Press Briefing by White House COVID- 19 Response Team and Public Health Officials 29 September

The White House

Via Teleconference

12:34 P.M. EDT

MR. ZIENTS: Good afternoon. Thanks for joining us. Today, I’m joined by Drs. Nunez-Smith, Walensky, and Fauci.

First, I’ll give an update on our vaccinations program. I’ll begin with booster shots.

For weeks, we worked with partners — including governors, pharmacies, doctors, and long-term care facilities — to get ready for boosters. As a result, we were ready to get booster shots in arms on Friday, immediately following the FDA and CDC recommendations.

Our planning and preparation on boosters have propelled a strong start. Just over this past weekend, at pharmacies alone, over 400,000 Americans received the additional protection of a booster, and almost 1 million people have already scheduled their booster shots through pharmacies over the coming weeks.

Massachusetts and several other states are reaching out to millions of eligible individuals via text messages and email.

And New Jersey is opening three mass vaccination centers to get booster shots in arms — something all states, Tribes, and territories are able to do with support from the federal government, including 100 percent reimbursement.

And the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Indian Health Service are getting thousands of booster shots in arms each day.

So, we’re off to a very strong start with the booster campaign. And we will continue working with our partners to execute so we can efficiently and equitably provide the added protection of booster shots to eligible Americans.

At the same time, our top priority remains first and second shots. Overall, more than 3 out of 4 eligible Americans — those Americans 12 and older — have gotten at least their first shot. Importantly, 94 percent of seniors — those 65 and older — have at least one shot. And tomorrow, we will hit an important milestone: 200 million adults with at least one shot.

On his first full day in office, President Biden released a comprehensive plan: the National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness. A central tenet of our approach since day one has been protecting those most at risk and advancing equity, including across racial and ethnic lines.

And through all aspects of our vaccination program, we have executed: getting vaccines to community health centers, meeting people where they are and sending vaccines to hard-hit areas via mobile clinics, and partnering with trusted messengers on the ground, including faith leaders, community-organizations, local doctors, and barber and beauty shops, to get shots in arms.

Today, new data from the Kaiser Family Foundation show that President Biden’s strategy and our focus on advancing equity have made a huge difference in closing gaps across racial and ethnic groups.

Seventy-three percent of Latinos and seventy percent of Black Americans have now gotten at least their first shot. That compares to 71 percent of white Americans.

The Kaiser data clearly show that our relentless focus on advancing equity and ensuring our response reaches the hardest-hit communities and those most at risk has closed the gaps in racial and ethnic vaccination rates.

We know our work isn’t done, but this is important progress. We cannot and will not let up. In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll continue to ensure equity and fairness as we vaccinate more Americans and get booster shots in arms.

With that, let me turn it over to Dr. Nunez-Smith, Chair of the President’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, to discuss further our work to advance equity in more detail.

Dr. Nunez-Smith.

DR. NUNEZ-SMITH: Thanks so much, Jeff. I just couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of those data that were released earlier today from the Kaiser Family Foundation. You know, that’s our latest data point in our nation’s fight against this pandemic, and it’s very, very encouraging to see.

So, I want to take a few minutes now to provide some additional context to these most recent data and to also talk about the road ahead.

Back in May, just before President Biden’s National Month of Action to mobilize an all-of-America sprint to get U.S. adults vaccinated, this very same survey showed that only 56 percent of Black adults and 57 percent of Hispanic adults were vaccinated. And that was compared to 65 percent of white adults who were vaccinated by that point — a gap of 9 percentage points between Black and white adults.

There were many reasons for this gap, including barriers to vaccine access. And some still had concerns about the safety, the efficacy of the vaccine, and those concerns were often rooted in misinformation.

Those numbers that you noted, Jeff — 70 percent of Black adults, 71 percent of white adults, and 73 percent of Hispanic adults have now had at least one shot of the vaccines. That’s the result of intentional work to address those barriers, to address those concerns. And they are not only seen in the Kaiser Family Foundation data that were released earlier today.

Three weeks ago, Pew Research Center surveyed over 10,000 adults online and found that 70 percent of Black adults, 72 percent of white adults, and 76 percent of Hispanic adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Just last week, the CDC’s National Immunization Survey of 19,000 adults by phone found that 73 percent of Black adults, 76 percent of white adults, and 78 percent of Hispanic adults have now been vaccinated.

