May 18, 2021
White House COVID-19 Task Force, Dr. Fauci Press Conference Transcript May 18
Dr. Fauci, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, and members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team & Task Force held a press briefing on May 18, 2021. Read the transcript of the briefing here.
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Andy Slavitt: (05:30)
Good morning. Today, Dr. Walensky will provide us with an update on the state of the pandemic, Dr. Fauci will provide an update on the latest science and Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith will highlight our work to advance equity, ensure we’re reaching everyone in our response. But first I want to talk directly to young people about how full of opportunity this season is for them. It’s May, and for young people, it’s the traditional season for graduations. The time when very accomplished and wise adults share free life advice along the lines of live up to your potential, make the world a better place, and of course use sunscreen. Today, I’d like to join a little bit in that tradition. My message to young people of course is simple: get vaccinated. Whether you’re a graduate, still in high school, in college, just out or more than a little bit out, it’s the most important thing you can do right now.
Andy Slavitt: (06:34)
Young people have been through a lot in this pandemic. In many ways, the pandemic is hard on young people as anyone. The pandemic disrupted your schooling, your job search, your income, and your social lives. Some of you lost parents, grandparents, or other loved ones. You’ve seen and experienced stress in a way you probably haven’t before. I know it’s been an anxious time and you’ve been asked to do difficult things, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccines have led to a dramatic decline in cases, in hospitalizations, and in deaths. For the first time since the pandemic began, COVID cases are down in all 50 states. We are winning the war on the virus and we need you to help us finish the job. Getting vaccinated is something you can do to protect yourself and your family. It will help you and all of us return to a closer to normal life.
Andy Slavitt: (07:42)
There’s also another consideration that graduation speakers would surely point out. As much as you’ve been through, getting vaccinated is far from the last thing your country will ask from you. Your participation in society is one of the elements of citizenship. In many ways, your generation has shown us how you make the world a better place. And getting vaccinated is part of carrying the mantle of becoming the generation that changes things for the better. To be sure, you have the power to help your country and the world for the better right now. And to help you, we have made it as easy and as convenient as possible.
Andy Slavitt: (08:24)
Overall, there are more than 80,000 locations with vaccines. 90% of you have one within five miles of where you live right now. The vaccine is ready and waiting for you. You can text your zip code to 438-829, that’s 438-829, to get locations near you with vaccines in stock right now. And if you think appointments are a hassle, don’t worry, more than 20,000 local pharmacies in communities across the nation are offering walk-in vaccines. That’s right. No need for an appointment. These vaccinations are.
Andy Slavitt: (09:03)
… no need for an appointment. These vaccinations are essential. However, if you’re unvaccinated, you’re at risk, regardless of your age. According to CDC, more than three million kids under 17 have contracted COVID-19. And even though it’s rare for kids to get severely ill from COVID-19, it can happen. So let’s prevent that. Vaccines are offering hundreds of millions of Americans the protection they need to return to normal lives. As the CDC announced last week, fully vaccinated individuals can now safely do nearly all daily activities without a mask.
Andy Slavitt: (09:41)
I want to reveal something personal with permission that underscores their importance. Last fall, one of my sons contracted COVID-19. Unfortunately, he is one of the many Americans battling long-term symptoms. He’s young and fit and in the prime of his life. But six months later, he still suffers from tachycardia, shortness of breath, and ongoing and frequent flu-like symptoms. His hands are cold to the touch. Neither he nor his parents, my wife and I, are sure how long this will last. Many young people are in this situation and many, many have it worse. I know it’s easy when you’re young to imagine that these things don’t affect you. A vaccine may feel unnecessary. You feel healthy. You know people who’ve had COVID and they’re doing all right. But we are still learning about the long-term effects of COVID. And as you’ll hear from Dr. Walensky, while cases, and hospitalizations, and deaths are down, COVID patients now tend to be younger. More than one to three COVID hospitalizations are people younger than that age 50.
