Press Briefing by White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Officials
MR. ZIENTS: Good morning, everyone. A week ago, in our first COVID response briefing, we committed to providing you with transparent science-based and up-to-date information about the pandemic. I hope that five briefings in, we’re starting to establish a pattern of providing the American people with the facts they need about the crisis and our response, driven by our experts and scientists.
We act every day based on the fact that we already have more than 440,000 fellow Americans who have died, 26 million Americans infected, and our ways of life totally upended.
In his first full day in office, President Biden laid out a comprehensive national strategy to defeat this virus and get back to our way of life. On vaccinations, President Biden put it simply when he said, “We need to increase vaccine supply and get it out the door as fast as possible. We need to mobilize more medical units to get more shots in people’s arms. And we need to create more places where Americans can get vaccinated.”
The President set a goal to deliver 100 million shots in his first 100 days. Today I want to give you an update on our execution against that goal.
We will also hear a state-of-the-pandemic update from Dr. Walensky and an update on the latest science from Dr. Fauci. We will then open it up for questions.
Since entering office two weeks ago, the Biden administration has taken aggressive steps to activate the full resources of the federal government to improve our vaccination supply. First, we have increased vaccine supply to states, tribes, and territories by over 20 percent. Second, we are providing visibility on supply on a rolling three-week basis so governors and local leaders have the ability to plan and maximize the number of needles in arms. Third, we secured the equipment required to extract a sixth dose from every Pfizer vial of vaccine. And fourth, we’re purchasing an additional 200 million doses to ensure that every American can get vaccinated.
And the data shows that we are making progress. As you can see on our vaccination progress report, our seven-day average daily doses administered is, as you can see in the dark blue bar on the right, now averaging over 1.3 million shots per day for the period from January 27th through February 2nd. We are on track to meet the President’s goal of 100 million shots in 100 days.
Notably, yesterday, the Department of Veterans Affairs delivered its one-millionth shot, ensuring those who served our country are among the first protected from this deadly virus.
We are encouraged by this progress to increase supply, but we will continue to push for every opportunity to do more. At the President’s directions, we have an all-of-government effort to provide all Americans with access to get more places to get vaccinated. Americans need more access to more places to get vaccinated.
Today I want to update you on establishing and supporting community vaccination centers across the country. These centers are helping to provide new, more efficient places for people to get vaccinated.
First, the federal government is expediting financial support to bolster community vaccination sites nationwide, including in states like Georgia, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. As of today, FEMA has provided more than $1.7 billion to 27 states, localities, tribes, and territories. This funding covers critical steps in the vaccination process, including transportation and storage equipment, supplies needed to administer vaccines, and safety equipment like PPE and masks.
Second, we’re deploying personnel to provide technical assistance to support vaccination sites nationwide and provide additional staff from the federal government. FEMA has already assigned over 600 staff to this effort, including experts in logistics, IT, and registration, with over 350 of these staff deployed directly to the vaccination sites across the country.
The federal government is now supporting thousands of National Guard members who are providing support to sites in 39 states, including 800 trained vaccinators. And CDC is providing on-the-ground technical assistance in jurisdictions across the country.
And, third, we are building new community vaccination centers across the country. The Department of Defense will dedicate substantial personnel and resources to help manage many of these new sites.
The profile of these community vaccination sites will vary by community need. You’ll see big centers and stadiums, sites in school gyms and community centers, mobile units in rural areas and outer boroughs, pop-up sites in parking lots and other locations.
We are working with state and local health departments to meet the communities they serve, where they are, in places they know, with people they trust. And we’ll encourage all vaccination centers to collaborate with community-based organizations and others who can help communities with the greatest need.
Today I’m pleased to announce the federal government will partner with the state of California to launch two new community vaccination centers: one in East Oakland and the second in the east side of Los Angeles — two of the communities most hard hit by this pandemic.
