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

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Via Teleconference

10:37 A.M. EDT

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT:  Good morning.  Thank you for joining us.  Today, we’re joined by Drs. Walensky and Fauci.  But let me begin by offering an update on our vaccination rollout.

We continue to be encouraged by the pace of vaccinations in this country with three approved vaccines: Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson.  There are now a total of 84 million people who have received at least one vaccination dose, or one in three adults, and 45 million people who have been fully vaccinated.  That’s better than one in six adults.

Importantly, today we cross a milestone: 70 percent of Americans age 65 and over have now received at least one shot.  This is a long way from seven weeks ago when only 8 percent of seniors had received a single shot.  Now, as a reminder, 80 percent of deaths in the U.S. have occurred among seniors.

Put another way: No country has vaccinated more people than the U.S.  That’s the result of our three-pronged strategy to rapidly (inaudible) vaccine supply, to add thousands of vaccinators and thousands more places for people to get vaccinated. 

I also want to briefly touch on upcoming vaccine supply, which we are closely tracking, as are all of you.  Yesterday, in our weekly call with governors, we announced that we will have 27 million doses allocated across all distribution channels this week.

Two thirds of the 27 million doses will be going to states and jurisdictions for them to distribute to distribution sites, and the rest will go to either [other] channels, primarily the pharmacy program.  This means that in the 62 days since taking office, we’ve more than tripled vaccine output from 8.6 million doses to 27 million doses per week.

We have more work to do.  Grinding out these increases week after week takes tremendous effort in partnership with the vaccine manufacturers, the HS — HHS team, and, of course, all the people across the country vaccinating Americans.  We intend to keep up this progress until all Americans are vaccinated.

Before I turn it to Dr. Walensky, I want to call attention to important announcements related to schools. 

Today, at the Department of Education’s National Safe School Reopening Summit, President Biden will announce that $81 billion in American Rescue Plan funds will be made available to all 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico to support their efforts to safely return to in-person instruction as expeditiously as possible this spring and meet the needs of all students. 

This announcement builds on our ongoing efforts to support schools and staff by investing in testing and prioritizing teachers for vaccination.

Together, these steps will help return more kids back to the classrooms sooner, ensure equity, and keep us on track to meet the President’s goal for school reopenings in his first 100 days.  

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

DR. WALENSKY:  Thank you, Andy.  I’m glad to be back with all of you today.  Let’s start with an overview of the pandemic. 

As I shared with you on Monday, cases continue to increase slightly.  The most recent seven-day average is nearly 55,000 per day, up about 3 percent from the prior seven-day average.  The most recent seven-day average of new hospitalizations is about 4,600 per day and is similar to data on Monday.  And the latest seven-day average of deaths, approximately 968 per day, has also remained flat this week. 

I continue to be worried about the latest data and the apparent stall we are seeing in the trajectory of the pandemic.  CDC is watching these numbers very closely.  As I said on Monday, the decisions we make now will determine what the pandemic looks like in the days and weeks ahead. 

We’ve made such extraordinary progress in the last several weeks, and if we choose to invest in prevention right now, we will ultimately come out of this pandemic faster and with fewer lives lost. 

I’ve been so impressed by the pace of vaccination — by the way so many Americans have embraced vaccination and have chipped in with their families and communities to help others get vaccinated.  We are now vaccinating between 16 and 20 million people a week.  And this means that we are closer to resuming activities we love to do with those we care about the most. 

This past year has been challenging, with many of us experiencing so much loss in so many forms.  Our daily lives have changed, and we have had to learn new tasks like juggling jobs, childcare, and virtual learning. 

Numerous studies have found that the pandemic has had a profound effect on our mental wellbeing.  Stress, uncertainty, fear, isolation all can take and have taken a substantial toll.

While we focus on actions to stop the spread of COVID-19, I want to remind you all that it is equally important that we raise up actions to help each other maintain wellness, wellbeing, and resilience.  This applies to everyone, whether you are already vaccinated or waiting to be vaccinated.  Please take care of yourself. 

If you have gotten out of your old, welcomed routines this past year, like so many of us have, try to get back to those things that make you feel better, give you meaning, and help you feel connected, even if virtually: Connect with people, take a walk, safely connect with a friend, connect or check in on a neighbor while you make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating balanced and healthy meals, and get regular exercise.  Doing these simple actions can make such a difference in how we feel and how we respond to stress …

Take breaks from the news and social media.  While it’s good to be informed, hearing about the pandemic all day, every day, can be upsetting.  Considering limiting the news to just a couple of times a day and disconnecting from screens for a while. 

