they’re also effective at reducing the overall risk of infection.

In fact, a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that two doses of the mRNA vaccines are 88 percent effective against symptomatic COVID-19 infection with the Delta variant.

So, breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people are the exception, not the rule. And when they do happen, the vast majority are mild and asymptomatic — mild or asymptomatic.

Now, this reflects the reality that we have the most effective tool we need to keep us safe and end this pandemic, and that is a vaccine.

And recognizing the importance of continuing to push our efforts to vaccinate the nation, yesterday, we brought together the six living former surgeons general of the United States — from the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations — to discuss our public health COVID-19 response, with equity being at the forefront of our conversation.

It was a historic meeting for a historic moment. And these former surgeons general are public health leaders who have been friends, mentors, and partners to me in my years as Surgeon General. And we spoke about their concerns about health misinformation, about the importance of ensuring that communities of color and rural areas aren’t left behind in the vaccination effort, and the power also of engaging trusted community-based organizations in vaccinations.

We will continue to work together in the months ahead to ensure we continue to increase vaccination rates across the country with equity as our guide.

And finally, this gathering of surgeons general reflected the diversity of our nation, and it was emblematic of what we have to do together to defeat the virus. As SGs, we came together from different backgrounds, serving under different political administrations to work together on a path toward ending this pandemic. And we all share the belief that science and public health are what will help us protect our nation from this pandemic.

So thanks for your time today. I’ll turn it back over to Jeff for Q&A.

MR. ZIENTS: Well, thank you, Doctors. Let’s go ahead and open it up for questions. First question.

MODERATOR: First question, let’s go to Cheyenne Haslett at ABC News.

Q Hey, guys. Thank you for taking my question. We know that boosters are still under consideration, but there’s more openness to acting on them for immunocompromised people faster, so can you tell us when can immunocompromised people expect those boosters will be available? And are there any updates?

MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Fauci?

DR. FAUCI: Yes, thank you for that question. As we’ve said, and continue to say, immunocompromised individuals are vulnerable. The reason is that it is clear now from the observational data that was made that they do not make, in general, with some exceptions, but in general, do not make an adequate response that we felt — feel would be adequately protected. So, in this regard, it is extremely important for us to move to get those individuals their boosters.

And we are now working on that, and we’ll make that be implemented as quickly as possible because, for us and for the individuals involved, it is a very high priority.

MR. ZIENTS: Next question.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to Weijia at CBS.

Q Thank you so much for taking my question. Dr. Fauci and Dr. Walensky have both warned that the virus may mutate and perhaps into a strain that is powerful enough to evade the vaccine. Is there any way to gauge how long before the virus overtakes the vaccine? And so we understand what that means for the vaccine, is there a way to tweak it in that situation in order to give us protection?

MR. ZIENTS: Why don’t we start with you, Dr. Fauci, and then Dr. Walensky if you have anything to add?

DR. FAUCI: Yes, there is a very, very longstanding tenet in virology that viruses cannot mutate unless they replicate. And so, the easiest way to prevent the scenario that you’re proposing could happen would be to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can to not allow the virus to continue to circulate in the community, giving it ample time to mutate.

Now, not every mutation is going to result in a functional change, but every once in a while, you do get a series or a constellation of mutations that do that, and you get a functional change the way we have seen with the Delta variant, which functionally changed because it became significantly more able to transmit.

We have within our power to prevent that. And you prevent it by not allowing the virus to freely circulate, finding vulnerable targets. You protect the vulnerable targets, who are unvaccinated people, by vaccinating them. And when you do so, you do a very, very strong blocking of the evolution of variants that could be problematic.

MR. ZIENTS: Next question.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to Sharon LaFraniere at New York Times.

Q Thank you. Many experts say that the falling antibody levels that Pfizer and, today, Moderna cite as evidence that booster shots are needed is not convincing because people may still be protected even with those. If that’s so, what is the right signal? Is it vaccinated people ending up sick enough to be in hospitals, and can the government wait for that kind of evidence before making a decision?

And then, secondly, I wanted to ask: What are the chances that the Delta variant will burn out, so to speak, here in a month or so, like in India and the UK?

MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Walensky, first.

DR. WALENSKY: Yeah, you know, we’re going to make the decision about booster shots based on a compilation of evidence, one of which will most definitely be the immune responses, as you know. But that is not necessarily known to be a perfect correlate — the antibody responses. Our immune system also has T cell responses.

So, this is going to be a combination of evidence, both of neutralizing antibody data, as well as clinical trial data, as well as our cohort data that monitor the safety and — or the effectiveness of our vaccines in many different populations across the country — tens of thousands of people, essential workers, healthcare providers, long-term care facilities, people who’ve been vaccinated early in the process. And it will be a combination of all of that evidence that helps inform our booster strategy.

MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Fauci, the question of the case count and quote —

DR. FAUCI: Right.

MR. ZIENTS: Go ahead, please.

DR. FAUCI: Right, so, what you’re asking is, when are we going to turn around this acceleration that we’re currently experiencing with Delta.

There are two ways you do that. You do it in the immediate sense, right now, by mitigation. And mitigation are the kinds of things you’ve heard from the recommendations of the CDC regarding masking, by regarding avoiding situations — crowded situations where you can have the increased capability of the virus to spread.

