Press Briefing by White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Officials
11:07 A.M. EDT
MR. ZIENTS: Good morning, and thanks for joining us.
Today, Dr. Walensky will provide an update on the state of the pandemic and the Delta variant. Then, Dr. Fauci will present the data from other countries facing the Delta variant. I will provide an update on how we’re working on a number of fronts to manage this virus. And Dr. Murthy will discuss vaccine confidence with a focus on combatting misinformation and disinformation. And then we’ll open it up for a few questions.
Now, over to you, Dr. Walensky.
DR. WALENSKY: Good morning. Let’s begin with an overview of the data.
Yesterday, CDC reported more than 33,000 new cases of COVID-19. Our seven-day average is about 26,300 cases per day, and this represents an increase of nearly 70 percent from the prior seven-day average.
The seven-day average of hospital admissions is about 2,790 per day — an increase of about 36 percent from the previous seven-day period. And, after weeks of declines, seven-day average daily deaths have increased by 26 percent to 211 per day.
Today, Dr. Fauci and I want to provide some perspective about these numbers and how we should be thinking about where we are at this critical moment in the pandemic.
There is a clear message that is coming through: This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated. We are seeing outbreaks of cases in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage because unvaccinated people are at risk. And communities that are fully vaccinated are generally faring well.
You can see the patterns of local outbreaks in the slide of community transmission. The blue and yellow counties have low or moderate transmission. The orange and red counties have substantial to high transmission. On the left, you can see where we were just a short month ago, and compare it to where we are now, on the right.
In the last week, 10 percent of counties have moved into “high transmission risk,” in the red, and 7 percent of counties have moved into “substantial risk,” in the orange. Those counties most frequently correspond to counties with low vaccination rates.
When we look over time, we can put these increasing cases in perspective. In January, shown in the middle of the slide, we were averaging nearly 200,000 cases per day. The entire country was in a high level of transmission.
You can see that from January to June, as you move from left to right on the slide, we made remarkable progress, where the percent of counties with high transmission decreased — as shown by the decrease in red, and increases in blue and yellow.
Now, in the upper righthand corner, which is where we are today, you can see the recent growth in cases where the red and orange are again increasing. So, while we are in a far better position than we were in January through April, this increased in red area is giving us all a reason to double-down and get more people vaccinated.
The good news is that if you are fully vaccinated, you are protected against severe COVID, hospitalization, and death, and are even protected against the known variants — including the Delta variant — circulating in the country.
If you are not vaccinated, you remain at risk. And our biggest concern is that we are going to continue to see preventable cases, hospitalizations, and, sadly, deaths among the unvaccinated.
Lastly, I want to reiterate the importance of getting fully vaccinated. I want to reiterate that people who got the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are most effective, especially when — against the Delta variant when given as two shots in a series.
Both vaccines are most effective two weeks after the second dose, with each exceeding 90 percent effectiveness against severe disease, hospitalization, and death in real-world studies. Not completing the series puts those partially vaccinated at risk of illness.
We encourage that people get vaccinated on schedule three or four weeks after your first dose. But if you are beyond that window, I want to reiterate: There is no bad time to get your second shot.
Do it for yourself, your family, and for your community. And please do it to protect your young children who, right now, can’t get vaccinated themselves.
With that, I will now turn it over to Dr. Fauci.
DR. FAUCI: Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky. I’d like to continue it along the lines that Dr. Walensky had mentioned, but now maybe take a look at it from a global standpoint, if I could have the first slide.
Clearly, the Delta variant is dominant in the world. If you look at this map of the world, they’re at about 100 countries that have now have the Delta variant that is detected in them in June of — since June in 2020.
If you look at the average daily prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant worldwide, if you look at the righthand part of the slide, you see the extraordinary surge in the dominance of this variant worldwide.
And we, as was mentioned in several briefings that we’ve had, are seeing increment in our own country to the point of now having more than 50 percent dominance and, in some areas of the country, greater than 70 percent.
That is the sobering news, but take a look at what’s going on worldwide with hospitalizations. Although Israel has the same issue with the dominance of the Delta strain, their hospitalizations have dramatically diminished. And if you look at the far right of the slide, as of just a couple of days ago, they are very low.
In the next slide, we see the UK. Similar. A dramatic diminution in hospitalizations.
