AILSA CHANG, HOST:
July 4 - that is the deadline President Biden is setting to get 70% of American adults at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot. Biden is also pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to expand vaccine access and to bolster vaccine confidence. About a third of the country has been vaccinated so far.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The light at the end of the tunnel is actually growing brighter and brighter, so Americans have sacrificed and served to make this progress possible, showing the best of who we are as a people. We need you. We need you to bring it home, get vaccinated.
CHANG: But vaccination rates are dropping, and public health restrictions can't be lifted until a bigger portion of the country gets vaccinated. We're going to talk about all of this now with White House senior advisor for COVID response, Andy Slavitt.
ANDY SLAVITT: (Inaudible) for having me on, Ailsa.
CHANG: Thank you for being here. OK, so the president laid out a pretty long list of initiatives to get vaccination rates up. There's community outreach, walk-in appointments at pharmacies, education campaigns to build vaccine confidence. But I want to ask you right now about increasing access because this administration pointed out recently that something like 90% of Americans live within five miles of a vaccine site, and that by the end of this month, every adult in the U.S. who wants a vaccine can get one. So it feels like the White House is making it sound like access is not a problem right now. Why spend this kind of money to increase access?
SLAVITT: I think what we know now is that the people who are willing to do the hard work of finding a vaccine have pretty much had a chance to take their vaccines. And so now, what characterizes the people who are going to get vaccinated next are people who need it to be a whole lot easier because they're younger, perhaps. They may not have quite the same motivation. They're busy. Maybe COVID hasn't been as big a part of their existence because, you know, they haven't feared it as much.
And so for now, it's about easy, easy, easy. And so actually, the infrastructure investments we've been making and will continue to make, putting vaccines in more places, walk-in hours, and of course, the text line, which I think makes it super easy for anyone, whether they're young - all you need now is a mobile phone. And you just text to GETVAX or 438829, and you'll instantly see how you can get vaccinated.
CHANG: I mean, that sounds great, but let me ask you. Is getting 70% of the adult population at least one shot ambitious enough? I mean, that would be nowhere near herd immunity, which is necessary to effectively contain this virus, right?
SLAVITT: You're exactly right. It is not the end goal. But what the president is, I think - the habit - hopefully the country sees is that he likes to set goals. He likes to point the administration and the country to achieving these goals and these sort of bite-sized areas. Each one of them is significant. And the clinicians and the scientists tell us that at 70% of the adult population, we will be in an extraordinarily better position. And if we look over...
CHANG: And let me just point out, 70% of adults is only about 55% of the U.S. population.
SLAVITT: That's right. You know, what we're aiming for is what's happened really in Israel - and it's happened actually in parts of our country now, like San Francisco, where we've got over 70% vaccinated - where if someone were to get off an airplane from a country with the virus, the virus would have very few places to spread. And that's the goal, is to have more and more people vaccinated so the virus just dies out with the person who lands there.
What happened in New York last March was someone came into New York at some point in time with the virus, and it spread everywhere. The more people who get vaccinated, the less likely that's to be. And at 70% of the adult population, we're not going to stop, but it makes it much, much more difficult for the virus.
CHANG: Well, let's talk about herd immunity. We keep hearing this phrase. Are you concerned that herd immunity might not ultimately be possible here in the U.S.? Because a growing number of public health experts are saying it may be out of reach. What do you think?
SLAVITT: Well, we're used to kind of the herd immunity we have from things like the measles, which means that a measles outbreak is very unlikely to happen in the U.S. And I think that (ph) we're going to be facing in the U.S. is a slightly different situation, which is community by community. If you have communities in the country where you have 70, 80, 85% of the people vaccinated, which I think we will have, the chances of an outbreak there are going to be very, very low.
But if there are parts of the country where maybe 50% of the population's been vaccinated, they're going to be at some risk that there will be outbreaks. And we know they could occur so seasonally. They could occur with vaccinations. They could occur with travel. And so your local community - it's why it's important to invest in making sure that people have the information they need to decide to get vaccinated.
CHANG: Yeah. Well, if we don't get to herd immunity, one risk is we could see more variants, which can be more infectious, more deadly than even what we're seeing now. What do you make of that particular risk, the risk of new variants should we never get to herd immunity?
SLAVITT: I think that's - I think you're exactly right, Ailsa. You know, I think Americans can just look to India and look at Brazil and say, if we didn't have the vaccination program we have here - those countries, which have very deadly or contagious variants, are out of control. And we shouldn't be so arrogant as to think that that wouldn't be us, that it actually does take the work we're doing in order to put us in a situation where we have less risk.
Now, I'm buoyed by the fact that not everybody makes a decision the same way. You know, for those of us who made the decision very quickly to get vaccinated, it's sometimes hard to understand the people who'd like to have more information. And there are simply a group of people who want to see what happens when more people get vaccinated. And fortunately, today, you've got 150 million people who have been vaccinated. And so I'm confident that many of those people, as they look at that information, evaluate it, will choose to get vaccinated as well.
CHANG: In the last minute and a half we have left, I want to talk about the plan to get 12 to 15-year-olds vaccinated as soon as the FDA issues an emergency use authorization. How quickly do you think you can get these kids vaccinated if that EUA comes through?
SLAVITT: Well, we are obviously planning as if that EUA is going to come through. Obviously, it's important to say that the Food and Drug Administration will make their own decisions, so this shouldn't be interpreted as pressuring them to make that decision. But if in fact they do, which we expect they will, we will have vaccination capabilities all over the country using the infrastructure we have. Of course, pediatricians are a vital part of this decision for parents and for kids. And so pediatricians will be able to do vaccinations in their clinics, schools and everywhere people go. And we really should make an effort to continue to vaccinate younger people so they can enjoy their summer activities without fear.
CHANG: How realistic do you think it is that 12 to 15-year-olds will get vaccinated before the end of this summer, before the next school year starts?
SLAVITT: I think we'll have every capability. I think the question will really come down to the parents and the kids themselves. Parents understand why it's important for them to get vaccinated, I think we'll have no problem meeting that deadline (ph). If there are parents who say, you know, I don't want my kids to get vaccinated and that's a large enough percentage, then we'll be dealing with that issue very much like we'll deal with the issue among adults.
CHANG: All right. That is White House senior adviser for COVID response, Andy Slavitt.
Thank you very much for joining us today.
SLAVITT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.