Andy Slavitt: (10:55)
But there’s excellent news. Through years of research, scientists have found a way to safely protect us from this deadly virus. And thanks to the president’s leadership, we’ve secured enough vaccine supply for all eligible Americans. This week more than 27 million doses will go out into the country, and to make sure more people around the world have access to these life-saving vaccines, yesterday, the president announced that over the next six weeks, the US will be sending 80 million doses overseas. This is five times more than any other country in the world has shared. We will not use our vaccines to secure favor from other countries. We will work with COVAX and other partners to ensure that they’re delivered in ways that are equitable and follow the science and public health data.
Andy Slavitt: (11:48)
You should be proud of not only the progress we are making but also the contribution you and your country are making and will be making to the globe. We are not resting on our laurels here in the US. We must finish the job. And we must align with others around the globe to do what we’ve done in the US all over the world. And with that, over to Dr. Walensky.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: (12:12)
Morning. Thank you. I’m pleased to be with you today. Let’s begin again with the overview of the data. Yesterday, CDC reported 17,724 new cases of COVID-19, the lowest daily case numbers since June 2020. The seven-day average of hospital admissions is 3,500. Again, a positive sign with another back-to-back decrease of almost 18% from the prior seven-day period. And seven-day average daily deaths have also declined to a new low of 546 per day. The last time our seven-day average was this low was in March 2020, essentially since the pandemic began in large parts of the United States. The past week has been a big week with progress and milestones that set us on a path out of this pandemic. We should all have cautious optimism. Cases have continued to decreased and have not been this low since spring of last year. Hospital admissions are down. Deaths are down. And we are vaccinating between 1.5 million and 2 million people per day.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: (13:23)
And we are now working with governors and local leaders who are looking at their case transmission rates and vaccination rates to make informed decisions about how to safely get back to the activities we have lost during this pandemic. This was never going to be easy, but we will do the hard work together and get through this together. Last week, FDA authorized and CDC recommended use of the Pfizer vaccine for adolescents. In less than one week, we have vaccinated more than 600,000 12 to 15-year-olds. And in total, more than 4.1 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 have been vaccinated so far. My own son was one of them. Yesterday, we had a landmark day. As the President announced, more than 60% of people 18 years and older have received at least one vaccine dose. We need to continue to ensure vaccination coverage is uniform across the country. This will require us to meet people where they are, to listen to their concerns, and to help people make informed decisions about vaccination.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: (14:35)
Today, we will publish an article of the morbidity and mortality weekly report that compares vaccine coverage in urban and rural areas and communities in between. We looked at county-level vaccination data for people 18 and older from 49 states and Washington, DC. In this analysis, which looked at vaccination rates through April 10th, 2021, COVID-19 vaccination coverage was lower in rural counties, approximately 39%, compared to urban counties, approximately 46%. This was true for counties across the country, across all age groups, and among men and women. We remain committed to listening and to reaching out to communities in every corner of the United States in our work to narrow these differences and make sure that vaccine coverage is equitable, regardless of whether you live in rural or urban areas. Public health staff are working nationwide to provide trusted information via trusted messengers, meeting people where they are wherever they are. For example, this past weekend, CDC staff were at the Talladega Superspeedway, where the Alabama Department of Public Health with support from the Alabama National Guard, HHS, and the CDC Foundation partnered together to provide COVID-19 testing and vaccination. We have truly made tremendous strides across the country to ensure people have access to vaccines and there still is a lot more work for us to do ahead. We are more than 274 million doses administered. If you haven’t yet been vaccinated, perhaps you will consider being a reason to celebrate one more. Thank you. I’ll now turn things over to Dr. Fauci.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: (16:25)
Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky. Along the line of the advantages of getting vaccinated, I’d like to spend just a couple of minutes talking about vaccines that we’re receiving and the SARS-CoV-2 variants and the recent data that is accrued over the past couple of weeks that are very encouraging regarding protection against the known variants. Next slide. In this paper from the new England Journal of Medicine from a couple of days ago, the Pfizer BioEnTech vaccine showed that they neutralized SARS-CoV-2 variants shown in the yellow highlight. Mainly these variants, the New York variant, the California variant, the variant that’s dominant in this country, including the E484K variant, remains susceptible to neutralizing antibodies with only a minor diminution in its capability.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: (17:25)