In the east side of Los Angeles, we’ll launch a large site on the campus of California University — California State University-Los Angeles. This is one of the most diverse public universities in the country, serving a large Latino community. And we’re opening a new center at Oakland Coliseum adjacent to the communities of Eastmont and Elmhurst, which have some of the lowest health scores in the state.
Both centers will be staffed primarily by a federal workforce from agencies such as FEMA, DOD, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and HHS. In all of this work, we’re advancing equity. FEMA has partnered with CDC to launch vaccination sites that use processes and are located in places that promote equity, deploying CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index.
These sites in California are just the beginning. We are working with — in partnership in states across the country to stand up new sites, and we’ll have more to say on that in the coming weeks.
So, across the first two weeks, we’ve activated a whole-of-government response. We have increased vaccine supply, and we are ensuring that all Americans in every community have more places to get vaccinated.
Now let me turn to Dr. Walensky — Dr. Walensky for a state of the pandemic.
DR. WALENSKY: Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be back with you today, and I want to make sure we have time for questions, so I will be brief in my remarks.
As I said Monday, cases and hospital admissions continue to decrease, and we now appear to be in a consistent downward trajectory for both of these important outcomes. COVID-19 cases have declined steadily since hitting a peak on January 8th, dropping 13.4 percent to an average of nearly 144,000 cases per day from January 26th to February 1st. Cases are now back to the level we were before Thanksgiving.
Similarly, new hospital admissions have continued to decline since they peaked on January 5th, decreasing 4.1 percent to an average of approximately 11,400 admissions per day from January 25 to January 31.
While deaths have continued to increase, their pace appears to be slowing, with the average number of deaths increasing 1 percent to slightly more than 3,100 deaths per day from January 26th to February 1st.
And the recent decline in hospitalizations gives us hope that the number of deaths should start to decrease in the coming weeks.
Although we have seen declines in cases and admissions and a recent slowing of deaths, cases remain extraordinarily high — still twice as high as the peak number of cases over the summer. And the continued proliferation of variants — variants that likely have increased transmissibility, that spread more easily — threatens to reverse these recent trends.
Based on contact tracing and recent — of recent variant cases, not wearing masks and participating in in-person social gatherings have contributed to the variant spread. We must take prevention, intervention seriously. Now is not the time to let our guard down. Keep taking steps to protect each other: Wear a mask; maintain social distancing; avoid travel, crowds and poorly ventilated spaces. And please get vaccinated when it is your turn.
And this Sunday, remember: Whichever team you’re rooting for and whichever commercial is your favorite, please watch the Super Bowl safely, gathering only virtually or with the people you live with. The CDC recently posted guidance on how to safely enjoy the game.
Thank you. I’ll turn it to Dr. Fauci.
DR. FAUCI: Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky. I want to make just a couple of points related to questions and issues that have been brought up over the past couple of days to help clarify it, and I’ll be very brief.
We have heard from studies emanating out of the AstraZeneca platform that, in the UK, they’re talking about the possibility, since their data seems to show this, that if you prolong the interval between the first and second dose — in fact, even go with a single dose — you can get good results. And, in fact, the interval between the first and second dose can now be measured in months. With — according to their own data, that is actually a favorable response.
We certainly respect that the UK scientists and health officials are going by their data and letting their own data for their own platform dictate their policy. The question is asked often: “Then why don’t we do the same thing with our candidates that are now being distributed to people in the United States?” And the response is simple: We also are going very much by the data and the science that has emanated out of very large clinical trials. As you all are aware, the Moderna trial, with 30,000 people, and the Pfizer trial, with 44,000 people, indicate to us that maximum responses are given with a prime followed by a boost — 21 days with Pfizer and 28 days with Moderna.
Now, we know that sometimes, out of circumstances beyond the control of people, that they may not make it at exactly the day of 21 day and 28 day. And as we know from the CDC, under those special circumstances, that it is okay if you get the second dose in either four to six weeks later. That doesn’t mean that we want to do it at six weeks later. It means that under special circumstances, it’s better to delay that couple of weeks than not do it at all.
