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The Delta Variant Forces The Biden Administration To Update Preventive Strategies

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's discuss this now with Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general of the United States. Surgeon general, welcome back to the program.

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, thanks so much, Steve. It's good to be with you this morning.

INSKEEP: I want to mention a couple of numbers. And this is from a CDC website. June 28, the CDC recorded about 9,000 new cases in the United States, which is pretty good compared to the past. One month later, July 28, we went from 9,000 new cases to 86,000 new cases. So it's growing exponentially. We know from the past that this virus spreads exponentially. Do you have to assume this will get even worse over the next few weeks?

MURTHY: Well, Steve, this significant increase in cases that we're seeing is being driven by the delta variant. And it will likely continue to increase further until it gets better. But how far it goes up and how long it takes, ultimately, to come back down does depend in part on how we respond to this. One of the reasons the CDC recently recommended that we step up our precautions, particularly with masks, is because the mitigation measures that we take, like wearing masks, are what work in the short term to reduce the spread. The vaccinations that we have to get take several weeks, ultimately, to kick in. And we certainly need to do that to keep cases down.

INSKEEP: Do you face a public messaging problem in that you would like to deliver very simple messages to the public, but you are urging people to take precautions even though they're vaccinated, to wear masks in some circumstances even if they don't have to in others? You're forcing people to think a lot here.

MURTHY: Yes. Well, you know, sometimes public health and pandemics can be complicated. And COVID-19 has certainly been a very complex one. We've been learning a lot over the last 18 months about this virus while trying to simultaneously respond to it. But one thing has not changed during this past many months as we've dealt with the different variants, and that's that the vaccines that we are blessed to have are so powerfully effective at saving lives and preventing severe infection and hospitalizations. That is still true. It is still the most important reason why people should get vaccinated. And it's also why we've seen a dramatic reduction in deaths from the peak that we saw with this pandemic back in January.

But, yes, there is new data that we discovered several days ago before the CDC issued its guidance, which indicated that in the unusual case where people have breakthrough infections with the delta virus, they do seem to be able to transmit to other people. And that is different from what we had seen with the alpha variant and other variants. And that was the reason the CDC recommended that people put masks back on, even if they're fully vaccinated, when they're in public indoor settings, especially in areas where there are substantial or high transmission of virus, because that will help reduce the transmission of virus further, particularly for people who've got vulnerable or unvaccinated folks at home, like I do and many other parents do with young kids.

INSKEEP: I do, too. You mentioned that this data was discovered several - were discovered several days ago. Should - how many days ago? And should the CDC have been spreading the information sooner?

MURTHY: Well, the CDC actually acted very quickly on this information. They didn't take weeks, it was in the order of days. And so I think that they acted quickly when they saw that data regarding transmission in breakthrough infections. I think one of the challenges that we have faced throughout this pandemic is how to make sure that the public is informed about evidence that is growing and sometimes shifting over time. The fact that these guidance measures change is actually a reflection of the fact that the science is changing. And that's actually what you want. You want, you know, your recommendations and conclusions to change based on the data. But communicating that isn't always the simplest thing to do. And we've got to be as clear as we can. We've got to communicate through as many channels as we can. And it's also why local messengers, local doctors, local nurses, are so important in this effort, because the more credible messengers you have, the better, especially...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MURTHY: ...In the face of all the misinformation we have swirling around out there.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Let's talk about the quality of the information briefly. Earlier this week, we had Scott Gottlieb on the program, the former head of the FDA, as you know. And he was telling Noel that he was concerned that the CDC data is not really showing how severe this surge really is. As bad as it looks, he thinks it may look worse. Let's listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: It's about, maybe, 80 million Americans that are unvaccinated and remain vulnerable to this infection. Probably a lot of them have now been infected with this delta wave. We probably have a lot more infection in the states where vaccination rates are low than what we're picking up.

INSKEEP: Do you think that's true, that it may be even worse than it looks?

MURTHY: Well, I think we certainly have more cases than the number that we're counting. And here's the reason why, because we realize that there's a lot of under-testing going on, especially in areas that are hard-hit by delta, which have low vaccination rates. You know, what we need is for people to make sure that if people have symptoms that they're getting tested. And - but we realize that that's not happening in a lot of places. And so what the CDC has been doing is actually working with the rest of the administration to send surge response teams in to help states and localities and beef up their testing so that detection can actually be better.

This is a challenge, actually, we've seen throughout the pandemic, that there are often more infections than what our tests turn up, again, because of under-testing. So it's yet another reason, Steve, for us to be very cautious, recognizing the delta variant is different. It's more contagious. It generates higher viral loads. It's much more easily spread. And it's what's driving these numbers up. And so we've got to be humble. We've got to recognize there's stuff we are still learning about this virus and take the appropriate precautions, including getting vaccinated. It's what's ultimately going to help us turn the pandemic around.

INSKEEP: Which is, of course - yeah. Which is, of course, the nature of science - you keep learning new things. Now, you said we have to be cautious. We're reporting elsewhere today about employers struggling with questions like whether to mandate vaccines, whether to give incentives for vaccines. In the moment we have left, what advice would you give employers and employees struggling with those questions?

MURTHY: Well, a few key things, I would say - No. 1, anything you can do as an employer to support your staff in getting vaccinated, please do, giving them time off, putting, you know, measures in place to support them, you know, to get information about where to get vaccinated. I would also say, make sure you take masks seriously. And, you know, if you're in an area with high or substantial transmission, having masks back in the workplace is important. And finally, give your employees flexibility. This is a challenging time for a lot of folks. It's been very stressful. Giving that opportunity to still work from home when they need to have flexible work arrangements is going to be critical to supporting our workforce.

INSKEEP: Should employers seriously consider mandating vaccines full stop?

MURTHY: Well, I think it's very reasonable for them to consider that. Absolutely. We all need to be doing everything we can to get our community vaccinated. It's the best way to protect ourselves against COVID and end this pandemic.

INSKEEP: Dr. Murthy, thank you very much.

MURTHY: Thank you so much, Steve. Take care.

INSKEEP: Vivek Murthy is the surgeon general of the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVV'S "BLUE VIEW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.