However, if you look at the trend on the far righthand part of that slide, there’s that uptick, which somehow was reflecting what Dr. Walensky just told you about the slight uptick that we’re seeing in hospitalizations in our own country.
However, we know that the vaccines that are listed on the lefthand part of this slide that are being used in this country — namely the Pfizer, Moderna, and the J&J — both in lab studies and in clinical effectiveness studies show the effectiveness of these vaccines against the Delta variant, particularly, and importantly, against hospitalization.
Next slide shows data from the UK with the Delta variant, which the Pfizer-BioNTech, which clearly reflects what we’ll be seeing with Moderna, is 96 percent effective against hospitalization.
The bottom line is: We are dealing with a formidable variant in the Delta variant, as reflected by the data that Dr. Walensky told you, and the extreme vulnerability of people who are not vaccinated, which will account for infections, hospitalizations, and, ultimately, deaths.
And so the message loud and clear that we need to reiterate is that these vaccines continue to strong protection against SARS-CoV-2, including the Delta variant. And so — why it’s so important for yourself, your family, and your community to get vaccinated.
Back to you, Jeff.
MR. ZIENTS: Well, thank you, Dr. Fauci and Dr. Walensky.
Stepping back, we have come a long way in our fight against this virus. Because we have fully vaccinated more than 160 million Americans, we’ve fundamentally changed the course of this pandemic from one that puts the lives and livelihoods of all Americans at risk, to one that predominantly threatens unvaccinated people.
As Dr. Walensky said, as the more transmissible Delta variant continues to spread across the country, we will likely continue and experi- — continue to experience an increase in COVID cases in the weeks ahead, with these cases concentrated in communities with lower vaccination rates.
In fact, just four states accounted for more than 40 percent of all cases in the past week, with one in five of all cases occurring in Florida alone. And within communities, these cases are occurring primarily among unvaccinated individuals.
At the same time, as Dr. Fauci said, because we have so many people fully vaccinated, including about 80 percent of seniors — those who are most vulnerable, those over 65 years of age — we will likely see smaller increases in hospitalizations, similar to the Israel and UK experience.
The bottom line continues to be very, very simple: While fully vaccinated individuals have a high degree of protection against serious illness from COVID-19, including the Delta variant, unvaccinated Americans are not protected against serious illness, hospitalization, and death.
And we’re seeing it in the data. Unvaccinated Americans account for virtually all recent COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. Each COVID-19 death is tragic. And those happening now are even more tragic because they are preventable.
Every American 12 and older, no matter where they live, has vaccines readily available to them. So, if you are unvaccinated, please get vaccinated now. The vaccines work. It’s safe, it’s free, it’s readily available, and it’s never been more important.
As we manage this virus, our whole-of-government effort continues to work to get more people vaccinated, address areas where we’re seeing outbreaks among the unvaccinated, and prepare for every scenario.
First and foremost, we continue to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of new people each day — meeting unvaccinated Americans where they are, answering their questions, helping them make up their mind, and making it even easier and more convenient to get a shot as soon as they are ready to do so.
We’re doing this by trus- — by entrusting and empowering messengers — trusted messengers — to have the conversations we know work — whether it’s vaccinated people in communities across the country talking directly to their neighbors, sharing their own vaccination journey and answering question; or it’s Olivia Rodrigo using her voice and platform to spread the word.
We’re working with doctors, pharmacists, employers, educators, and school administrators to bring vaccines to where people are.
And as Dr. Murthy will discuss, we’re taking disinformation and misinformation head on.
We continue to see efforts to deliberately mislead the American people about the importance of vaccination. Those who peddle and promote these dangerous lies are harming the very people who are most at risk and furthering a pandemic that has already taken more than 600,000 American lives.
We are calling on everyone — social media platforms, news organizations, individual Americans — to call this activity out and to help get the facts out to your friends, families, and communities so that we’re protecting our fellow Americans, not purposely putting them in harm’s way.
As I said last week, vaccinating more and more Americans each day is an individual-by-individual, community-by-community effort. And this type of localized, person-to-person approach takes some time, but it is working.
In the past 10 days, 5 million Americans have rolled up their sleeves to get a shot in their arms, and millions more Americans will get vaccinated across the summer months.
Importantly, states with the highest case rates are seeing their vaccination rates go up. In fact, in the past week, the five states with the highest case rates — Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, and Nevada — had a higher rate of people getting newly vaccinated compared to the national average.
