Via Teleconference

3:06 P.M. EDT

MR. ZIENTS:  Good afternoon.  Thanks for joining us.  Today, Dr. Walensky will share the latest on the state of the pandemic, Dr. Fauci will discuss the effectiveness of additional booster shots, and Secretary Becerra will provide an update on our work to address the long-term impacts of COVID.

First, I want to discuss where we stand on funding for the COVID-19 response.

We’ve made tremendous progress in our fight against the virus.  We have 217 million Americans fully vaccinated, two out of three eligible adults boosted, a medicine cabinet full of highly-effective treatments, and convenient tests.

But, as we’ve made clear for months, there’s more work to do.  The country urgently needs additional funding from Congress to continue our fight against COVID. 

The administration requested emergency funds to ensure our medical tools like vaccines, treatments, and tests remain readily available to the American people and, importantly, funding for our global response so we can get more shots in arms around the world.

We are encouraged by the Senate’s work on a bipartisan plan to help meet some of our most immediate domestic needs.  But, as we’ve made clear, we need more for our domestic response: to stay up to date on vaccines, to procure monoclonal antibody treatments and antiviral pills, to provide protection for the immunocompromised, and to sustain our testing capacity.

And it is a real disappointment that there is no global funding in this bill.  This virus knows no borders, and it’s in our national interest to vaccinate the world and protect against possible new variants.

Without additional funding for our global response, we won’t have resources to help get more shots in arms in countries in need.  We will lack funding to provide oxygen and other lifesaving supplies.  And our global genomic sequencing capabilities will fall off and undermine our ability to detect any emerging variants around the world.

As we know, this virus is unpredictable.  Time is of the essence, so we urge Congress to move promptly on the $10 billion emergency funding package developed in the Senate.

This bill is a start.  It should pass immediately.  But it’s exactly that: just a start. 

Congress must keep working to immediately provide additional funding for our remaining domestic needs so that we’re prepared for whatever comes, and, importantly, to act with urgency to fund our global COVID-19 response so that we can accelerate our efforts to turn vaccines into vaccinations around the world.

As we work with Congress to fund our global response, we will continue doing all we can to vaccinate the world.

At President Biden’s direction, we have done more than just lead the global vaccination effort: We have pioneered the global vaccination effort.

The U.S. was the first country in the world to donate a significant amount of our own vaccine supply, creating the model for other countries to do the same.

The U.S. was the first country to strike a deal with a major vaccine manufacturer to purchase doses solely to donate to other countries in need — 1 billion Pfizer vaccine doses.

We were the first, and remain the only, country to broker a deal with a U.S. manufacturer and COVAX to get vaccines into humanitarian zones to reach people displaced by war, famine, and other crises.

And we were the first, and are still the only, country to give up our place in line for delivery of doses, enabling the African Union to more quickly access over 100 million Moderna vaccine doses.

Today, we’re adding to our list of firsts, announcing that we will be the first nation to donate tens of millions of pediatric COVID-19 vaccines to low- and lower-middle income countries for free, with no strings attached. 

These countries around the world are eager to get these doses.  In fact, more than 20 low- and lower-middle income countries have approached the U.S., asking us to provide vaccines for their young children.

We’re now ready to answer their call.  It’s the right thing to do.

The U.S. has now delivered over a half-billion adult vaccines to 114 different countries.  And because of President Biden’s leadership, vaccine supply is no longer the constraint to getting shots in arms around the world.

In fact, countries need funding and assistance to turn vaccines into vaccinations.  That’s why Congress must step up and provide critical funding to help countries in need get shots into arms.

In the meantime, any low- and lower-middle income country that wants adult doses from the U.S. can get those doses, again, for free with no strings attached.

And now with more than enough supply for adults, we’re working with Pfizer to make pediatric doses available to donate as part of our ongoing commitment to donate 1.2 billion vaccines.

Thanks to this historic action, children in countries most in need will soon have access to safe, effective vaccines and parents will gain the peace of mind that their children are protected.

Again, this virus knows no borders, so getting more people vaccinated is one of the best ways to protect people here at home and around the world.

