Surgeon General discusses variants, masks, and immunity

Surgeon General discusses variants, masks, and immunity
Published: Jun. 29, 2021 at 2:27 PM CDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy connects with Washington Bureau Reporter Kyle Midura for an in-depth, one-on-one discussion surrounding the latest coronavirus developments.

They discuss how the Delta variant is complicating efforts to reach herd immunity, politics and vaccine hesitancy, as well as booster shots and guidance for pregnant women. You can watch their full conversation in the video player above and a transcript is available below.


Kyle Midura – Gray TV Washington Bureau:

Want to start off, right off the bat, with whether the Delta variant is wiping out all the gains we’ve seen in this country when it comes to vaccination?

Surgen General Dr. Vivek Murthy:

Well, Kyle, am glad you brought up the Delta variant. I’m very concerned about the Delta variant. it’s more transmissible, possibly more dangerous than other variants we’ve seen before.

But the good news is that if you are vaccinated then you have reason to feel good, because the studies that we have seen to date -- and again we’re waiting to get more and more data – but the studies we’ve seen to date indicate that the mRNA vaccines seem to be quite effective against the Delta variant. And, we’ve good reason to believe that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be quite effective as well.

The bad news is if you are not vaccinated because there were finding that this virus is spreading more easily than any version of the virus that we have seen before. It’s not wiping out the gains that we made from this vaccination campaign because we have vaccinated millions of people in this country. We have administered more than 320-million doses of the vaccine in the last six to seven months, which is an extraordinary number, and the result of that is it we’ve seen a 95% reduction in cases since the January peak. We’ve seen deaths plummet, among the elderly an 80% reduction in deaths. And, we’ve seen people start to get back to their way of life.

So, I don’t think that we are going to go back to January because we’ve got millions of people protected but I do worry about those who are not vaccinated because they are vulnerable, to this Delta variant, it’s why we want everyone to get vaccinated as quickly as possible, so you can be protected from this virus.


Obviously, were all hoping to get to herd immunity one day or another but we have seen the needle move on where we expected the percent population that is vaccinated needing to be in order to get to that point. I think a recent study put it at like 97% for it for the Delta variant. We have seen a handful of states over 80% - is there a ballpark figure that that were aiming for and you could be confident in achieving heard immunity?


Well, I’m glad you brought this up, Kyle, and I’ll tell you that personally I never really liked using herd immunity and a specific number as a as a benchmark here, and, for the following reason.

We don’t actually know the exact number, you know, it’s based on the characteristics of the virus and that you know has been evolving and changing. But here’s what we do know for sure: the more people we get vaccinated, the more we see cases decline, the more we’re able to save lives. If you look at communities that have had an 80% or so vaccination rate, what you’re seeing is that they have been relatively protected against outbreaks with Delta and with other variants.

And so, this is not like a switch that you flip on and off in terms of herd immunity, it’s more of a scale where the more you get vaccinated the more benefit you see. And, that’s what we’re already seeing. So, the proof is sort of in the pudding if you will.

We’ve demonstrated this in many states across the country, but my worry Kyle, is that we have many parts of our country, that still do not have high vaccination rates. And, in moments like this, when we have a new variant that’s much more transmissible, they are at risk.

And so, we’ve got to do everything we can not only to get vaccinated ourselves, but to turn to our family and friends and to ask them if they’ve been vaccinated and if they haven’t, then ask them if there’s any information you could provide them that would help them make that decision. Help them go to and find a place that’s close to them where they can actually get vaccinated on their schedule. That is how we’re going to protect our country, by setting up to get vaccinated and help those around us to get protected as well.


Those states that have had lower vaccination rates -- I know you’re hesitant to portray them as red states or states that voted for President Trump, but that is correlated. President Biden recently toured a North Carolina vaccination clinic, the first lady undertook similar efforts, are you seeing efforts like those, trips like those, actually moving the needle when it comes to then looking at the vaccination rate in those areas down the road? I know you’ve had an emphasis on going more and more local in order for folks to get over hesitancy and be more confident making that choice.


Well Kyle, I’m glad you asked because this is a really important point you’re making: what is the effective strategy here? The thing that we have learned over the last many months is there’s no single strategy that’s going to get our country vaccinated. We’re a big country with different messengers people listen to, different people they trust, different institutions, they are moved by different things. And, some people need information, other people are wondering if it’s still important for them to get vaccinated. Other people have challenges with access to the vaccine. So, what we have to do, is build multiple strategies that address the needs people have, that are tailored to their concerns.