Next slide. In addition, if you look at the Moderna vaccine, again, in another study that came out just two days ago, individuals who have vaccinated with the MRNA, including elderly individuals, maintained binding and functional antibodies again against a wide range of variants shown on this slide. And importantly, the capability of neutralizing and binding lasted for greater than six months, as shown on the next slide. When you look at the durability on this slide, as you can see the-
Dr. Anthony Fauci: (18:03)
… durability on this slide. As you can see, the binding to cell surface spike and the various variance shown with the different colors, you had a very good sustaining of the ability to bind up to 209 days in this study. Also, as you might notice, they haven’t shown the 617 from India on this slide. But on the next slide, if you look at a number of studies again that have come out, literally within the last few days. On each of them, the modest neutralization resistance to the 617 antibody suggests that the current vaccines that we are all using, that we’ve been speaking about would be at least partially and probably quite protective.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: (18:52)
And then on the last slide, if we’d go to the last slide, again, more situation with regard to the B-617 and the B-1618 that have been identified in India. On both these circumstances, you see that these were neutralized with only a 2.5 fold diminution in titer, which as I mentioned in previous press briefings, that’s well within the cushion effect of the capability to protect against infection and certainly against serious disease. So in summary, this is just another example of the scientific data accruing. And as I’ve shown you here, literally over the last few days, indicating another very strong reason why we should be getting vaccinated. I’ll stop there and back to you, Andy.
Andy Slavitt: (19:45)
Thank you. Dr. Dana Smith?
Dr. Dana Smith: (19:48)
Thank you so much, Andy, and good to be with all of you this morning. The president has said from the start that equity would be at the center of his administration’s pandemic response. And for all of us, achieving equity is not aspirational. It is mission critical. So I’m really pleased to be able to share a few updates on our progress specifically in the vaccination campaign, as well as how we are working to achieve this mission. As you’re aware, seniors were a big focus of our vaccination program across the president’s first 100 days. Today, well over 80% of seniors have had at least one shot. This is such an important marker of progress. And if you stop and look at the health outcomes for this group, deaths are down dramatically since January, about 80% across all seniors.
Dr. Dana Smith: (20:41)
And encouragingly, the data suggests a drop as well among Hispanics of over 80% and among African-Americans of about 70%. So a big part of how we achieve this progress is through the federal vaccine delivery channels. And from the beginning, the federal vaccination channels have taken an intentional approach to center on equity. Taking a place based approach, we recognize zip code is a stronger predictor of health and genetic code in our country, and so using that to get resources to both the highest risk and hardest hit communities.
Dr. Dana Smith: (21:15)
There are high quality demographic data in the federal vaccination channels. And those data are encouraging. I want to share some with you today. So for example, across all of FEMA’s federally run sites, and all of these have been located in some of our most underserved communities, approximately 60% of shots have been administered to people of color. And since our community health center program started, about 70% of shots administered through those centers have gone to people of color as well.
Dr. Dana Smith: (21:46)
One last major federal vaccine delivery channel dimension is the Federal Pharmacy Program. 40% of the over 40,000 local pharmacies participating are located in high-risk areas. And in the last two weeks, over 47% of pharmacy doses have been administered to people of color. To meet people where they are, the federal government has also supported hundreds and hundreds of mobile vaccination centers, including in rural communities. So we are making progress in equity through very intentional focus. However, the next phase of our vaccine program, we know there is much more to do. In this phase to ensure we are truly reaching everyone who’s unvaccinated, we will need to keep addressing structural barriers to access. We’ll need to focus even harder on meeting people where they are and we’ll continue providing the public with the answers they need to get vaccinated. We also need to acknowledge that many people of color only recently became eligible, because in our country, people of color skew younger and millions weren’t eligible until mid April.
Dr. Dana Smith: (22:54)
Still, we are seeing some encouraging national trends. Of course, there are some data caveats, but in the past two weeks, the data suggest 51% of those vaccinated in the US were people of color. And that’s above the 40% general population representation for these groups, but we know we must push further. And to do so, we have to make sure we reach everyone in this phase. We’re taking important steps to advance on equity, taking on those structural barriers first. Examples include transportation and paid leave. You’ve heard about our partnership with Uber and Lyft to provide free rides to and from vaccination appointments.