But we feel strongly that we will go by the science, which has dictated for us the optimal way to get the 94 to 95 percent response, which is, in fact, durable for the period of time that we’ve been following it.
One other thing I want to mention: We live in a global community, and it is encouraging to see that other countries are coming out with results from their own vaccine trial, such as the Russian trial that we heard about a day or two ago; the UK and European Union, which are now putting vaccines into people, according to the data that they’ve accumulated; the Chinese trials, et cetera.
We, in the United States, as I mentioned in a speech I gave a couple of weeks ago to the World Health Organization Executive Board, that we are back on the global scene. We reentered into our arrangement with the WHO, and we are part of COVAX.
So I just want to remind people that this is a global effort, and the more we get the virus controlled globally — and we will be part of that process as part of the global community — the better off we will be. Because I’ve said it many times, and I’ll close by saying it again: We have to be concerned about the mutants. Viruses will not mutate well if you don’t give them the opportunity to replicate in a very large way. Namely, if you have an open playing field for the virus, they will replicate, and they will mutate. The best way to prevent that is the implementation of the public health measures that Dr. Walensky just mentioned, both home and abroad, as well as the implementation of the administration of vaccines, as effectively and efficiently and as quickly as we possibly can.
So I’ll stop there and hand it back to Jeff.
MR. ZIENTS: Well, thank you, Dr. Fauci and Dr. Walensky. You have heard from our experts. I want to reiterate, we are at war with this virus. It is clearly a national emergency, and we are doing all we can.
But it is critical that Congress does its part as well. We need Congress to quickly pass the American Rescue Plan to provide the funding we need to continue to scale up our vaccination program, as well as for more testing, more genomic sequencing, and more emergency supplies. And we must give families, schools, businesses, and state and local leaders the support they need to fight the pandemic.
This will not be easy. Vaccinating everyone in America is one of the greatest operational challenges we’ve ever faced, and we will not stop working until this mission is complete.
With that, let’s take a few questions.
MODERATOR: For our first question, we’ll go to Weijia Jiang at CBS.
All right, we’ll go to the second question while we figure that out.
Second, we will go to Brenda Goodman at WebMD.
MODERATOR: Oh, Weijia, you’re there.
Q Oh, I’m sorry. Sorry about that. And thank you guys for having this briefing and for taking my questions. I have two, if you don’t mind.
The first one is about skepticism that remains around the vaccines, which you guys have all acknowledged. And just about 20 minutes ago, a new Monmouth poll shows about 50 percent of Americans plan to get the vaccine when they can, but 24 percent say it is likely they will never get it if they can avoid it. So, my question is: Are there any conditions under which you would recommend requiring a vaccine to access certain places like federal properties, schools, or to travel, like if we fail to reach herd immunity after a certain point, or if more variants continue to spread?
MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Walensky, do you want to weigh in here?
DR. WALENSKY: Yeah. Thank you for that question. I think it’s important to recognize that we have vaccine hesitancy here. We have to address that vaccine hesitancy at its roots and understand why people are hesitant.
I do believe that the more people who get this vaccine — we now have over 32 million who’ve received at least one dose — the more people will realize and recognize that it is being distributed and given safely and that the side effects really are minimal to moderate — minimal, really — with very rare risk of events that can be managed.
What I would say with regard to, you know, requiring: I think we can’t, sort of, be in a place where we’re thinking about making requirements for vaccination until we certainly have enough for the entire country, to make sure that that’s possible. So I would say, right now, it’s premature to think about those requirements. Our goal right now is to vaccinate as many people as we can.
Q Thank you so much. I just have a —
MR. ZIENTS: Let me see if Dr. Fauci has anything to add there. Dr. Fauci?
DR. FAUCI: No, I agree totally with what Dr. Walensky said, particularly the last part — is that when you’re talking about requirements, which we do have for some vaccines — you know, Rochelle and I both are physicians who practice medicine; we don’t do it in the hospital unless we get our influenza shot every year. That’s because we have plentiful vaccinations available. But it’s no time to talk about that now while we still have a great demand that outstrips the supply.