And today, we’re making clear that the U.S. will continue to lead and pioneer the global effort to get both adults and children vaccinated.

With that, I’ll turn it over to Dr. Walensky. 

Dr. Walensky.

DR. WALENSKY:  Thank you, Jeff.  And good afternoon, everyone.  Let’s walk — start by walking through today’s data.  The current seven-day daily average of cases is about 25,000 cases per day, a decrease nationally of about 4 percent over the previous week and remains relatively stable over the past few weeks. 

The seven-day average of hospital admissions is about 14,000 per day, a decrease of about 17 percent over the previous week. 

And the seven-day average daily deaths are about 570 per day, which is a decrease of nearly 16 percent over the prior week.

New national estimates released today show the Omicron sublineage, BA.2 — indicated by light pink in this U.S. map by HHS regions — is now projected to account for 72 percent of circulating variants nationally, with all regions of the country reporting that BA.2 is now the dominant variant. 

As we’ve previously shared about the BA.2 variant, there is no evidence that BA.2 results in more severe disease compared with the BA.1 variant, nor does it appear to be more likely to evade immune protection than BA.1.  But BA.2 does appear to be more transmissible than BA.1. 

The high level of immunity in the population from vaccines, boosters, and previous infection will provide some level of protection against BA.2.  However, we strongly encourage everyone to be up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines.

Looking across the country, we see that 95 percent of counties are reporting low COVID-19 community levels, which represent over 97 percent of the U.S. population.

If we look more closely at the local level, we find a handful of counties where we are seeing increases in both cases and markers of more severe disease, like hospitalizations and in-patient bed capacity, which have resulted in an increased COVID-19 community level in some areas.

While on the national level cases remain relatively low compared to prior points in the pandemic, we continue to look to COVID-19 community levels which were developed to work locally at the county level.

As we move forward, we encourage local jurisdictions to closely monitor their own COVID-19 community levels and to follow additional metrics that are — that they may have available as leading indicators of disease, for example, wastewater and syndromic surveillance.

It’s important for communities and health officials to use these measures to help inform prevention strategies for their local area — like masking, testing, and plans for treatment — should they move into higher COVID-19 community levels.

Now as we continue to closely monitor COVID-19 in the United States, we’re reminded of the critical need to have a sustainable and resilient public health workforce in place that can effectively respond to both emerging threats and ongoing public health needs.

During the decade prior to COVID-19, the public health workforce lost an estimated 60,000 jobs nationwide, despite the continued demands to respond to multiple chronic public health threats, like H1N1, Zika, and Ebola.

As we look to building back this much-needed workforce, we must prioritize a public health workforce that is as diverse as the communities they serve, culturally competent, and equipped with skills to meet the public health needs of communities across the nation.

One way we’re working to build this workforce is through Public Health AmeriCorps — a groundbreaking initiative that supports the recruitment, training, and development of our nation’s next generation of public health leaders.  Public Health AmeriCorps is supported through investments from the American Rescue Plan and is anticipated to fund up to 5,000 positions over the next five years. 

This week, AmeriCorps will award over 80 grants to the first round of Public Health AmeriCorps programs across 32 states and territories that will allow the recruitment of nearly 3,000 Public Health AmeriCorps members.

The work of these initial members will help to address public health needs in our nation’s inner cities, to build Tribal public health capacity, to address health disparities in rural America, and to bolster public health resources in our U.S. territories.

Recruitment, training, and development of public health personnel is a key part of building our nation’s public health workforce, allowing us to better respond to current and future public health threats.

And now I will turn it over to Dr. Fauci. 

Dr. Fauci.

DR. FAUCI:  Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky.  I would like to now discuss the COVID-19 boosters, particularly in the context of the fourth dose of an mRNA boost. 

Let’s take a very quick update and an overview of the situation that we’re in right now.  So, several studies have shown that COVID-19 vaccine booster shots protect against serious illness, hospitalizations, and even death.  That’s a well-established fact now.  And the CDC recommends everyone aged 12 and older to receive a COVID-19 vaccine booster after completing their primary vaccination series. 