So, while these numbers differ slightly, the weight of these and other recent studies — it’s confirmation we’ve made important progress in increasing vaccination rates and in decreasing vaccination inequities.

These numbers represent much more than simply time passing. They tell the story of an all-of-society effort to get us to where we are today: those employers who offered paid time off for their employees; the childcare providers who offer drop-in services for caregivers so they could go get vaccinated; the public transit authorities and ride-sharing companies providing free rides to vaccination sites; and to every person who drove a neighbor, a coworker, or friend to get vaccinated; the churches, the civic organizations, barbershops, beauty salons, who opened their doors to be trusted spaces for vaccinations; the work of the local doctors, nurses and pharmacists who got on the radio, TV, or in the newspaper to share the facts, the data, and the science with their communities; all the creatives, all the space makers who dedicated their own platforms to advancing a critical public health priority; and the moms who encouraged their sons to get vaccinated and the daughters who encouraged their fathers to get vaccinated — the families who made vaccination a family affair.

And that’s not a full list. Those are just some of the ways that these gaps have all but closed in communities of color in the recent months. I also want to note that, throughout this time, other communities of color — Indigenous and Native and Asian communities — have also been leading the way, making sure people are connected with vaccination every single day.

So, as a result, these communities continue to comprise a share of the vaccination that exceeds their group’s share of the overall population. So, progress. But we know there is work still to be done. It remains the case that somewhere around one in four adults across communities remain unvaccinated, unprotected against this virus.

We, of course, continue to see new hospitalizations and deaths from COVID that we can prevent. We just need to have the strength and the commitment to one another and to keep pulling and to keep fighting and to finish the job.

This coming Thursday, on September 30th, our COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, established by President Biden by executive order back in January, will be meeting for the seventh time. And this month, we’re meeting to vote on the final recommendations that we’ll deliver to the President for mitigating the health inequities caused and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and to help prevent these inequities in the future.

The meeting is open to the public; it can be viewed live on HHS.gov/live at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

And the submission of the final report with these recommendations will be after our final public meeting at the end of October. And we hope you’ll join us because, today and every day, we’re in this together.

So, with that, I’ll turn it over to you, Dr. Walensky.

DR. WALENSKY: Thank you so much, Dr. Nunez-Smith. Good afternoon. Let’s begin with an overview of the data. Our seven-day average of cases is about 95,000 per day. The seven-day average of hospital admissions is approximately 8,500 per day. And the seven-day average of daily deaths is 1,300 per day.

When I spoke with you last Friday, we covered CDC’s recommendations and our decision to offer Pfizer vaccine booster doses to specific communities.

For those who received a Pfizer primary series and who are at least six months after their second dose, the following Americans are eligible for a booster: those over the age of 65; those 18 and older who have an underlying medical condition such as asthma, diabetes, or obesity; and those 18 and older who live or work in a high-risk setting like a hospital, school, grocery store, long-term care facility, or a homeless shelter.

Although protection against hospitalization and death remains quite high, we are starting to see these populations have some decreased protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection, likely due to both waning and to the Delta variant.

Many of the people in these groups were some of the first people in the country to receive their vaccine. They also include people who, because of where they work or live, may have high rates of exposure to COVID-19. And they are the same people who remain essential to our current COVID-19 response, like healthcare workers and teachers, as well as those in frontline jobs. Their wellbeing is essential to keeping hospitals staffed, schools open, and many other essential parts of society functioning.

Both FDA and CDC reviewed data on the safety of booster shots, including for those who are 18 to 64. Today, we’re releasing a new publication in the MMWR that shows that COVID-19 vaccine booster doses, so far, are well tolerated. This report includes some of the data of our early experience with third doses that FDA and CDC reviewed when they made their recommendations about boosters.

The frequency and type of side effects were similar to those seen after the second vaccine doses and were mostly mild or moderate and short-lived.

If you are eligible for a vaccine booster and you have questions, I encourage you to go to Vaccines.gov. Talk with your healthcare provider, pharmacist, or health professional about your current risk for COVID-19, the benefit of a vaccine booster dose, and the safety of receiving an additional dose.

