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CDC Director Rochelle Walensky On Coronavirus Variants And Vaccinations

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Fifty thousand baseball fans showed up to see the Dodgers play the Phillies last week. The Foo Fighters drew a full-capacity crowd, all vaccinated, to New York's Madison Square Garden on Sunday. And tomorrow, the first major cruise ship will set sail from Fort Lauderdale. Even as the nation returns to life as it once was, thousands of people are still dying of COVID every week. And in unvaccinated pockets of the country, the delta variant of the virus is taking hold. So here to talk about the challenges that remain, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Thanks so much, Audie. Great to be here.

CORNISH: I want to talk about that delta variant. It's more contagious - potentially more dangerous strain of the coronavirus. But more importantly, it makes up to 20% of cases nationwide at this point. And that's doubled in just a few weeks. So what's your concern as this is beginning to spread?

WALENSKY: Yeah, that's exactly right. So we have been doing genomic surveillance now for a while and have a really good window as to the variants that are circulating here in the United States. About a month ago, we were seeing the delta variant at about 2- to 3%. Two weeks ago, we were seeing it at about 9- to 10%. And this last...

CORNISH: And this is assuming that we're - the testing is good enough that we know the true infection rate. I mean, do you think that's the case?

WALENSKY: Oh, that's a really good point. We have scaled up our genomic sequencing in an extraordinary fashion just in the last six months. So I do believe that we're sequencing enough to have quite a good window as to what's going on here in this country. And more recently, our - we're seeing that the delta variant makes up about 20% of virus circulating and up to 30-, 40-, 50% in some regions of the United States.

As you noted, the things that we worry about with this variant specifically is not only how quickly it is scaling up - and what we've seen in the U.K. is, you know, it really has taken over as the predominant variant, which I expect to happen - but it really is more transmissible. And early data actually suggest it may actually lead to more severe disease as well.

CORNISH: So what's your concern when you look at, say, vaccination rates among people under the age of 25? How do you convince those groups in particular that they're still vulnerable?

WALENSKY: Well, you know, anybody is vulnerable to coronavirus. And so we really do need to make sure that we get vaccine to people who are unvaccinated. We do know that younger people have not had as long of an opportunity to be vaccinated as our older people who were eligible first. And what we really do need to do is figure out ways to talk to these young folks and ensure that they understand, not just about the severity of the disease, about the morbidity and mortality related to the disease, but about the implications of long COVID.

You know, what we have seen and the data have shown us is that the young folks are not getting hospitalized or die at the same rate of older people. But young people shouldn't die at the same rate of older people. And we do have - we have seen, for example, just in the last month that there have been over 300 deaths among people ages 20 to - 12 to 29. And that is - that shouldn't happen in that demographic, which is why we really want to get people vaccinated.

CORNISH: I want to jump in here because it's not just about the vaccinated people. Studies in England - the unvaccinated, I mean. Because there are studies in England that have shown one shot isn't enough to give full protection against the delta variant. And there's some - I think I'm reading 27 million people in the U.S. who are still only half vaccinated; either still waiting for their second shot or who maybe decided one shot was enough. What's your message to them?

WALENSKY: Right. So thank you for raising that. My message is to please get your second shot. So what we do know is you get some protection from the first shot. But really, that second shot gives you breadth and depth of vaccine coverage to really be able to tackle this delta variant and other variants as well. And as you note, data from the U.K. show that one shot is really not working as well to stave off, especially, the delta variant and you really do need that second shot. So we are really encouraging people not only to get their first, but to get their second. And if you didn't, if you missed your second within the time window, get it whenever - get it now. But do get that second shot.

CORNISH: Is it clear how helpful that is? When you look at a country like Israel, where the variant accounts for 90% of new cases there - in cases where people had been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine. I mean, they reimposed indoor mask requirements. Looking at our map, we've got states that aren't doing that now. So what are your concerns?

WALENSKY: So I do think we have more to learn about this delta variant, but here's what I'll say. It is the case that if you're vaccinated, we believe you actually have quite good protection against the delta variant. But nothing is foolproof. What we do know is that if you have been vaccinated, you are far less likely to have severe disease, to have - to result in death and also to be able to transmit to others. So yes, perhaps we're seeing breakthrough infections at a higher rate than we would like to see, but we're also seeing that if you've been vaccinated, you have less severe disease, less transmission and less death.

CORNISH: President Biden has said the variant is unlikely to force the U.S. into another lockdown situation. Looking at a state like, say, Missouri that has low vaccination numbers and climbing cases, are you guys going to be urging local leaders to put mask mandates back in place or social distancing requirements back in place?

WALENSKY: Right. So that's a really great question. We are encouraging all local areas to look at their vaccination rates, to look at the case rates and to make their policies that - with those both in mind. It may very well...

CORNISH: So if they've got no mask mandate or no social distancing and they're like, we've only got a few people in the hospital but a low vaccination rate, is that a recipe that you want?

WALENSKY: Well, that would be - if you have low cases, then the answer there is to make sure you scale up your vaccination rates. If you also have high cases, then we might encourage states to take the mitigation strategies that we know work to decrease the number of cases and increase the vaccination rate. For the most part, CDC has said since its initial mask guidance for fully vaccinated people that if you are not vaccinated, you should continue the standard mitigation strategies - distancing, handwashing and masking - that we know work to protect people.

CORNISH: In our final few seconds - even if you wanted to, do you think you could convince anyone to go back into lockdown? I mean, politically, it was tough.

WALENSKY: Yeah. I think my job is to make sure that the public is safe. And so we have many strategies, many tools in our toolbox now to be able to do that. Vaccine is certainly one of them. And I think we have continued work ahead of us to get into these communities and to let people - give people the information they need so that they know vaccine is the best protection for them.

CORNISH: That's Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thank you for your time.

WALENSKY: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM, DIPLO, AND HRISHIKESH HIRWAY'S SONG, "MOTION MMXX -- I") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.