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U.S. Surgeon General Is Confident The U.S. Will Move Past Vaccination Plateau

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

And as coronavirus case counts rise, the Biden administration is again pushing for more Americans to get vaccinated. Helping to lead the effort is U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, and he joins us now. Doctor, 57% of eligible people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, but those rates appear to have leveled off. What are the chances that the U.S. won't move past this plateau?

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, good morning, A. We do have millions and millions of people vaccinated. That's the good news. And as a result, we're not seeing death rates nearly as high or case rates as high as what we saw in January. But there are still millions more who are not vaccinated. And as a result of that, we are seeing spikes in cases driven by the delta variant where unvaccinated numbers are high. I do think we can get through this. And the good news is that each day, we are still vaccinating hundreds of thousands of people. That's hundreds of thousands of people who are making a decision each day to get protected from the virus. We've just got to accelerate those numbers further. And I think one of the keys to doing that is to make sure that those who are vaccinated actually turn and talk to their family and friends and ask them if they've been vaccinated 'cause we know that those conversations with family and friends are what people are saying matter to them when they make this decision about getting vaccinated.

MARTINEZ: Doctor, I've done it. I'm sure lots of people have done it. But the numbers, as I mentioned, doesn't seem to be working. I mean, so - getting through this is different than having those numbers go up and up like they need to.

MURTHY: Well, it's working. It's just not working as fast as we want it to because we've got to get more and more people vaccinated each day. And so what I - it is very important to emphasize is that the vaccines themselves do work. They have - there have been studies showing that if you model it out, what life would have looked like had we had no vaccines versus the vaccines we have now, we would have seen many, many more people die in the hundreds of thousands. We would also have seen more than a million extra hospitalizations. So the vaccines save lives. But if you are not vaccinated, then you are particularly at risk, especially in the face of the delta variant. And partly why we're seeing such rises in cases in states like Florida and Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana is because in these states, we do have significant pockets where the vaccination are low - is really low - some counties where, for example, rates are even below 20%. And that's a perfect setting for the delta virus to spread rapidly.

MARTINEZ: Doctor, what happens if the coronavirus continues to mutate?

MURTHY: Well, the virus will continue to mutate. We know that. Most of the time the mutations won't be consequential. Every now and then, they will. But this is the risk of having a significant amount of virus that is spreading at a given time. The virus mutates while it's replicating, which means that if it's not infecting people, it can't mutate. And that's why getting the overall burden of infection down in the U.S, but also around the world, is so important. And that's why the steps that the United States has taken to, not only donate supply - more than 580 million doses committed right now and more to come - but also the steps we are taking to work with other countries to stand up manufacturing capacity so they can help vaccinate the world. That's why that is so important, because this is a global pandemic, and it won't be fully under control unless we have a fully global response.

MARTINEZ: But are we at a tipping point, so to speak, where the unvaccinated population is at a point where it could overwhelm hospitals or possibly prompt new lockdowns?

MURTHY: Well, we're already seeing in some areas in Missouri, for example, hospital systems pushed to the brink. And unfortunately in areas where vaccination rates are low, I worry very much, not only about the systems themselves and their capacity, but I worry about the health care workers who are staffing those systems. A, what we know is that burnout among health care professionals was high before the pandemic. But the pandemic has really pushed many health care workers to the brink. They're reporting high levels of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and many are talking about dropping out of the workforce as they see wave after wave after wave.

So get vaccinated to protect your health. Get vaccinated to protect the health care workers who are struggling right now. And lastly, A, think about our children. Our children who are under 12 - kids like mine, who are 3 and 4 - who can't get vaccinated, they depend on the people around them being protected to shield them from the virus. So that's yet another reason we've got to get vaccinated. It's to protect our children who are too young to get vaccinated.

MARTINEZ: I know the word lockdown, though, is a politically charged word. Are you worried about that, or can you see that coming possibly?

MURTHY: I think it's unlikely in the near term that we're going to return to the lockdowns that we remember from 2020. And part of that reason is because we do have more experience and are smarter about how to reduce spread. We know that masks, for example, are very effective in reducing spread, especially when they're used in indoor settings, when you're mixing with people outside your household. We know that washing your hands and keeping distance can also be very effective in reducing the spread. So - and we - now we've got vaccinations as a result.

One promising sign is that in some of the states and areas that have been hardest hit by the delta surge, we are actually seeing significant upticks in vaccinations, which is good news. But we've got to keep that going and accelerate it further. It's one of the reasons why the administration built surge response teams to send to hard-hit areas to provide them with everything from vaccination support to testing to more therapeutics.

MARTINEZ: Has there been any talk with any administration, or maybe at the CDC, about urging everyone to wear face masks again? You said masks are working or can work. Has there been any talk about making that a priority?

MURTHY: Well, certainly what the CDC has said is not only that masks work, but that if you are fully vaccinated, that the risk of you getting sick or transmitting the virus is low. Now, with that said, you know, people may make their own individual decisions here based on their circumstances. If you live at home with unvaccinated children, if you live in an area where there's a lot of vaccine spreading, you may choose to keep wearing masks. And I think that would be a prudent thing to strongly consider, especially with so much virus floating around. Counties, too, may make that decision to put mask requirements in place if they see cases rising again. I think that that is the safe and prudent thing to do in the face of a rapidly spreading delta variant.

MARTINEZ: That's Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, thank you very much.

MURTHY: Thank you so much. Take care, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.