We have other trip — tips for improving wellbeing while staying COVID-19 safe on our CDC website, which I invite you all to look at. 

Of course, do get vaccinated when the vaccine is available to you.  Doing so opens up even more opportunities to connect safely in person with others in small gatherings. 

I continue to hear of so many uplifting stories about friends and families being able to reconnect after months or even a year apart once they are fully vaccinated.  This is what we’re all fighting for — meeting your new grandchild for the first time, hugging a friend, having dinner with another family. We will get there.  We are getting there.  We are getting there at roughly two and a half million vaccinations a day.

And we’re getting new evidence about the positive effects of these vaccines every single day.  As I mentioned on Monday, we now see significant declines in emergency department visits among people over 65 as that age group has gotten vaccinated. 

Just yesterday, several studies were released from the New England Journal of Medicine describing substantial real-world protection against COVID-19 among vaccinated healthcare workers who we know are at increased risk of exposure to the virus.

These findings should be a jolt of hope for all of us and to serve as a catalyst for everyone to roll up their sleeves when the vaccine is available.

As I said many times before, getting schools open for in-person instruction safely and as quickly as possible is a top priority for CDC, and here again, we are starting to see results. 

I’m excited to report that we’ve heard from a number of school districts since our updated guidance was released last Friday that they’re now able to move forward with broader reopening as a result of our updated recommendations on physical distancing. 

At the same time, we’ve been working hard with our Federal Retail Pharmacy Program to vaccinate K-through-12 teachers, staff, and childcare workers throughout the month of March.  Our pharmacy partners now report they have vaccinated more than 1.3 million educators, staff, and childcare workers — about 566,000 of those were just in the last week. 

This is substantial progress towards our goal of getting our teachers and school staff vaccinated by the end of March.  If you haven’t already been vaccinated, visit CDC.gov to learn how to make an appointment through our Federal Pharmacy Program. 

Finally, I want to share how excited I am to be joining the President, Vice President, First Lady, and Secretary Cardona, along with many K-through-12 students, teachers, and staff at the Department of Education’s National Safe School Reopening Summit this afternoon.

During the summit, we will continue the important dialogue of school reopening and hear firsthand experience from school administrators, teachers, staff, and students about how they have been able to successfully get back to in-person learning. 

I look forward to learning from the participants and engaging with our educational partners in their critical work. 

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

DR. FAUCI:  Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky.  I’d like to spend just a couple of minutes now talking about something that I introduced at a prior briefing, and that is the ultimate effectiveness of the vaccines that are being administered.

As I had mentioned previously, we now have three EUA vaccines that have shown a high degree of efficacy in randomized placebo-controlled trials. 

Right now, as the weeks go by, we see more and more that not only are these vaccines efficacious, but in the community, they are extremely effective in preventing infection with SARS-CoV-2. 

And what I’m going to do over the next couple of minutes is to just present to you, very briefly, new data on the effectiveness of vaccination and healthcare workers in reports that came out yesterday online in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Next slide.

In this particular study of healthcare workers and employees at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, in Dallas, if you look at this graph, it is really quite impressive.  What it looks at — at people who are not vaccinated, in which infection was seen in 234 of over 8,000 employees.  And then, going from left to right — the next bar — are individuals who are partially vaccinated — 112 of 6,000.

But look at the far right of the graph.  For those who were fully vaccinated, the infection rate was extremely low: 0.05 percent infection rate among fully vaccinated employees — a real proof-positive of the importance of vaccination. 

The next study was a study from California, also in healthcare workers, that showed among almost 15,000 workers who received their second dose of vaccine, who were showing that infection was extremely rare, similar to the Dallas study, with a 0.17 percent positivity.

Next slide.

And finally, again, on data we’re getting from Israel in which healthcare workers were vaccinated, it was shown that even among a situation where the B117 variant, which we are concerned with, was noted in up to 80 percent of cases, there was a major reduction in new cases among individuals who have received two doses.