And certain individuals can now receive two booster doses: people who are moderately or severely immune compromised, as well as adults 50 years of age or older.

Next slide.

And as we know, on March 29th, the FDA authorized second booster doses of two COVID-19 vaccines for older and immunocompromised individuals.  And the CDC recommended, that same day, that additional boosters can now be used for certain individuals.

Let’s take a look at the data behind those decisions.  So, the first doost- — the first booster doses restore the waning vaccine effectiveness of a primary vaccine series, including against severe disease.  The effectiveness of the first booster dose, we know, wanes over time.  And growing evidence indicates that a second COVID-19 dose can restore vaccine effectiveness for certain populations and, albeit, the data now — at least for the short term.  And we look forward to longer-term data.

Next slide.

So, let’s take a look at some of the Israeli studies.  There are a few of them that are really quite telling.  One from Bar-On, looking at more than 1 million people who are age 60 or older and eligible for the fourth dose.  And in that look at –in that study, an additional booster dose of the Pfizer product at four months resulted in a 2-fold lower rate of confirmed infection and a 4.3-fold lower rate of severe illness.

In another study — next slide — again, from Israel by — there it is — by Arbel, about a half a million members of a health services group, again age — 60 years of age or older.  And now during an Omicron surge, individuals who received a second booster dose of the Pfizer product at four months had a 78 percent reduction in death compared to those who received only the first boost.

And on the next slide, this is rather dramatically shown by this Kaplan-Meier shot, where you see here in the pink-red, the first booster — namely, a third dose.  And then in the lighter blue color, you look at the mortality rate of individuals who receive the second booster or the fourth dose. 

Next slide. 

And yet again, in another study by Gazit, in almost 100,000 people at a different healthcare service, when you looked at the fourth dose and compared it to the third dose, there was an 86 percent vaccine effectiveness against severe disease. 

Next slide.

Now, what we’re doing at the NIH — looking forward — about fourth doses that might be available for people in the longer range: We want to do better than just what we have.  So there is now a new study that we just recently launched called COVAIL.  And what we’ll be doing is assessing different fourth doses that are either ancestral strain or variant specific — in the first phase of the study. 

In the second phase of the study, we’re planning on looking at different vaccine platforms for the purpose of getting a great durability than we currently have. 

Next slide.  

And let me close by, again, just bringing to the attention of the audience:, where we can get one-stop shopping of all the information that you will need to help you navigate decisions about vaccines and about testings. 

With that, I’ll hand it over now to Secretary Becerra.

SECRETARY BECERRA:  Thank you, Dr. Fauci.  When it comes to COVID, we have more tools than ever before to stay safe, from vaccines and boosters, to treatments and tests.  All widely available at no cost to the American people thanks to our national COVID response over the past year. 

But we also know that many people continue to feel the physical and the mental burden of this pandemic.  We have to ensure that people with disabilities, older Americans, and people who are immunocompromised aren’t left behind, and that they continue to have the tools and resources that they need to stay safe. 

Just yesterday, we expanded coverage of free over-the-counter COVID tests to the tens of millions of Medicare beneficiaries.  People with Medicare now have access each month to up to eight easy-to-use, at-home COVID-19 tests at no cost.  This is all a part of our overall strategy to ensure access to tests free of charge.

In the past year, we have more than tripled the number of sites where people can get COVID-19 tests for free and delivered close to 250 million free at-home, rapid tests to Americans who have ordered them.

President Biden has been clear, we must ensure that no one is left behind as we work to move forward in the fight against COVID-19.  That also means taking on big and complex physical and mental health challenges caused by COVID. 

Americans of every age and background are experiencing Long COVID.  Americans have experienced the loss of a loved one due to COVID, including over 200,000 children who’ve lost a parent or caregiver. 

And Americans nationwide are grappling with mental health and substance-use challenges caused by or exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Let’s be clear, we are going to use every tool we have to be there for these Americans.  We’ve made significant investments in mental healthcare, as well as substance-use prevention, treatment, and recovery support.  That is especially important for people dealing with COVID and COVID-related loss.