Dr. Dana Smith: (23:33)
And in recent weeks, many businesses across the country have stepped up and answered the president’s call to offer paid time off for their employees to get vaccinated. And thanks to the American Rescue Plan, we started a tax credit program to help small and medium sized businesses do so. And second, we’re definitely meeting people where they are, sending vaccine doses directly to communities that have been the hardest hit, including sending a greater number of vaccines to rural health clinics. And FEMA is shifting their focus to smaller community-based sites and pop-up clinics.
Dr. Dana Smith: (24:06)
And third, we’re making significant resource investments to support vaccine outreach efforts, so that anyone who has questions about getting vaccinated can get the information that they need. So in closing, we know there is more work to do, and we know that equity does not happen by default. Equity work is always hyper local. Communities are the experts in what they need. Partnering with trusted local community leaders is a must. So as these efforts move forward, we remain committed, putting equity at the center of everything we do. And working together, we’re going to make sure everyone, every community benefits from scientific discovery and gets to the other side of the pandemic. So with that, Andy, thanks and I’ll turn it back to you.
Andy Slavitt: (24:49)
Thank you. Okay. Let’s take a few questions.
Speaker 3: (24:54)
Thanks, Andy. We only have time for a few questions today, so please keep questions to one question. Erin Billups, Spectrum News.
Erin Billups: (25:00)
Hi, thank you for taking my question. Dr. Fauci, just wondering if you could speak to how protective the J&J vaccine is against these variants. And there are a lot of parents wondering how soon they might gain access to vaccines for children under 12. In the past, you’ve said at the beginning of next year. Has that timeline moved up at all?
Dr. Anthony Fauci: (25:23)
Well, with regard to J&J we don’t have as much data as I showed you on the slides, but whenever we have looked with J&J it looks like they are in fact protective, even though there’s a diminution. And I think the classic example of that was the study that was done simultaneously in the United States and in South Africa with the 351, in which the actual protection against all infection, particularly symptomatic infection, was diminished to around 60%, but there was virtually 100% protection against serious disease, hospitalization, and deaths. So I would imagine, even though we don’t have as much data with J&J as we do with the Moderna and the Pfizer, that we would expect that it would be comparable. But we need to get confirmation of that. But any data that we do have indicates that it looks like it’s the same line. And I’m sorry, the second part of your question, would you repeat? I didn’t quite get it.
Andy Slavitt: (26:25)
The second part was the timing for children under 12 to potentially be eligible for vaccination.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: (26:31)
Okay. I’m sorry. Well, as I mentioned, it’s still on track. There are a couple of companies that are now doing what’s called age dose deescalation studies starting between 12 and nine, nine to six, six to two, and six months to two years. It is likely, and almost certain, that by the time we get to the end of this calendar year and the first quarter of 2022, that we will have enough information regarding safety and immunogenicity to be able to vaccinate children of any age.
Andy Slavitt: (27:02)
Okay. Next question.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: (27:03)
… Children of any age.
Andy Slavitt: (27:03)
Great. Next question.
Speaker 4: (27:06)
Weijia at CBS.
Hi Kevin, and everyone. Thanks for taking my question. It’s her Doctor Walensky. On Saturday, the CDC provided school guidance or the rest of the school year and I know you said that you’ll work over the summer to update its guidance for the fall, in addition to working on guidance for child care, travel, summer camps, et cetera.
You guys have talked a lot about how the data and the science led you to these new mask guidelines. So if you already have that data and science, what is holding up the guidelines for all these other areas? And can you provide any timeframe for when you’ll have them?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: (27:54)
Thanks a lot. Thank you for that question. Yes, of course. We have thousands of pages of guidance related to all sorts of sectors, businesses, schools, higher ed camps, as you noted, and we are now working through those in the context of our new science-based guidance that was released on Thursday.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: (28:12)
As you noted, we did place guidance on the CDC website to ensure that people who are finishing out this school year, children will likely not have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated before the end of the school year, so all of our guidance for this school year should be unchanged and we are now working diligently to work through all of our active guidance in the context of this new science related to fully vaccinated people.
Andy Slavitt: (28:41)
Thank you. Next question.