We will continue to evaluate data as it becomes available in real time and with urgency, and update our recommendations to make sure that all of those at risk have the protection they need. This includes those who received the Moderna and J&J vaccines as their primary vaccine and also those younger Americans who are not currently eligible for a booster dose.

As I said last week, this action is an initial step related to booster shots. It will not distract us from our most important focus: to get as many people as possible vaccinated with a primary series.

We remain steadfast in our effort to vaccinate as many people as possible and to continue our fight against COVID-19. Those who are unvaccinated remain the most vulnerable to infection, severe disease, hospitalization. And currently, there are over 70 million eligible Americans who remain unvaccinated.

The best way to protect everyone — including those who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, such as our children less than 12 — is to vaccinate as many eligible people as possible.

My closing ask to you is: If you have not been vaccinated, please do so. If your neighbor, family member, or friend has not yet been vaccinated, please assist in providing them the resources to get there.

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

DR. FAUCI: Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky. What I’d like to do over the next couple of minutes is make the point of the importance of vaccination from somewhat of a different standpoint than we usually do.

My father was eight years old in 1918 when the historic influenza pandemic occurred. We all know about that. I remember him telling me, particularly after I had made a decision to go to medical school, about the frustration and concern that all of — him, his relatives, and friends were going through back then, and how he lost cousins and uncles, namely people who are generally young.

And the one point that he made is that they were very frustrated because not only did they not know what the etiologic agent was, they had very, very little pharmacological intervention. Namely, they did not have any vaccine.

So what we decided to do — my colleagues and I — next slide, please — is that David Morens, Jeff Taubenberger, and I — in May and then again in August of this year — wrote, in The American Journal of Public Health two articles that — a two-part article, which we called “A Centenary Tale of Two Pandemics,” in which we looked at the 1918 influenza pandemic and the COVID-19 pandemic for multiple different parameters, which we called “variables.”

Next slide.

And if you look at the slide and compare one against the other, in public health tools, there’s one thing there that sticks out so boldly. Back then, they had crude early bacterial vaccines that likely never would have gotten approved by the regulatory and public health authorities today. But they did not know what the etiologic agent was, whereas today we have a highly specific, highly effective, and very safe vaccine.

They did things somewhat similar. They did closures. They did isolation. They did social distancing. But what we have is other things, like sophisticated ventilation, HEPA airflow.

They had the same print media, but now we have social media. They had some supportive care, but they didn’t have ICUs, critical care, mechanical ventilation, ECMO. They didn’t have any microbials — we do; we have antivirals. They had the same problem with quack and unproven remedies that we have today.

But the thing that really stands out in all of this was the issue of a safe and effective vaccine.

Next slide.

And so if you look now, I’ve entitled this slide: “Vaccinations in the United States: Much Accomplished, [But Also] Much to Do.”

Jeff gave you some numbers about those in this country with at least one dose, and the numbers fall under the “much accomplished.” If you look at people who are fully vaccinated, almost 184 million. About 2.78 [million] — and now counting — of people who’ve received an additional booster dose. But we’ve done very well.

But, in fact, there are still, as we’ve all mentioned over and over again, there are approximately 70 million people in this country who have not been vaccinated. If you go back and look at the very, very many deaths that occurred back in 1918, the overwhelming majority of those deaths would have been avoided if back then, when my father was eight years old, they had a vaccine. But they didn’t.

We do. And if we look at the people already who have died, the overwhelming majority of the people who’ve died from COVID-19 were people who were unvaccinated.

And so, we have something my father did not have. Let us use it.

Last slide.

And that gets back to what we say all the time: After Delta became the most common variant, fully vaccinated people had a 5 times less risk of infection and more than a 10 times less risk of hospitalization and deaths.

Message again: Get vaccinated.

Back to you, Jeff.

MR. ZIENTS: Well, thank you, Doctors. Let’s open it up for a few questions. Over to you, Kevin.

MODERATOR: First question, let’s go to Liz Weise at USA Today.

Q Excellent. Thank you so much. I had a question — and this is for Dr. Fauci — because prior to vaccines being available, there had been a lot of discussion about how in the U.S. we might reach herd immunity through natural infection. We have a surgeon general in Florida who’s a proponent of this. Given the high rates of COVID infection among the unvaccinated, shouldn’t we have reached herd immunity in that population by now?