So as Andy Slavitt said, now 70 percent of Americans 65 years of age or older have received at least one dose.  And as Dr. Walensky said, every day, 2.5 to 3 million people get vaccinated.  So, every day, we get closer and closer to that extraordinary degree of effectiveness, which we’re seeing at the community level.  And at the end of the day, that is what it is that is going to end this pandemic in this country. 

Back to you, Andy.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT:  Thank you, Dr. Fauci and Dr. Walensky.  Let’s take some questions.

MODERATOR:  Great.  First we’ll go to Meg Tirrell at CNBC.

Q    Well, thank you so much.  I wonder if — first, if you could just address what happened yesterday with the AstraZeneca vaccine and the communications from the Data Safety Monitoring Board.  Dr. Fauci, I know you talked about it a number of times yesterday, but if you could provide any more clarity.  It just seems like — from the reporting in the Washington Post and the New York Times — that if the efficacy was really closer to 69 to 74 percent, that’s not that different from the 79 percent that AstraZeneca actually released.  If you could just provide any more clarity on that, it would be extremely helpful. 

And then, for Dr. Walensky, I’m wondering how the CDC is looking at B1526.  We spoke with the New York City Health Commissioner this morning who said he does think it is more transmissible and may be contributing to that, sort of, high caseload they’re seeing in the city there.  How are you looking at that, and whether you might characterize it as a variant of concern rather than of interest?  And is the federal government looking at surging vaccines to places that are seeing more spread right now, perhaps because of variants?  Thanks.

DR. FAUCI:  Well, thank you, Meg, for that question.  As I had explained multiple times yesterday, but I’ll very briefly summarize it again now: What happened was that the AZ company was dealing back and forth with the Data and Safety Monitoring Board regarding the efficacy point of their study.  They then came out with a press release and briefed us at the NIH and BARDA and others regarding the efficacy of the vaccine. 

When they came out with their press release, very soon thereafter, they received from the Data and Safety Monitoring Board, with a copy to me and others, that the Data and Safety Monitoring Board was quite concerned that the data that was reflected in the press release was not the most recent updated data that was more accurately reflective of what the vaccine efficacy point was.

On the basis of that, since we, ourselves — i.e. the federal government in the form of the NIH — had put out a press release that reflected almost exactly what the AZ had done, we then put out a very brief release which said that we urge strongly that AZ get back to the Data and Safety Monitoring Board to make sure that the data that is made public is accurately reflecting of what the actual data was.  So that’s the entire story.

Right now, AZ is getting back with the Data and Safety Monitoring Board and will likely come out with a modified statement. 

DR. WALENSKY:  And maybe just to the B1526 discussion: Yes, we’re following this very carefully across the Northeast — in New York, as well as in New Jersey. 

We’re following the frequency of it.  And early data does suggest increased transmissibility of B1526, although, to my understanding, not as transmissible as a B117.  So we’re following those data carefully.

There are interagency discussions about whether B1526 should be considered not just a variant of interest, but rather a variant of concern. 

MR. SLAVITT:  One thing to the — to your first question, Meg: I think that our takeaway is the importance of transparency and trust.  And what we do in these briefings is Dr. Fauci very kindly and clearly helps interpret scientific information for the public.  But let’s not mistake that for the process that people who are — who’ve conducted clinical trials need to go through before they are approved and deemed ready for the public.  That will go through the Food and Drug Administration once an EUA is applied.  That’s always been the case.

We never look at the numbers in a press release to make that determination; that’s always a much more in-depth submission.  Dr. Fauci will — has always helped interpret the results when that happens.

So I would urge us not to focus on the process of the last couple of days, but instead to focus on what really matters, which is what happens when these applications for these candidates are submitted to the FDA. 

Next question.

MODERATOR:  Next we’ll go to Jeff Mason at Reuters.

(Technical difficulties.)

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT:  All right, Jeff, we’ll come back to you.  We’ll go to Ricardo at the AP.

Q    This is Jeff.  I’m back now.  I’m sorry if you can’t hear me. 

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT:  We can hear you.  We can hear you, Jeff.

Q    Okay, apologies for that.  My question was first to follow up, for Dr. Fauci, if you’re concerned about hesitancy with regard to AstraZeneca vaccine once that is available in the U.S.

And, secondly, for all of you, if you can broadly say what you expect the pace of vaccinations to be in April — if it’s at 16 or 20 million right now. 