That’s why you see a variety of a pathways from people in the administration visiting communities across the country, to -- more so I would say -- us working with local messengers, doctors and nurses in communities, faith leaders, local employers, teachers and others in communities who are knocking on doors, who are making phone calls and texting people in their community to remind them of the importance of getting vaccinated. We think that local strategy, Kyle, is going continue to be really important. Because, we want people to hear from folks they know and that they trust, people who understand what their concerns may be. We’ve just got to make sure we’re continuing this effort, because, again, we can’t stop until we’ve got high vaccination rates everywhere.

And, I just want to lastly emphasize, to me, this is not you know about politics this is about meeting people where they are. And, it’s one thing -- I was trained as a doctor not to look at people’s political affiliation or their faith background, anything, but to just see them as human beings who all want the same thing. Which is, to be protected, to do well in terms of their health, and to make sure family’s healthy as well.

I still believe that’s what all of us one in this country, but what we’ve got to do is listen to people first, understand what their concerns are, treat them with respect, answer their questions and then make sure that they’ve got access to the vaccines when they make that decision, and get vaccinated as quickly as possible.


There’s a new trial set to look at pregnancy and vaccination. At this point is there any evidence to suggest that a vaccination would affect folks’ ability to get pregnant, affect the pregnancy itself, or affect young ‘ins or mothers after a birth takes place?


It’s a good question, Kyle, and it really hits home for me as a parent of young kids who are three and four, I still remember very clearly the times when my wife was pregnant and how protective I was over her health. And, I get that for anyone who is considering you know having a child or is pregnant right now, that you want to make sure that whatever you get is safe, for you and for your baby.

The good news here is that in following pregnant women who’ve gotten a vaccine, and there have been many pregnant women -- including doctors and nurses who have chosen to get this vaccine over the course of the last 6, 7 months. But, the good news is that we keep getting feedback from the data that pregnant women do well and that their babies do well. And, this includes breast-feeding moms. And, so we’ll continue to follow that data very closely, but everything we have seen to-date is reassuring.

And, there’s one other credible thing for a pregnant women to know, and for those who are looking out for them, which is that the impacts of Covid on you if you’re pregnant and on a developing child are actually significant. We’ve learned that there are worse outcomes in women who are pregnant than those who are not if they get Covid.

And so, the bottom line here is that there is a significant risk if you are pregnant or considering getting pregnant. to getting Covid during your pregnancy and the best way to protect against that is the vaccine. That’s why we’re recommending that pregnant women highly consider the vaccine. If you’ve got questions about it talk to your doctor to make sure it’s the right choice for you but it’s already protected many women in our country from getting sick and has protected their babies as well.


I imagine that you’re going to tell me that the federal government is not about to move in the direction of a of a mask mandate as we’re seeing LA County move in that direction. What is the hesitancy there and would your direction to the country be different than the direction you might give to friends or family in that regard?


The direction that the CDC has provided on masking was based on the science and evidence that they saw which indicated that if you are vaccinated, that your likelihood of either getting ill or transmitting the virus to other people, is really quite low. And, that’s why they felt comfortable saying that fully vaccinated people, that’s again two weeks after your last dose of the vaccine, can be without a mask in indoor and outdoor settings.

Now, there may be some people who are in higher risk categories or who have a different level of risk tolerance or who may live at home with people who are unvaccinated, who may decide, I still want, out of abundance of caution, to continue to wear masks.’ That’s perfectly fine. We’re all going to make our own decisions here.

There are also some jurisdictions and localities which may decide to move in a direction of requirements around masks if they have relatively low vaccination rates or are seeing significant outbreaks in their population. That’s okay too, because we want to make sure that the jurisdictions have the flexibility to respond to their local needs.

But, the C.D.C.’s guidance was based on what the science was telling them which again, is that if you are fully vaccinated, that your risk of getting sick or transmitting it to others is low.


Finally sir, when it comes to the question of boosters - probably don’t have the data yet, but is there a timeline that you have in mind for when some of these studies that are ongoing might produce results? And, is there reason to believe that there might be substantial differences in durability between the various vaccines?


It’s a really important scientific and public health question, Kyle, and you’re absolutely right that we are following a number of cohorts of individuals to see what the protection of the vaccine is in terms of timeframe, what the durability of that protection is.

And the good news is that at the six month mark, a we have seen that with the vast majority of vaccines people have gotten in this country -- which are the mRNA vaccines -- that protection is still robust and we expect that will continue for a number of months past that.

But, really, time will tell you know, when that protection starts to wane. So, what we can do is follow people very closely, be on the lookout for any possible uptick in infection rates among those who are vaccinated, and if we see that uptick, anything that might indicate protection is starting to wane, that’s the point at which we would consider recommending a booster.

But know this also, if a booster is needed we’ve already been working hard to make sure that the supply will be there. But again, the sciences have to dictate when that booster is needed, and if and when it is, we will be prepared to deliver it to people.

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