At the same time, our COVID-19 Surge Response Teams are working with governors and local public health officials to provide specific federal resources and capabilities to fight outbreaks due to the spread of the Delta variant.
We are already helping many states to identify and address specific needs, including testing, therapeutics, and vaccinations. And this week, at the request of the Nevada governor, we are deploying more than a hundred people to the state to help enhance vaccine access and support vaccine outreach efforts.
And we’re providing CDC’s technical expertise — including on genetic sequencing, data analysis, and outbreak response — to Missouri to help support the state in its response.
We stand ready to support our state partners with the help they need to curb the spread of the virus and increase vaccinations in their states.
And finally, we continue to be prepared for any and every scenario, including the possibility of booster shots, if and when the science shows they are needed.
At this time, the CDC and FDA have said Americans who have been fully vaccinated do not need a booster shot. Independent and rigorous scientific CDC and FDA processes will determine if and when boosters are needed and who might need a booster shot.
I want to be clear: The science will guide this. And as Dr. Walensky and Dr. Fauci are making clear, this is a question that they are continually evaluating. We are ready for whatever the science tells us.
We have secured enough vaccine supply, and, if needed, we will ensure Americans who might need a booster shot are able to get it quickly and easily.
Before I turn it over to Dr. Murthy, let me reiterate: The best thing we can do right now is to get more Americans vaccinated. Every person matters. Every shot matters. Every shot is progress. It’s another life protected. It’s another community that is safer. It’s another step toward putting this pandemic behind us.
Now, let me turn to Dr. Murthy.
SURGEON GENERAL MURTHY: Well, thanks so much, Jeff. And it’s great to be with all of you again today. For months, on these briefings, we’ve talked about barriers to getting vaccinated. And today, I want to focus on the challenge of health misinformation that’s affecting millions of Americans.
Yesterday I issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory on the dangers of health misinformation. Surgeon General Advisories are reserved for urgent public health threats. And while those threats have often been related to what we eat, drink, and smoke, today we live in a world where misinformation poses an urgent and insidious threat to our nation’s health.
Health misinformation is false, inaccurate, or misleading information about health according to the best evidence at the time. And during this pandemic, health misinformation has led people to resist wearing masks in high-risk settings; to turn down proven treatments — in some cases to turn to unproven treatments and to choose not to get vaccinated.
All this has led to avoidable illnesses and deaths. Simply put, health misinformation has cost us lives. And just this week, I traveled to New Mexico to meet with youth leaders, clinicians, and public health leaders from across the state. And the common thread that ran through our conversations was their struggle to help their communities navigate information about COVID-19.
Now, health misinformation has been a problem long before COVID. What’s different now is the speed and scale at which health misinformation is spreading. If we want to address health misinformation, we’ll need an all-of-society response, and that’s why the advisory has recommendations for everyone.
First, we include recommendations for individuals and families. We’re asking people to raise their bar for sharing health information by checking sources before they share information to ensure it’s backed by credible, scientific sources. As we say in the advisory: If you are not sure, don’t share.
We’re also asking other organizations to do their part in every sector from health and education, to research and journalism, to philanthropy and government.
But very importantly, technology companies must act as well. Technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users. It allowed people who intentionally spread misinformation — what we call “disinformation” — to have extraordinary reach.
In this advisory, we’re telling technology companies that we expect more. We’re asking them to operate with greater transparency, to modify their algorithms to avoid amplifying misinformation, and to swiftly and consistently take action against misinformation super-spreaders on their platforms.
Shortly after releasing the advisory, we saw organizations — like the Rockefeller Foundation, the Digital Public Library of America, and the American Academy of Pediatrics — step up and respond to this call to action by committing their time, resources, and networks to confronting health misinformation.
I’m encouraged by these commitments because turning the tide against health misinformation will take all of us. The longer we wait, the more lives we lose.
As someone who has lost 10 family members to COVID-19 and who wishes each and every day that they had had access to the vaccine, it’s painful to know that nearly every death we are seeing now from COVID-19 could have been prevented.
The truth is that, across our nation, the voices of doctors, nurses, scientists, and public health experts are too often being drowned out by the false sirens of misinformation. Misinformation robs us of our freedom to make decisions for our health based on science and facts.
Addressing health misinformation is an urgent challenge, a moral and civic responsibility that we must meet together. That’s why I issued the Surgeon General Advisory. You can read the full advisory at SurgeonGeneral.gov/HealthMisinformation.