Speaker 4: (28:44)
Sheryl Stolberg at the New York Times.
Sheryl Stolberg: (28:47)
Thank you for taking my call. I think this might be an Andy question. Yesterday the president said that sending doses overseas is not enough and he said that we’ll need a new effort working with pharmaceutical companies to increase supply, particularly here in the United States.
Sheryl Stolberg: (29:04)
But activists are saying that the administration needs to work with pharmaceutical companies to transfer technology to vaccine makers overseas, so that other countries can stand up their manufacturing operations. I’m wondering, does the president agree with that? And is that something that you are working toward and separately what is your understanding of when the 60 million doses will be released? The AZ doses?
Andy Slavitt: (29:30)
Thanks for the question, Sheryl. I think that the president indicated a couple of things yesterday. One is that the US must lead and will lead and is beginning to lead, in the effort. That includes both short-term efforts, which I think the total of 80 million doses that will be donated across four different vaccine platforms overseas over… Between now and I believe it’s over the course of July, or I should say the end June. So that’s an enormous commitment that I think it’s at least five times as large as anybody else has made.
Andy Slavitt: (30:07)
But we know that over the long-term, as you say, much more needs to be done. The world needs billions of doses. And while the US will be playing a leadership role, we will create manufacturing, we will export as we’ve already begun to do from Pfizer and from Moderna that we will still need global partners across the world to do the same.
Andy Slavitt: (30:29)
So this is going to be a collaborative effort with other nations. We have at the top of that, the goals are going to make sure we’re focused on equity and at science, and how we do these distributions. There is a lot of work to be done. The president named Jeff Zients yesterday to lead that initiative and I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about those efforts going forward. And we don’t have an update, as of now, on the timing of the AstraZeneca doses. We are waiting the review from the Food and Drug Administration. Next question, please.
Speaker 4: (31:01)
Hi, thanks so much for taking my question. The CDC has stopped, and this is a question for Doctor Walensky, please. The CDC has stopped monitoring breakthrough infections among vaccinated individuals, instead of only investigate such cases, if it was the result… If it resulted in a hospitalization or death.
Can you talk a little bit about why that’s the right strategy and is there any increased worry about breakthrough infections now that everyone’s starting to take off their mask?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: (31:33)
Thank you for that question, Yamiche. You know, these vaccines were studied to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death, and as we look at these breakthrough infections, those are the ones we’re most concerned about, of course. We want to be able to study them to get the sample, to understand whether there were variants involved.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: (31:49)
Before we started only studying breakthrough infections in the hospitalized patients, we were studying all breakthrough infections. What we were starting to find as many most, or I should say, a large portion of them were fully asymptomatic. And in fact, when we went to study them and even sequenced them, there was inadequate virus to even do so.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: (32:10)
So we are continuing to learn about breakthrough infections in the academic world as well, but what I would say is, as we were bringing in the samples to have capacity to study all that are coming in, we want to make sure that we’re limiting it to those that result in severe disease, hospitalization and death.
Andy Slavitt: (32:29)
Speaker 4: (32:32)
All right. Let’s squeeze in one more question, Ricardo at the AP.
Hello. Thank you for taking the question and it’s for Doctor Walensky and can you please provide an update on the status of the extent that the India variant in the United States. The data on sequencing that’s publicly available on the CDC website is from the end of last month, so what are the proportions that you’re finding of the India variant and what is the outlook for the next four weeks?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: (33:13)
Thank you for that question, Ricardo, I don’t have that off the top of my head. What I will tell you is that it does take some time for us to get in the sequences, do the sequence and do all the analysis, which is why it’s a bit delayed from week-to-week but I will get back in touch with you. I will present those data as soon as we have the upcoming data, as soon as we have them.
Andy Slavitt: (33:34)
And I’ll use that to emphasize the final point as we close, which was Doctor Fauci’s very promising news that the vaccines that we have available to us in the US are effective against the Indian variant and it is all the more reason why it’s important for all of us, who have the opportunity to get vaccinated, to do so because we’ve seen the devastation that these variants can cause in other countries and we should not feel that this can’t happen to here.
Andy Slavitt: (34:07)
So with that, I want to thank everybody for attending and have a great day.