MR. ZIENTS: Good. Okay. Your second question?
Q Thank you. This is about vaccine supply actually, just to get some clarification about something Dr. Fauci said on Monday — that, you know, the U.S. should administer all the doses it has without holding any back, and then, ideally, in three weeks, prioritize people getting second doses. I know that vaccine production has ramped up, but has it increased enough so that you can give everyone their second dose and keep up the same pace for new vaccinations?
MR. ZIENTS: So as we talked about, I believe yesterday, we’ve steadily increased the amount of vaccine that we are sending to states. We are up over 20 percent now across the first two weeks. And important for states’ planning efforts, we are giving a minimum of three-week visibility into the next three weeks of shipments, which is something that we heard from governors and state and local leaders. We anticipate, as we work hard to monitor and help and assist the manufacturers, that we’ll continue to have supply increases. As you know, we’re also beginning to ramp up an initial phase with the pharmacies. I talked today about the community vaccination centers. That’s just the beginning of establishing new community vaccination centers.
So we are confident that there is going to be an increase in supply. And at the same time, we have the systems in place so that we can ensure that second doses will arrive at the third week mark for Pfizer, and at the fourth week mark for Moderna. And as you’ve just heard from the experts, from the doctors, it’s really important that people get their second doses and get their second doses is on time.
Q Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: All right. Next question, we’ll go to Brenda Goodman at WebMD.
Q Good morning. Can you hear me?
MR. ZIENTS: Yes.
Q Great. I wondered if we could get an update on vaccine prioritization. I know under the previous administration this was largely left up to states to decide when they wanted to move to the next levels of priority. But we’re seeing a lot of states open this up for teachers, and it’s kind of created a patchwork. And I just wondered if the federal government would be working more closely with states to kind of get more vaccinations to teachers in particular so that schools can reopen in the fall.
MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Walensky, do you want to start here?
DR. WALENSKY: Yeah, thank you for that question. You know, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has created these guides — this guidance for how we should be thinking about prioritizing among all essential workers and all of the population at large.
You know, those have been taken under recommendation — guidance from the states, and then the states are creating their own individual plans. And, you know, those plans have to, sort of, be in sync with how they are able to titrate, really, their supply versus the number of people who are wanting it. We don’t want to be too prescriptive so that they have these queues of people, and yet we don’t want to be too open so that they also have queues of people. We don’t want to have too much supply on the shelf.
So we’ve left that to the states to manage, in terms of recognizing the prioritization of ACIP, but also manage at their own local level.
That said, I want to be very clear about schools, which is: Yes, ACIP has put teachers in the 1b category, the category of essential workers. But I also want to be clear that there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely.
So while we are implementing the criteria of the Advisory Committee and of the state and local guidances to get vaccination across these eligible communities, I would also say that safe reopening of schools is not — that vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.
MR. ZIENTS: Yeah, let me just add here. You know, President Biden has been very clear that he wants schools to reopen and actually to stay open. And that means that every school has the equipment and the resources to open safely — not just private schools or schools in wealthy areas, but all schools. And that’s why we need the American Rescue Plan passed now. It includes money to get schools better access to testing, enables smaller class sizes, acquire the necessary ventilation, ensure everyone has PPE, and that schools are properly sanitized. It also includes much-needed funds to support the learning and social, emotional needs of our kids in what has been an extremely, extremely difficult year.
So again, Congress has to do its part in order to make sure that we can safely reopen schools and keep them open.
MODERATOR: All right, next question. We’ll go to Shannon Pettypiece with NBC.
Q Hi. Can you guys hear me?
MR. ZIENTS: Yes.
Q I wanted to — you’ve raised a lot of concern about these mutants. Given what we know about their transmissibility, should we be rethinking the social distancing guidelines? Should we be double masking? Should we rethink indoor dining? You know, is six feet apart still enough? With these new mutations, do we need to do things differently at all?
I understand you want everyone to continue following the guidelines now more than ever, but are you thinking about any new guidelines potentially?
MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Fauci?
DR. FAUCI: Well, the answer is we always evaluate guidelines, you know, in real time, depending upon what the status is. But I want to emphasize what you just said: that, right now, we don’t have complete, full compliance throughout the country of the fundamental public health measures that are necessary to prevent the spread. And I believe that if we do, we will be adequately addressing the transmissibility of these particular mutants.
Now, the question keeps coming up, and I’ll give you my opinion of this, which I believe will be in accordance with Dr. Walensky, but I’d give her the opportunity also. We get asked all the time: “Should we be double masking?” The CDC makes recommendations based on data that they accumulate because it’s a science-based organization. Right now, they are looking at these different options of mask wearing.
In the meantime, as I often get asked, “Should you be wearing two masks or one mask?” And I say, there’s no recommendation; however, there are many people who take the commonsense approach. If you’re talking about a physical barrier — and, as the CDC recommends, you want at least two layers within the mask as a physical barrier — and you feel maybe more of a physical barrier would be better, there’s nothing wrong with people wearing two masks. I often, myself, wear two masks. Can we make a general recommendation that doesn’t have scientific basis yet? No. But when the science comes along and tells us that it is better or not, then you will see a recommendation being made by the CDC.
I’ll hand it over to Dr. Walensky for any further comment.
DR. WALENSKY: Thank you, Dr. Fauci. I don’t have a lot to add there except to say that the CDC is actively looking at this question. And what has been — what some of the data that have been emerging is as we found some of these variants in the contact tracing of them, we are finding that people were actually not taking the primary measures of any masking or any distancing. So I think that is really our best barrier against these variants, is to do the masking, the distancing. And you will — more data will be forthcoming from the CDC with regard to the value of double masking.
MR. ZIENTS: I’ll remind everybody that on his first day in office, President Biden signed an executive order requiring mask wearing in all federal buildings, all federal places, and in public transportation, interstate travel. And that is all part of a nationwide 100-day mask challenge. The President is asking everybody to mask up for the next 100 days, and the estimates are that’ll save over 50,000 lives. So masking up is one of the things that all Americans should be doing.
MODERATOR: All right, we have time for one more question. Last, we’ll ask we’ll go to Bricio Segovia with MVS Radio.
Q Thank you for doing this and taking my question. I have two questions, if I may. The first one is: With the new Brazilian COVID variant and many countries in the Latin America region not having severe travel restrictions in place, do you consider that the U.S. should take further action in this region, including travel restrictions? And have any travel requirements been defined for individuals from Mexico into the United States at land ports of entry in the southern border?
MR. ZIENTS: So, yes, the President has put in strict travel restrictions. If you’re traveling from an international country, it requires a test — a negative test three days in advance — and then quarantining once you land in the U.S.
The travel restrictions on certain countries, including Brazil, are even stricter in terms of who’s allowed to travel to the U.S. So travel restrictions internationally have been tightened quite a bit during this period of the pandemic.
I don’t know if you had a second question, too.
Q I do have a second question, and actually a quick follow-up. You mentioned quarantining after landing in the U.S. Is that quarantine going to be enforced?
And my second question is: As countries ramp up vaccination efforts and people get vaccinated in other parts of the world, do you see the need to request a negative test to travelers who have been inoculated? And what are your thoughts on a universal travel document for the vaccinated or a vaccination passport, which is being currently discussed internationally?
MR. ZIENTS: Yeah, let me hand — let me hand it over to Dr. Walensky in terms of the CDC guidelines on quarantine and how they’re working with state and local officials to make sure that the quarantines are enforced.
DR. WALENSKY: Thank you for — thank you very much for that question. We are working hard with the state and local officials to work towards increased compliance and work towards facilitating compliance to ensure that those people who are landing here from international settings can comply with the quarantine measures. Again, seven days of quarantine, as well a day — a test, day three to five, after landing.
MR. ZIENTS: Good. Well, I want to thank everybody for joining today’s briefing. The next briefing will be on Friday. Thank you.