Thanks for your time. And I’ll pass it back to Jeff.
MR. ZIENTS: Well, thanks, Dr. Murthy. Let’s take a few questions.
MODERATOR: Thanks, Jeff. We only have time for a few questions today. First, let’s go to Carl O’Donnell at Reuters.
Q Hi, and thanks for taking my question. I just was wondering if you guys could share a little bit more detail on the current state of thinking around boosters. I know you’ve said and other persons have also said that they’re not needed now. I’ve heard some commentary though, suggesting that among immunosuppressed people and the elderly, they might be needed. Maybe, you know, latter part of this year, early next year — just curious.
I also know that there can be higher risk of side effects, potentially, with a third booster shot. So, just curious if you can offer any additional color.
MR. ZIENTS: Dr Fauci?
DR. FAUCI: Yes, well, as Dr. Rochelle Walensky has said multiple times, the CDC is looking at a number of different cohorts that will get the information that will be needed — as she said — if and when and to whom we will be giving boosters.
I think we should be making sure people understand — because the question often gets asked, particularly among the unvaccinated — “If you’re talking about boosting people, does that mean that the vaccines don’t work?” That’s not the case at all.
We are dealing with highly effective vaccines. When you talk about a third shot for a two-shot vaccine regimen or another shot for the J&J single-dose regimen, you’re talking about enhancing the durability of an already highly effective vaccine. And that’s the thing that’s being actively studied right now.
So, literally, in real time, we talk about this literally on a daily basis, and evidence is being accumulated on a daily and weekly basis. And when we get enough information to make that decision, then that decision will be forthcoming.
But as we’ve all said: At this particular time, right now, we don’t recommend that there be boosters for people.
MR. ZIENTS: I just want to also be very crystal clear from an operational perspective: We’re prepared for every scenario, including the possibility of boosters, if and when the science, as Dr. Fauci said, shows that they are needed. If and when.
So we’ve secured enough vaccine supply. And if needed, we’ll ensure Americans who might need a booster shot are able to get one quickly and easily.
The science, as always, will guide us. And as Dr. Walensky and Dr. Fauci have said — they’ve made it very clear — this is a question that they are continually evaluating.
DR. WALENSKY: And maybe —
MR. ZIENTS: Oh, go ahead, Dr. Walensky. Please.
DR. WALENSKY: I was just going to say, with regard to the immunosuppressed population, this is a little bit of a different scenario where we might be concerned that in fact they didn’t get full protection from their initial two doses, so we would be looking at a third prime dose in that situation. And that’s a situation that the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is going to look at next week.
MR. ZIENTS: Thank you, Dr. Walensky.
MODERATOR: Go to Erin Billups at Spectrum News.
Q Hi. Thank you for taking my question. Younger unvaccinated people we’ve spoken to believe they will likely be fine if they get infected with coronavirus. So, wondering if you all can paint a picture of who is actually being hospitalized by the Delta variant. Is the rate of younger people being hospitalized by coronavirus now any different than what we were seeing at other — during other surges in the pandemic? And are we seeing any breakthrough infections among more vulnerable people who have been vaccinated who might have been around younger people? Is there any more data you can share with us?
MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Fauci?
DR. FAUCI: Well, with regard to the breakthrough infections that we’re seeing: So, certainly, we are seeing them, but you got to remember what the denominator of the vaccinated people are.
When you’re talking about young people, specifically, getting hospitalized, we are seeing younger people hospitalized right now, relatively speaking to a more extent than we were before. Because when we did not have the large group of elderly people vaccinated, then the elderly people dominated the people who were hospitalized and got into trouble.
Since we have more of a veil of protection among people –because about 85 percent of people who are elderly, greater than 65 are vaccinated — when you look at the relative number of people who get hospitalized, clearly, we’re seeing younger people, from a relative standpoint, more hospitalized than we were seeing before because of the shift of the veil of protection, which is much more dominant among the elderly.
DR. WALENSKY: And maybe I’ll just add: When we look at the age demographics of people being hospitalized now, we are seeing them go up in all age demographics, exactly as Dr. Fauci noted, differently for the vaccinated and unvaccinated. But, importantly, over 97 percent of people who are entering the hospital right now are unvaccinated.
MR. ZIENTS: Next question.
MODERATOR: Kaitlan Collins at CNN.
Q Thanks so much. I’ve got two questions: one on breakthrough cases and then a second one on some news that just broke.