DR. FAUCI:  Yeah, Jeff, thank you for that question.  We are always concerned when there is an apparent miscommunication — if you want to use that word — that that would add to an already-existing level of vaccine hesitancy.  And that’s the reason why, as Andy said, we want to make sure we’re always completely transparent in everything that goes on with regard to our messaging in vaccine.

At the end of the day, you know, when you look at the data, this is going to be — turn out to be a good vaccine.  As Andy said, the final determination of the analysis of the data will be done by the FDA.  When that is done, that is going to be very transparent as they meet with their VRBPAC — their advisory committee. 

So, at the end of the day, everything is going to be open and transparent.  And hopefully that will dispel any hesitancy that was associated with this little bump in the road that we happen to have, most recently with AZ. 

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT:  The second question, which is on what to expect, I think you said, in April.  I’ll tell you that, last week, President Biden said that he would — we would, over the course of this week, make a commitment as to what our goal is for the upcoming period of time.  So we’re going to let the President do that, and I think that’ll give you the information you need. 

Next question, please. 

MODERATOR:  All right, let’s go back to Ricardo at the AP.

Q    Okay, can you hear me now?  Can you hear me?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT:  Yes, Ricardo.

Q    Okay.  Well, thank you for taking my question.  And as I listen to you, it is hard to miss the sense of excitement in your voices as you rattle off the statistics and the change implied by those statistics.  And I noticed this even with Dr. Walensky, who is normally guarded. 

So would you say that we are finally at the point where we’ve reached the long-awaited “turning the corner” on the pandemic?  And that’s for Drs. Walensky and Fauci. 

DR. WALENSKY:  Thank you for the question, Ricardo.  Yes, I am normally guarded.  I remain guarded.  Indeed, I’m enthusiastic about the pace of vaccination that is happening, about the early data that we’re seeing, the changes in infection rates, the changes in emergency department rates. 

What worries me is that — while we have, you know, about 24 percent of the population who has received — that has received one dose and about 13 percent of the population that is fully vaccinated, what concerns me is the footage of what’s happening in spring breakers, in people who are not continuing to implement prevention strategies while we get fully scaled up.

We’re at 13 percent.  We need to be much higher than that to feel like we have adequate protection around this country. 

So, the early data are really encouraging, and that’s why I’m so — I emphasize how we need to hang in there for just a little while longer because we can see a time in the next couple of months where we will have a lot more people vaccinated and we will really be able to blunt infection rates. 

We’re still hanging out at 55,000 cases a day.  And we’re watching what’s happening in people who are vacationing right now, and that concerns me a lot.

DR. FAUCI:  Yeah, just to underscore what Dr. Walensky said: When I’m often asked, “Are we turning the corner?,” my response is really more like, “We are at the corner.  Whether or not we’re going to be turning that corner still remains to be seen” — depending upon what Dr. Walensky said, not to repeat it. 

We do have a lot of challenges in front of us with regard to the high level of daily infections — yesterday, being 54,974.  When you are at that level, I don’t think you can declare “victory” and say you’ve turned the corner.  You’ve got to continue to do what we’re doing: more vaccinations and continue to do public health measures until we actually do turn the corner.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT:  Dr. Fauci, you reiterate one thing that — it was very clear in your presentation, in your slides — which I hope is coming clear to the American public, which is that these vaccines are being proven to work.  And I think that’s an extraordinarily positive statement and a path out in the midst of continued very challenging information.  So, Dr. Fauci, I don’t know if you want to reiterate that perspective.

DR. FAUCI:  Yeah, I think that graph I showed, Andy, on the second slide, really speaks for itself.  If you look at the level of infection in individuals who are doubly vaccinated with the vaccine, it was 0.05 percent.  That’s extremely low.  That’s where we want to be.  When, as a country, we are at that level, we will have turned the corner.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT:  Great.  Next question, please.

MODERATOR:  Next, we’ll go to Raquel at TV Globo Brazil.

Q    Thank you so much guys for this opportunity.  Can you hear me?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT:  Yes.

Q    I have one question about the vaccination and another one to Dr. Fauci.  Because the World Health Organization warned, this week, that the gap between vaccines in the arms of people in rich countries and the number of vaccines through COVAX is growing, becoming more grotesque every day, and it gives false sense of security in rich countries.  Do you believe global inequality access to vaccines — or “vaccine hoarding,” if you want to call it that — could make the pandemic last longer?