We’ve launched efforts across the NIH, the CDC, and the Veterans Administration, including the landmark $1.1 billion recovery initiative, to better understand Long COVID and accelerate scientific progress. 

And we are providing Americans experiencing Long COVID information about where they can access the resources and support they need, as well as helping them understand, if they have a disability, and educating them on their rights.

Long COVID is real, and there is still so much we don’t know about it.  Millions of Americans may be struggling with lingering health effects, ranging from things that are easier to notice, like troubling — trouble breathing or irregular heartbeat, to less apparent but potentially serious conditions related to the brain or mental health. 

At the President’s direction, the Department of Health and Human Services will be leading a government-wide response to Long COVID focused on three main goals: improving care services and other support for individuals with Long COVID; enhancing education and outreach among the public-private sector and the medical community; and advancing research to support both goals. 

And, of course, we’ll collaborate with academic, industry, and state and local partners to better understand Long COVID. 

Through it all, we’ll continue to assess and highlight the long-term effects of COVID-19 on our hardest-hit and highest-risk communities, and make sure they receive the support they need. 

To do this, we’re launching the first-ever interagency national research agenda on Long COVID — a National Research Action Plan. 

HHS will lead a government-wide interagency coordinating council, which will involve experts from the Department of Defense, Veterans Administration, the Labor Department, and many entities across government to coordinate both public- and private-sector work to advance our understanding of Long COVID and to accelerate efforts to prevent, detect, and treat it.

In real time, we will share lessons on how to prevent, detect, and treat Long COVID.  And this coordinated effort will help ensure our research is being directed toward the people who need care the most. 

We continue to focus on improving care.  If we receive additional financial support for it from Congress, we will launch new centers of excellence in communities across the country to provide high-quality care to individuals experiencing Long COVID and to get best practices out there to physicians across the country. 

We’re determined as a nation, as the President has said, to not leave anyone behind.  And that includes our loved ones suffering from Long COVID and related conditions.  We see you.  We’re focused on you.  And we are committed to advancing our nation’s capacity to understand and treat your conditions.

And I’ll end with this: We know the best way to prevent Long COVID is to prevent you from getting COVID in the first place.  That’s why it’s so critical to get vaccinated and boosted, which is our best tools that we have to prevent COVID-19. 

So I continue to encourage everyone eligible to get vaccinated and boosted to go do it so we can all move forward safely together.  Thanks.

Back to you, Jeff. 

MR. ZIENTS:  Well, thanks, Secretary. 

With that, Kevin, let’s open it up for some questions.  Kevin?

MODERATOR:  Thanks, Jeff.  We only have time for a few questions today.  Let’s go to Sabrina Siddiqui at Wall Street Journal.

Q    Thank you, as always, for doing the briefing.  I wanted to ask about COVID funding.  Republicans are trying to insert an amendment into the COVID deal to reinstate Title 42.  There are even some Democrats, such as Arizona Senator Mark Kelly, who have said that they’re open to considering such an amendment.  Is the administration concerned that the decision to lift Title 42 could now threaten COVID funding?

MR. ZIENTS:  Thanks for the question.  Look, Title 42 is a public health authority.  And therefore, it’s always been a decision made by the scientists and public health experts at the CDC.  And it’s based on the public health conditions. 

And it should remain independent of the urgently needed funding that we talked about today to sustain our COVID response here domestically and our global response.  So this should not be included on any funding bill.  The decision should be made by CDC, which it has been.  And that’s where it belongs. 

Next question, please.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to Erin Billups at Spectrum News.

Q    Hi.  Thanks so much for taking my question.  For Dr. Walensky and Secretary Becerra — just wondering, with this increased focus on Long COVID, if Type 2 diabetes is being considered a part of the Long COVID problem.  There was a new study published in The Lancet last month that finds a link between COVID infections and an increased risk of being diagnosed with diabetes.  And experts I’ve spoken to say there’s an urgent need to aggressively screen the U.S. population for diabetes and get more people into diabetes management programs. 

