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Former Adviser On Biden's Pandemic Response Team Discusses The Rise In COVID-19 Cases


We had hoped we wouldn't have to say this, but the last month has made the trend clear. In the U.S., COVID-19 cases are rising again, driven by the highly transmissible delta variant. But these cases aren't rising equally across the country. We learned from a White House briefing today that just three states account for 40% of cases nationwide. That's Florida, Texas and Missouri. And they are all behind the national average in vaccination rates.


JEFF ZIENTS: The threat is now predominantly only to the unvaccinated. The data is clear. The case increases are concentrated in communities with low vaccination rates.

CHANG: That's White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients. He announced today that the federal government was sending $100 million to rural health clinics for vaccine outreach in places where vaccination rates are generally lower. Joining us now to break down all of this is Andy Slavitt, former senior adviser on the White House COVID-19 response team. Welcome.

ANDY SLAVITT: Good to be here.

CHANG: So you left the Biden administration in early June, and since then, COVID restrictions have been lifted in a lot of areas in the country. That was after the CDC issued new guidance on relaxing masking for fully vaccinated people. And I'm wondering, do you think any of that was just too soon, given what we're seeing now?

SLAVITT: Well, we've had a real challenge vaccinating certain portions of the country, as I think everybody well knows, and we have a delta variant that is twice as contagious as the 2020 variety of COVID-19 was. When you combine those things together, it makes it much more dangerous for people who haven't been vaccinated. And even for people that have been vaccinated, if they're in communities where there's a lot of unvaccinated people or a lot of COVID, they themselves - they want to take a few precautions. So look. I think it's the job of the administration to constantly look at the data and constantly think and rethink what adjustments are needed, and I know they're doing that right now.

CHANG: OK. Well, the focus on getting this pandemic under control is on the unvaccinated. How would you try to reach communities with these lower vaccination rates at this point?

SLAVITT: Well, there's a couple of types of people that have chosen not to get vaccinated. The good news is that about 1 in 3 of them are still open-minded, so about 10% of the adult population. Some of them are younger people who just frankly don't prioritize getting vaccinated high enough. They don't feel particularly at threat. And I think that's a very concerted effort with colleges, universities and employers to really say, hey; if we want a safe work space, we should consider saying, if you're showing up to work or showing up to school, you either need to be vaccinated or show a negative test. I think that will help push people.

I think there's another set of people that are open to getting vaccinated, but they're waiting because they're nervous about long-term side effects or other issues. And for those people, I think the FDA final approval of the vaccines will do some good. And I think that's a real opportunity to outreach to them.

CHANG: I'm wondering, how significant of a problem do you think misinformation is right now? I mean, do you see that as a key reason there are still so many people who are not getting vaccinated?

SLAVITT: Well, that's exactly where I was going to go next, which is of all the people that have been vaccinated, the data from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that two-thirds of them believe 1 of 5 myths about the vaccine. And that's a real problem. That means that there's people that aren't getting vaccinated because they believe things that are untrue, such as that taking the vaccine itself will create COVID-19 or that it changes your DNA somehow. Now, those myths are coming from a lot of places, but a lot of it is online. And I think the idea of policing ourselves and committing to dramatically reducing the amount of lies and misinformation that comes at people is really, really important.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, in the last minute we have left, elsewhere in the program, we had heard about a group of researchers that advises the CDC. And their model shows the current surge getting worse through the summer and into the fall, around double where it is today. What should the top priorities be right now to avoid that scenario, you think?

SLAVITT: Well, what we saw in India was a dramatic surge of delta, and then we saw a dramatic decline. And what is going to be very interesting to see, Ailsa, is whether or not that's what happens in the U.K. If they peak and if they see a dramatic decline, it'll give us some sense of the length of things. All the things we've talked about - getting vaccinated and protecting yourself - are the fundamental things that we have to do now in the face of things. We have to make sure that we also watch to see that we - if we do need a boost later in the fall or winter because of things that we do that and the federal government's prepared and the CDC and the FDA will make that recommendation if needed. Final thing I'll throw in - antiviral. The most exciting potential opportunity in the fall is for a oral antiviral to come out, and that would change things.

CHANG: That is Andy Slavitt, former senior adviser to President Biden on COVID-19. Thank you.

SLAVITT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.