DR. FAUCI: You know, as I’ve said so many times, herd immunity is really a complicated issue of protection by vaccination and those who have continued in durable protection following infection.

We do not know what that number is right now. Herd immunity is a concept, namely that most people, whatever that number is — and it varies from infection to infection; for measles, it’s over 90 percent.

You know when you are at herd immunity when the virus doesn’t have opportunity to go from person to person. But right now, we don’t know what that number is. And when you don’t know what the number is, what do you do? You vaccinate as many people as you possibly can, as quickly and as expeditiously as you possibly can. That’s what we should be concentrating on, not any particular number.

MR. ZIENTS: Next question.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to Yamiche at PBS.

Q Thanks so much for taking my question. Two quick questions. The first is: A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that something like 71 percent of unvaccinated respondents said boosters were a sign that vaccines are not working. I’m wondering what the administration is doing to counter that concept, given all the vaccine disinformation out there.

And then the second question I have is: Can you talk a bit more about why the vaccines are safe for pregnant women? I’ve seen some studies and heard some of you talk about this, but I’m wondering if you can just lend your voice more to explaining to people who have concerns over pregnant women taking the booster shots and the vaccines.

MR. ZIENTS: So, Dr. Walensky, why don’t you address pregnancy, and, Dr. Nunez-Smith, we’ll come to you on the booster shot message.

DR. WALENSKY: Happy to. Thank you. We are fortunate now to have extraordinary safety data with all of these vaccines. We know that pregnant women are at increased risk of severe disease, of hospitalization, and ventilation. They’re also at increased risk for adverse events to their baby.

We now have data that demonstrates that vaccines in whatever time in pregnancy or lactating that they’re given are actually safe and effective and have no adverse events to mom or to baby. And we’ve actually seen that, in fact, some antibody from the vaccine traverses to the baby and, in fact, could potentially protect the baby.

I think what’s really important here to emphasize is we know that about 30 percent of women who are pregnant right now are vaccinated — an extraordinarily low number — and, in fact, about 15 percent of African American women who are pregnant are vaccinated, and this puts them at severe risk of severe disease from COVID-19. In August this year, we lost 21 pregnant women to COVID-19.

So, we absolutely have the data that demonstrates the overwhelming benefit of vaccine and, really, very little safety concerns at all.

MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Nunez-Smith.

DR. NUNEZ-SMITH: Yes, thank you. You know, our primary focus remains in connecting people who are unvaccinated with vaccine. That’s what we know works, what we know will get us to the other side of the pandemic.

So, it’s really important for those people who are still deciding — right? — and are now wondering about booster, that we continue to reach them where they are.

The fundamentals of our strategy remain the same. This is about a national public education campaign that is implemented through and with local partners. And so continuing to get that message out to people.

What we know now — you know, what Dr. Fauci ended with — that people who are vaccinated now are protected against illness, the most severe outcomes of COVID-19.

So we are very aware of those data and continuing that strategy to connect with people, answer their questions, provide them the evidence that the vaccines are safe and effective.

MR. ZIENTS: Next question.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to Ebony McMorris at American Urban Radio Network.

All right, Ebony, we’ll come back to you.

Q Can you hear me?

MODERATOR: Yes. Hi, Ebony.

Q Okay. I’m sorry. Hi. Two quick questions. I know you’re still weighing the effects of people switching their vaccines — so, going from Pfizer to Moderna or J&J to something else. Is there any update that you can give us as far as that’s concerned, and also an update on what you’re seeing as far as long-term effects on those who have had COVID and how you’re gathering that data?

MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Fauci.

DR. FAUCI: Yes. The mix-and-match studies that I’ve mentioned on several of these interviews are ongoing. The mix-and-match study in which you look at Moderna as the boost against the other three, those data are now available.

The J&J as the boost for the other three likely will be available literally within a week — a few days to a week. And the data on looking at Pfizer as the boost to the other three will be available somewhere in the first week, or at the most two, of October. That’s when the data will be available.

Of course, as with all things we do, they must be submitted to the FDA for their regulatory approval. So you don’t want to get ahead of the FDA, but at least that’s where the data are right now. Thank you.

MR. ZIENTS: What was the second question? Can you repeat that, Ebony, please?