Are you looking for funding for that as well?  Have there’s been any discussions about that? 

MR. ZIENTS:  Dr. Walensky, why don’t you go first here? 

DR. WALENSKY:  Yeah, thank you for that question.  First, let me say we — the science is definitely starting to demonstrate this link between people who previously had COVID and increasing rates of new diabetes diagnoses. 

Certainly, public health infrastructure will assist in not only screening for diabetes, but also for nutrition and diabetes care.  And I think as we consider the menu of many things that could incorporate — be incorporated into post-COVID conditions, diabetes certainly should be one of those conditions considered.

MR. ZIENTS:  Secretary Becerra?

SECRETARY BECERRA:  And I’ll simply add, based on what Dr. Walensky has said and our scientists are telling us, we need to work as aggressively as we can to make sure that no American is left behind.  So that means that if we need more funding to address Long COVID, we’re going to fight to get that from Congress because we understand that COVID is having effects long after the actual virus has escaped us. 

MR. ZIENTS:  Next question, please.

MODERATOR:  Go to Tamara Keith at NPR.

Q    Thank you for taking my question.  By my very rudimentary math, you’re getting about 60 percent of the money that you asked for, for domestic COVID programs.  So what takes the hit?  How — what do you do with only 60 percent of the money?

Additionally, is there any thought of changing the requirements of testing for international travel and masks on planes?  If we could get an update on that.

MR. ZIENTS:  Okay, on your second question: No, there are no plans to change the international travel requirements at this point.

We asked — your math is good math here.  We asked for $22.5 billion, and Congress is working to pass $10 billion — only a fraction of the immediate need. 

And that immediate need is immediate.  It’s for vaccines, therapeutics, and tests.  The $10 billion for domestic efforts funds some of these urgent needs, but we still need additional funding for both our domestic effort and our global efforts where there’s no additional funding in the $10 billion. 

So, every dollar we requested is critical to both our domestic and global response.  HHS, under the Secretary, will work through how to best deploy these very limited resources to satisfy the most urgent of the urgent needs. 

And, yes, we need Congress to pass the $10 billion and then get immediately back to work to get more money for domestic and get money for our global response. 

Next question, please.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to Zeke Miller at the AP.

Q    Thanks.  Two questions.  First, with the lack of the COVID funding for international vaccine sharing, what impact will that have on the U.S. capacity to (inaudible) the number of doses and meet its international commitments through the end of the year?

And then, for the doctors, do you have any update on plans and timeline for pediatric vaccines for kids under five?  Thank you.

MR. ZIENTS:  So I’ll go first.  On the — on the globe — on then impact on not having any funding — additional funding at this point for the global response.  Look, the lack of global funding has real implications on our efforts to vaccinate the world. 

Without the additional global funding, USAID does not have the resources it needs to help countries get more shots in arms.  We’ll be forced to scale back the work that we do to provide oxygen and other lifesaving supplies to countries that need them.  Our global genomic sequencing capabilities will fall off, and that undermines our ability to detect emerging variants beyond our borders. 

And speaking of borders, as I’ve said, you know, the virus knows no borders, and it’s in our national interest to vaccinate the world and protect against any possible future variants. 

So it’s a real disappointment to not have any global funding in this bill.  It has real implications.  We need funding as quickly as possible. Congress needs to act with urgency to fund our global response so that we can accelerate our efforts to turn vaccines — we do have vaccine supply — we need to turn those vaccines into vaccinations around the world. 

Dr. Fauci.

DR. FAUCI:  Yeah, with regard to the vaccines for children, I believe you’re referring to where are we with the six months to five-year vaccine approval or emergency use authorization.

As you well know, two companies have submitted or are submitting data to the FDA regarding children of various ages, including within that cohort of six months up to five years. 

The data are being analyzed right now.  And I — we’re very sensitive to the fact that many parents out there are waiting for a decision on this.  And the message we have to them is that we want to make sure that when you’re dealing with vaccines for anyone, particularly for children, that we get the data, we look at the data — and when I say “we,” I’m talking first the FDA for the authorization and then the CDC for the recommendation — so that we know that they’re safe.  And thus far, there has to be — appears to be no safety signal whatsoever that would get anyone worried. 