And, Dr. Fauci, are you meeting Brazilian health officials this week?  Do you believe the administration should let the AstraZeneca supply sitting here without approval go also to countries that most need it?  And do you believe the world should send help to Brazil to also avoid a spillover in other places?

DR. FAUCI:  Andy, do you want to answer the first question and I’ll answer the second?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT:  So, I don’t — I don’t know exactly how to parse the pieces.  The first question was with regard to the supply of — in rich countries versus in more developing countries.  Is that — do I have the question right?

Look, we — I think — let me just start with this: The President has stated his number one priority is to make sure we prioritize — we prioritize the vaccination in this country.  We’ve suffered over 540,000 deaths — more than anywhere else in the world.  And he came into office — I mean, he came into office with this seriousness of purpose to make sure that we make this country safe again.  We have procured the vaccine supplies, the vaccination sites, increased the number of vaccinators. 

At the same time — as Dr. Fauci, I think, will go into — we’ve also made it a priority to say that we must return to global leadership.  And indeed, as your question correctly points out, until we deal with this pandemic across the globe, we will not be successful in dealing with it. 

So our work with COVAX to make the leading investment and the first investment and get that moving quickly; Dr. Fauci, on the first day, attending the World Health Organization’s meeting; our recent announcement that we are moving vaccines in this hemisphere to Mexico and Canada; our work with the Quad to develop longer-term manufacturing capacity around the world — these are efforts that are active and ongoing.

And before I turn it over to Dr. Fauci, I would just say, we are in fact concerned with the situation in Brazil.  We are having conversations in — with the folks in Brazil on a regular basis and on a daily basis about what’s going on there.  I won’t give you more details other than to say that we are deeply engaged.

Let me turn it over to Dr. Fauci.

DR. FAUCI:  Yeah, thank you, Andy.  Yes, we will be meeting with the Brazilian authorities.  And to reiterate what Andy said, we are quite concerned about the difficult situation in Brazil, and we will be discussing ways that we might be able to be helpful to Brazil.  I can’t go over the details.  I’d like to wait to see what their presentation (inaudible) in the future, we might be able to help them. 

But also, as Andy said, we really are now taking a very active role in COVAX.  We now have a $4 billion pledge that we’ll be doing.  We’re back in global leadership, which I think is really important.  And, as said, after we do take care of the really difficult situation we’ve had in our own country with over 535,000 deaths, we will obviously, in the future, have surplus vaccine, and there certainly is a consideration for making that vaccine available to countries that need it.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT:  Next question, please.

MODERATOR:  Last question will go to Kristen Shamus at the Detroit Free Press.

Q    Thanks for taking my question.  In Michigan, we’re seeing a big increase in COVID-19 outbreaks in K-to-12 schools since many reopened to face-to-face learning earlier this month.  And while teachers have been able to get vaccinated, the kids have not.  And with the B117 variant circulating heavily in the state now, it’s leading to shutdowns again in our schools. 

What is the benefit of reopening schools only to see so many have to close again a couple weeks later?  And how should states manage such outbreaks with variant cases circulating?  And is the three-foot-spacing rule in school districts and in states where we have heavy variant spread a good idea? 

Thank you.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT:  Dr. Walensky?

DR. WALENSKY:  Yeah, I think that, you know, our guidance that was put out early in February and then updated last week, it has a layered mitigation approach, and it has approach by different ranges of transmission.  So areas with high transmission, we are limiting what we’re recommending for in-person attendance in middle schools and high schools because of potential increased transmission for the older students. 

So, we believe and the science suggests that three feet versus six feet would be possible, is possible, and it is safe when all of the layered mitigation strategies that we have suggested and recommended are in place.  So, 100 percent masking should be safe with — in all of your schools as long as you’re talking about the younger children.

And so, yes, we need to watch the B117 spread.  We certainly don’t want schools to open and then reclose.  The whole point is to keep schools open in the context of all the layered mitigation that we put forward through the recommendations.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT:  Great.

Well, thank you all for attending today and for your questions.  We will be back with another briefing on Friday.

11:08 A.M. EDT

To view the COVID Press Briefing slides, visit https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/COVID-Press-Briefing_24March2021_for-transcript.pdf

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