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As U.S. cases drop, surgeon general warns COVID has been underestimated before

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, is back with us again. Surgeon General, welcome back.

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, thanks, Steve, it's good to be back with you again.

INSKEEP: You heard some of the frustrations of businesses there. Is a mandate really necessary at this time?

MURTHY: Well, Steve, first of all, I certainly understand the frustrations people may have. But what we have to keep in mind here is that the real burden that we've been facing in workplaces has been from COVID itself. We've had so many people who have gotten sick, who have had to quarantine and be out of work. We also have an extraordinary burden that's been placed on our health care workers as a result of so many waves of COVID that we've been through. And that's why we have health care workers burning out in record numbers with wave after wave. So if we really want to safeguard our workers, if we want to create safer workplaces, getting people vaccinated is actually the best pathway to go down. And we know that the vaccination requirements are actually very effective in significantly boosting vax rates. They actually - about 20% is the average increase that we see in vaccination rates when a workplace has a requirement. And ultimately, this will help us accelerate our pathway out of the pandemic.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about that pathway. Cases are sharply on the decline in the United States. I suppose somebody looking at those numbers might make a case, we've got this, we're OK, we're going to be OK, it's almost over now. But let me ask if that's true. If more people don't get vaccinated, is there a risk of another wave in the United States like they're experiencing in Europe right now?

MURTHY: Yeah, it's a really important point because a number of times in the past 20 months, we have underestimated this virus. I still remember when the first wave began to come down and people said, oh, this is all over. What we have to recognize is a couple things. While it is a good thing that cases have come down from their peak of the delta wave, there are still around 70,000 cases happening a day. That is a very high number. We still have well over a thousand people who are losing their life every day to this virus. That's extraordinarily high. But we also have to remember that in order to ultimately protect ourselves in the months ahead, getting people vaccinated is the right pathway. Now, we've made a huge amount of progress, Steve - 190 million people fully vaccinated in the United States, 28 million more who are now eligible because kids 5 through 11 now can get a vaccine. But we still have 60 million-plus people who are not vaccinated. They remain vulnerable to COVID-19.

INSKEEP: And, of course, we've got 5- and 11-year-olds who had not been vaccinated at all until now, but that's been approved. And a lot of parents are going to be spending this weekend looking for shots for their kids. Is the supply there to meet the demand?

MURTHY: Yes, it is, Steve. The supply is there for the 28 million children who are now eligible in ages 5 through 11. And let me just say, Steve, this is an incredibly important and hopeful moment because for parents like me, you know, I have a 5-year-old son who's been waiting to get vaccinated - my wife and I have just been eager for this day - this is a moment where we now know we have a pathway to dramatically reducing the risk to our children because we can get them vaccinated. What I want to be careful about, though, Steve, is that people understand that even though we have now set up tens of thousands of channels for people to get the vaccine, we've been working hard with community providers, doctors, teachers and others to make sure people have accurate information, I want parents to know that we have to all collectively guard against misinformation, which is already flowing into people's inboxes, social media feeds and text threads. Make sure you get your questions answered from credible, scientific sources like your doctor, like your children's hospital, like the CDC.

INSKEEP: Well, how would you help parents think through the risks and benefits then?

MURTHY: Well, I'll tell you how I thought about it as a parent because, you know, first and foremost for all of us, you know, we may have different hats, I may be a surgeon general, I may be a doctor, but I'm first and foremost a parent when it comes to these kind of decisions. Here's what I thought about. No. 1 - the risk of COVID to children is not zero. It's not negligible. We've had thousands of children hospitalized. Hundreds of children have lost their lives, millions have been infected over the last 20 months. And the delta wave is particularly contagious. So we recognize that. No. 2 - recognize that the vaccine is actually very effective, more than 90% effective in reducing the risk of children getting symptomatic COVID. So that was important for my wife and I to see. And third is safety. Anything we give to our children, we want to make sure that the safety is strong, that it's assured.

We found in the trials and looking closely at the data that the FDA reviewed carefully is that the side effects that were seen were soreness in the arm, fatigue, headache, fever. These lasted for one to two days, typically disappeared, leaving children with protection. There were no serious adverse effects seen. All of that together was very reassuring, as well as the fact that this went through a rigorous review process by the FDA and the CDC. And they held this vaccine to the same standards they hold the other vaccines that we give our children. So that's why my wife and I decided to get our 5-year-old son vaccinated.

INSKEEP: We've discussed this a little bit on the air, but let me raise it again because people keep coming at me on Twitter about heart problems. Can you give us the evidence there?

MURTHY: Sure. So in the clinical trials done with several thousand children for 5 through 11, there were no cases of myocarditis seen. That is the inflammation of the heart muscle that some people are asking about. By contrast, what we know is that when people get COVID-19, they in fact have a risk of having heart complications, including myocarditis. So that was also important and reassuring to see in the data.

INSKEEP: Just got about 10 seconds left, Surgeon General. My 6-year-old has actually been asking, when do I get my shot? What about me? How about your 5-year-old? Is your 5-year-old actually eager to get the shot or not so eager?

MURTHY: Well, my 5-year-old doesn't love shots in general, but he knows that this is going to help end the COVID pandemic, and that's what he keeps asking me. Papa, when is coronavirus going away? So we're going to be taking him very soon.

INSKEEP: Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, thank you very much, always a pleasure talking with you.

MURTHY: Thanks so much, Steve. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.