And the question is: What — what is the right dose and the dose regimen?  And that would likely be different for the two companies that are now involved in putting their data in. 

So we ask people to please be patient, because when a decision is be made, you can be sure that it’s a decision based on the good science that’s being collected and analyzed by the agencies involved. 

Thank you.

MR. ZIENTS:  Kevin.  Next question.

MODERATOR:  A couple more questions.  Let’s go to Sharon LaFraniere at New York Times. 

Q    Thank you very much.  This is a question for Dr. Walensky, please.  So last week, you said that the option of a second booster was especially important for those 65 and up and 50 and up with underlying medical conditions.  So does that — does “especially important” mean that you recommend it or you encourage it for those population groups, and you do not recommend it or encourage it for, say, healthy people 50 to 65? 

And if — if it doesn’t mean that, can you give people some clearer sense of how they should decide whether to get the second booster since many people don’t have doctors to consult with?

DR. WALENSKY:  Yeah, thank you for that question.  So we have made the fourth shot — the second booster — available to everyone over the age of 50 because everybody does have individual, you know, risk assessment as to how they’re approaching this vaccine. 

But we really would encourage people who are over 50 who have underlying medical conditions, those over the age of 65, to go ahead and get that next shot.  And also, to recognize that they may very well need another shot come the fall, and that will be the subject of an FDA meeting discussion tomorrow.

MR. ZIENTS:  Kevin, last question.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to Josh Wingrove at Bloomberg.

Q    Thank you very much.  Can you talk a little bit more about the announcement on the pediatric vaccines?  Are you able to provide a number? 

And is the fact that they’re essentially sort of subbing in for adult vaccines is — we’ve seen Jen Psaki speak to this, but also COVAX — that demand is waning in developing countries for the adult vaccines. 

Is that the reason why you’re essentially swapping?  Or is it more a case of you wanting to hold back a little bit more adult vaccine just in case we need, more widely, fourth shots in the U.S. and just in case Congress doesn’t deliver more funding?  Thank you.

MR. ZIENTS:  Yeah.  So, Josh, good questions.  I mean, these donations are part of the billion Pfizer doses that we previously secured.  So this is international supply.  This has nothing to do with our domestic supply, where we do have enough vaccine supply for the booster doses — the fourth doses that Dr. Fauci and Dr. Walensky just talked about that have been recently authorized both for immunocompromised people and for people over 50.

On the domestic front, we do not have sufficient supply if the science dictates that all Americans get boosted sometime later in the year or if we were to need a vaccine-specific variant — I’m sorry, I’m sorry, a variant-specific vaccine — a different formulation than what we have today.  We do not have the funding for that.

So on the pediatric international, there are plenty of doses available for adults, which gives us the opportunity to provide 100 million or more doses of Pfizer’s vaccine for 5-to-11-year-olds to donate in the upcoming months. 

As I mentioned, 20 countries have already asked, including Pakistan and Vietnam — have made requests to vaccinate their children and to get vaccines to do so.  None of this will undermine the position that we have right now, which is that we have plenty of supply in the U.S. to send abroad and other countries around the world to do the same to make sure that we have plenty of vaccines for adults across the world.

So we are now able to help lead the world in vaccinating both adults and children in those countries that are in need.

So before we close, this is likely my last briefing.  I just want to say it’s been the honor of a lifetime to serve in this role. 

As we enter this new moment in the pandemic, I can’t think of a better person to hand the baton to than Dr. Jha.  I want to thank the Secretary, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Walensky for your partnership and continued leadership.  And I want to thank the COVID-19 Response Team here at the White House, everyone inside and outside of government who has worked together tirelessly in our fight against the virus.

And finally, and importantly, to the members of the press: As always, thank you for joining these briefings, asking the questions you ask.  And most importantly, thank you for all the important, critical work you do to provide information to the public. 

So bottom line, thank you.

3:40 P.M. EDT

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