MODERATOR: Ebony, you need to unmute yourself.

Q The — I’m sorry. The second question was an update on what you’re seeing as far as long-term effects of COVID-19 on elderly and how you’re gathering that data.

DR. FAUCI: Yeah, I can — I can answer that, Jeff. We’re doing a very large cohort study that has been started, the award has been made, to look at any of a number of different groups of individuals of all ages, from young individuals — children — to elderly individuals, to look at: A, the occurrence; B, the duration; C, the pathogenesis, if at all we can gather that; and then, D, if anything, can we prevent and or treat this.

DR. WALENSKY: And maybe I’ll just add that we also have cohort studies ongoing with numerous academic institutions, as well as surveillance studies, that are doing survey data, in collaboration with numerous states, to understand the impact of long COVID as well.

MR. ZIENTS: Next question, please.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to Rafael at Univision.

Q Thank you. My question is to Dr. Walensky. Here in Georgia, we met — we have many Hispanic families worried about their unvaccinated kids that are still un-eligible. And there are some superintendents in our state that haven’t taken the recommendations by the CDC.

So, I would like you to remind us what the science behind the use of masks is to — that made the CDC say that it actually helps stop the spread. I understand there’s a study you guys published on Friday that show the results on Arizona, if I’m not mistaken. So can you please help a person understand why is that important. And also for — you know, for them to also speak to their superintendents and let them know that the science reflects that the masks really work in schools. Thank you.

DR. WALENSKY: Thank you, Rafael. So, several points: One is that the best way to protect our unvaccinated — and that includes our young children — is to surround them by people who are vaccinated. So, get vaccinated yourself. It would be great to have everybody who is eligible to be vaccinated to get vaccinated to better protect the people who are around them.

You’re referring to a study that was done in Arizona, published on Friday, that demonstrated that in jurisdictions that had masking early in their school year this year, they had a three and a half times less likely — were three and a half times less likely to have outbreaks in the school.

This, of course, was a study that was published this week related to this schoolyear, but we have numerous studies from last schoolyear that repeatedly demonstrate that school outbreaks are prevented when we have masking in schools.

MR. ZIENTS: Okay, why don’t we take one last question, Kevin.

MODERATOR: Last question. Let’s go to Sheryl Stolberg at New York Times.

Q Hi. Thanks for taking my question. You’ve talked a lot about closing the racial divide in vaccination, but if you look at the Kaiser Family survey, the biggest divide is really a partisan divide: 90 percent of Democrats are vaccinated, but the groups least likely to be vaccinated are white, evangelical Christians, rural residents, Republicans, and the uninsured under age 65.

So, given that the President is not the best messenger, perhaps, for these groups, I’m wondering: What specific steps have you taken to close the gap with those communities — Republicans and conservatives? Or do you think that they are simply not persuadable?

MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Nunez-Smith.

DR. NUNEZ-SMITH: Yes, thank you for the question. And so, we think everybody is worth that investment — right? — to connect with them and to make sure that they have the information. And it’s absolutely right, in hearing the question, the messenger matters and the message matters.

I’ve been very, you know, grateful to be in conversation in many stakeholder roundtables, including with many of the people from the groups that you just listed, to help inform the national public education campaign and the strategies to connect with communities.

It might take a little bit longer but we are absolutely laser-focused on reaching everyone, making sure people know the vaccines do work — safe and effective. We’re all here as public health professionals and physicians, not as politicians, and that is important to convey to everybody. This is not a political or partisan issue in the least; it’s a public health crisis, and we have the tools that we know work to get us all safely through and to the other side.

MR. ZIENTS: The thing I’d add, Sheryl, is that all of our work to date and all of the research says that the right way to reach people is locally and in communities with faith leaders local to the community, local doctors and other health providers. And we’ve made a concerted effort to ensure that those efforts are well funded, that we’re getting the message out with a real local emphasis. And we all know the importance of doctors and health professionals in terms of reaching people in a trusted messenger way.

Thank you for today’s briefing, and we look forward to seeing everybody soon. Thank you.

1:05 P.M. EDT

To view the COVID Press Briefing slides, visit: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/COVID-Press-Briefing_28September2021.pdf

/Public Release. This material comes from the originating organization/author(s)and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).View in full here.