The ultimate endgame of all this is vaccination. And that’s why we continue to harp on that in a very, very proactive way; that if we continue to vaccinate and we get that 93 million people who are eligible for vaccinations, who have not been vaccinated — if we do that, in the immediate, intermediate, and long term, and do the mitigation right now, we will turn the Delta surge around. I will guarantee you that that will happen, if we do what I just outlined.

Next question.

MODERATOR: Kaitlan Collins, CNN.

Q Thanks so much. Several of you and the President have repeatedly cited figures saying that 99 percent of those who die from COVID-19 are unvaccinated and 95 percent, around that, are hospital- — who are hospitalized are unvaccinated. With the Delta variant, do you still stand by these numbers, and do you have government data to back them up?

MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Walensky?

DR. WALENSKY: Yes, thank you for that question, Kaitlan. So those data were data that were from analyses in several states from January through June and didn’t reflect the data that we have now from the Delta variant. We are actively working to update those in the context of the Delta variant.

I do want to reiterate, though, that based on the data we’re seeing — and we don’t have fully updated numbers — universally, as we look at our hospitalizations and as we look at our deaths, they are overwhelmingly unvaccinated people.

MR. ZIENTS: Next question.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to Tamara Keith at NPR.

Q Thank you for taking my question. And there’s some reporting out there that the working groups that are looking at reopening some international travel are making plans to require vaccination for international visitors. I’m wondering how that would work — whether it would be simply an attestation with federal workers, or whether there would be a more rigorous form of vaccine verification.

And on vaccine verification: You talk about that restaurant and other businesses that are requiring their customers be vaccinated. How are these businesses supposed to do vaccine verification? Is it Wild West out there, or is — are there guidelines?

MR. ZIENTS: Why don’t I take the first question on travel, and, Dr. Murthy, vaccine verifications.

In terms of travel — and I’m glad you ask that question — the administration certainly understands the importance of international travel. And given where we’re — where we are today, as Dr. Walensky showed us earlier, on the prevalence of the Delta variant, the United States will maintain the existing travel restrictions at this point.

However, we do have, as you alluded to, agency working groups that are developing plans for when we do open travel, how do we do it in a consistent and safe way. And part of that planning is a phased approach that foreign nationals traveling to the United States may — there’s still policy work being done here — may need to have some type of a vaccine requirement, but that’s not a decision at this point. That’s one of the paths that’s being looked at and considered, but there are — there are alternative paths being looked at, at the same time.

So, the interagency working groups are currently developing a policy process, and we will be ready when it is the right time to consider reopening travel. And that’ll be guided, as always, by the science and the public health.

Dr. Murthy.

DR. MURTHY: Sure. And let me just ask: Can you repeat this specific question you had on the verification?

Q Sorry. I have — I had to — I had trouble unmuting myself.

DR. MURTHY: It’s okay.

Q The question is: You guys have talked about restaurants or other private businesses having only vaccinated customers. How is a mom-and-pop shop supposed to know how to do vaccine verification?

DR. MURTHY: Yeah, it’s good question. Well, the good news is that we have seen a significant movement in the private sector to develop, essentially, vaccine verification efforts.

We know this is not something that the federal government is leading, but we are happy to see the private sector leading and taking initiative on that.

And, you know, I think as more — this is going to be increasingly important because we know that more institutions are considering vaccine requirements. We certainly have seen that in the healthcare system. The vaccine requirements for healthcare workers is being adopted by more and more institutions, and we expect that that will continue.

MR. ZIENTS: Next question.

MODERATOR: Maureen Groppe at USA Today.

Q Hi. Thanks for taking my question. I wanted to ask about the federal assistance being offered to states that are hit hard by COVID. At the — one of the White House briefings this week, Jen was asked if the offers had been accepted in Florida and Texas, and she called that a, quote, “discussion.”

Is there any update on that — on whether Florida and Texas want any of the help that the administration is offering?

MR. ZIENTS: We are working with 16 states, and I believe there are conversations with Florida. I know there are conversations with the state of Florida, and I believe there are some conversations with Texas too. But that — let me — let me come back and verify that. But we’re working with 16 states at this point on testing, on increased vaccination through mobile clinics, the increased use of therapeutics, also assessing and helping out on hospital capacity. So, 16 states across a whole range of areas.

Next question.

MODERATOR: All right, we have time for one more question. We’ll go to Meg Tirrell at CNBC.

Q Thank you. This is a question for Dr. Walensky, I think. Last week, in the slides, we saw from the CDC — the CDC noted that Delta may cause more severe disease than older strains and cited some evidence from other countries. I’m wondering: Does CDC think the data show it does cause more severe disease? And also, how are you looking at the risk it poses to children? Do you see more severe disease from Delta for them?

DR. WALENSKY: Yeah, thank you for that question, Meg. Certainly, in that slide deck, there were some early preliminary studies that suggest that Delta may potentially cause severe disease.

We continue to monitor this not just in adults, but also in children. But I do want to highlight a couple of things that continue to confound some of the data, and that is we have enormous burden now of disease, so exposures are much higher.

And the mitigation strategies that were used last summer, even in the winter, have not been employed in many of these areas that we are having surges right now.

So it’s — we’re working to understand the differences between exposures and as well as the severity of disease, and working to confirm those preliminary data that might suggest so.

MR. ZIENTS: Good. Well, thank you, and look forward to briefing early next week. Thank you.

11:40 A.M. EDT

To view the COVID Press Briefing slides, visit: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/COVID-Press-Briefing_5August2021_for-transcript-1.pdf

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