One, for these breakthrough cases, are they contributing to the spread of coronavirus? Or is it mainly unvaccinated people that that’s happening since this is, as Walensky phrased it, “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
And secondly, Pfizer just announced that the FDA has granted a priority review designation for their application for approval of their vaccine. They said the goal date for a decision is January 2022. So does that mean we’re not going to see full approval for their vaccine until January 2022? Or is that just a “must have decision by” date.
MR. ZIENTS: So, Dr. Fauci on breakthrough cases.
DR. FAUCI: Well, what we do know in the cases that were looked at: If you are vaccinated and you get infected, and you compare that person — if you’re an asymptomatic infected breakthrough vaccinated case — and compare that to someone who is infected but not vaccinated and asymptomatic, the level of virus in the nasal pharynx of the vaccinated person is considerably less than the virus in the nasal pharynx of a person who is infected, unvaccinated, and asymptomatic.
Based on that, you could make a reasonable assumption that the rate of transmissibility from the asymptomatic vaccinated person to an uninfected person would be less likely than if the person was unvaccinated.
But the actual studies to do whether or not the transmission occurs is a large study that’s ongoing right now. So, Kaitlan, we don’t have the data — the clinical data — but I think one can make the reasonable assumption based on the level of virus in the nasal pharynx that it would be less likely that that vaccinated breakthrough person would transmit, compared to an unvaccinated person.
MR. ZIENTS: And, Kaitlan, on the second question, we’ll defer to the FDA.
MODERATOR: Last question. Let’s go to Zeke Miller with AP.
Q Thank you all for doing this. The President, yesterday, said that he was hoping for a timeline — to set a timeline for lifting some travel restrictions in the next couple of days. I was hoping you could talk about the objective metrics that you’re looking to present to the President for when some of these travel restrictions can be eased.
And then, secondly, to Dr. Walensky’s point a few minutes ago that this is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated: How does that change the administration’s response to the pandemic? Is it a different sort of strategy? Does it mean that large-scale mitigation measures, if we start seeing cases going up –you know, mask mandates and the like — are not necessary because so many people are vaccinated? How does it change the strategy going forward?
MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Walensky, do you want to take the second question? And then I’ll make a comment on international travel.
DR. WALENSKY: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you, Zeke. You know, as we have said, this is very heterogeneous across the country and these decisions have to be made at the local level. If you have areas of low vaccination and high case rates, then I would say local policymakers might consider whether masking at that point would be something that would be helpful for their community until they scale up their vaccination rates because more people than not in the community are unvaccinated.
SURGEON GENERAL MURTHY: And, Jeff, can I just add —
MR. ZIENTS: Please.
SURGEON GENERAL MURTHY: — on thought there?
You know, this strategy — as we think, going forward, about how to get the rest of the country vaccinated — has got to involve everyone. Look, there’s a lot government can do. There’s a lot that we are doing and we’ll continue to do more, but this is a moment where we need technology companies to step up and do more to stop the spread of misinformation.
We want to work closely with schools and employers to get their help, increasingly, in getting people vaccinated in schools and in workplaces. But it’s also going to take each one of us, you know, as Americans across this country, looking to our family and our friends and asking them if they are vaccinated.
You know, this vaccination campaign is going to move, in part, driven by trusted relationships. And so, if you’ve got people in your life who trust you, who look to you for advice, then you have the power to help them get them accurate information and help get them vaccinated and protected from COVID-19. It will take all of us.
I think governments can play an important role here, but this has got to be an “all of the above” strategy with everybody in.
MR. ZIENTS: So, lastly, on international travel, you know, we’ve made, as we talked about today, important progress on the pandemic. At the same time, we have an increase in cases and the existence of the Delta variant. We’ll continue to put public health first. Any decision about opening international travel will be guided by our public health and medical experts. And they’ll be looking at many metrics, including case rates, vaccination rates, and the prevalence of any variants, including the Delta variant.
As you heard yesterday, the President said that we will be planning to update him in the next few days on the metrics and on the public health, and we must remain vigilant, particularly about the spread of variants. And we’ll reopen when the medical folks and the health experts believe it’s safe to do so.
I want to thank everybody for joining today’s briefing and look forward to next week. Thank you.
11:38 A.M. EDT
To view the COVID Press Briefing slides, visit https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/COVID-Press-Briefing_16July2021_for-transcript.pdf