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Surgeon General Vivek Murphy Discusses Traveling After Getting Vaccinated

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Where are we in this pandemic? On Friday, 4 million people were vaccinated, and the CDC now says those who are fully vaccinated are safe to travel, but - and there is always a but - it still recommends avoiding nonessential travel because case numbers are on the rise in the United States. In Michigan, for example, hospitalizations are up 53% from a week ago.

We're joined now by Vivek Murthy, the new surgeon general of these United States. Welcome back to the program, now in your new job.

VIVEK MURTHY: Thank you so much, Lulu. It's good to be with you today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are we on track to meet President Biden's goal to have all Americans eligible to be vaccinated by May 1? Is the supply and distribution on track?

MURTHY: Well, Lulu, the vaccine distribution effort is one of the bright spots of the larger coronavirus response effort. And yes, we are on track to meet the larger goal that the president set of 200 million shots delivered and administered by his first 100 days in office.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the idea that all Americans will be eligible to get the vaccine by May 1 - you think that's going to happen as well?

MURTHY: I do think that's going to happen. And, in fact, I think much of it will happen even earlier. I think by April 19, the anticipation is that 90% of adults will be eligible to receive a vaccine depending on which state they're in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about this moment in the pandemic because we are getting conflicting messaging from the public health leadership in this country. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said this past week that she felt a sense of impending doom about the new surge in cases. But Dr. Anthony Fauci told NPR on Friday he doesn't think a fourth wave is going to happen. Which is it, in your view?

MURTHY: Well, Lulu, this is a time where a lot of progress has happened, and we, I think, have seen a reduction in cases and in deaths in part because of a successful vaccination effort that's still ongoing. But there are signs that are concerning. Cases are going up. Hospital admissions are ticking up. Test positivity is rising. And some states, like Michigan and New Jersey and South Dakota and Pennsylvania, are being particularly hard-hit.

So these are worrisome signs that we could be headed for another surge, but it's not guaranteed. And, in fact, it is what we do in the days and weeks ahead that will determine whether we experience that surge. And the two essential things, Lulu, that we have to do are, No. 1, get vaccinated as soon as you're able to, and two, continue to adhere to these precautions that we've been working on for the last year to prevent spread, including wearing a mask, avoiding indoor gatherings and washing your hands, especially when you go out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course, as you know, when we talk about surges, what we really mean is individuals getting sick and dying. What is driving this spike, in your view?

MURTHY: Well, I believe it's a combination, Lulu, of having variants in this country - one in particular, B.1.1.7, as it's called, a variant first detected in the U.K. - that is more contagious and may, in fact, be more deadly as well. But we saw B.1.1.7 drive increased spread in the U.K., in Europe, and now that seems to be happening here. B.1.1.7, this variant, has also dramatically increased in terms of the percentage of infections that it represents here in the United States.

But as concerning as all of this is - and keep in mind that the development of new variants is one of the reasons why we are so intent on trying to keep that number of infections down because the more people who are infected, the more possibility there is that new, more dangerous variants will develop that could potentially evade a vaccine, and we want to avoid that at all costs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This brings up an important question, though. I was speaking with Tom Bollyky of the Council on Foreign Relations about the vaccination campaign. And his concern is that the spike is being driven in part by the fact that the U.S. is vaccinating lots of people, but many of the most high-risk people are still going unvaccinated. I mean, 50 million people over 50 still haven't been vaccinated. Vaccinating those folks, who are disproportionately people of color, would prevent many more deaths than vaccinating lots of low-risk younger people, wouldn't it? I mean, has the administration's effort to vaccinate big numbers come at the expense of getting the shots into the right arms to end this crisis?

MURTHY: It's a really good question, Lulu, and you're absolutely right that what we want to do, first and foremost, is prevent deaths. And that means vaccinating people who are at highest risk. There actually has been a focus on the elderly, which is why, at this point, we have vaccinated 74% of people 65 and up with at least one shot, and 53% of them are fully vaccinated.

We have also focused heavily on making sure that vaccines can get to communities of color, to rural communities which are traditionally underserved and don't get the kind of resources they typically need. Now, we have much more work to do because we still have a gap and inequity that we've got to fix. But that's why success in this vaccination campaign for us is determined not just how many people you vaccinate but also how fairly you vaccinate, how equitably the vaccine is actually distributed and administered.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, that's my question...

MURTHY: Yeah, I remember saying to the...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Because May - the - is the May 1...

MURTHY: Oh, go ahead.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm so sorry, but is the May 1 promise too soon considering who is most at risk?

MURTHY: Well, what we're finding, Lulu, is that states are making different decisions here on how quickly they open up depending on their demand. But regardless of what states are doing, what the federal government is doing to make sure that vaccine supply and administration get to the hardest-hit communities is it's setting up community vaccination centers in hard-hit communities. It's supplied millions of doses to community health centers, which predominantly are getting vaccines to communities of color.

It's also setting up mobile units that are already going around the country to communities that typically don't have access to the health care system, and we've got to continue to ramp that up. It's also why we launched, this week, a public education campaign to particularly make sure we're getting the messages out to communities where rates of vaccine concern and hesitancy are high. All of these strategies together, we hope, will help us close that equity gap.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. Thank you very much.

MURTHY: Thank you so much, Lulu. Good to be with you today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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