Press Briefing by White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Officials
2:40 P.M. EDT
DR. JHA: Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Ashish Jha, and I am the COVID-19 Response Coordinator for the White House.
First of all, apologies for the technical delays getting us started, but I am excited and delighted to get going this afternoon with two familiar faces, two colleagues who have been tirelessly battling the pandemic since the beginning of this pandemic more than two years ago. You know them both well: Dr. Rochelle Walensky and Tony Fauci.
Today, we want to update you on a really important topic, one that many parents and, really, America has waited for for a long time: the first COVID-19 vaccines for our youngest kids. You know, it’s been nearly 18 months since the first set of vaccines became available for adults. And just over the last week, we saw the FDA authorize and CDC recommend vaccines for children six months and above, for the first time.
Now, this is an important moment for families of kids under five, but it’s a historic moment for our nation, because essentially, every American, from our oldest to our youngest, is now eligible for the protection that vaccines provide.
Now, we know that these vaccines are extraordinarily safe and highly effective. Remember, after an extensive review by career FDA and CDC scientists, they were unanimously approved by an independent group of expert scientists.
Now, I like to remind people it’s hard to get a group of independent scientists agree on anything, and yet 21 independent scientists who serve on VRBPAC unanimously voted in agreement that the benefits of these vaccines clearly outweigh the risks. And then, 12 independent scientists that make up the a ACIP agreed, recommending these vaccines for kids six months and above.
Now, we have been, at HHS and in the administration, have been planning and preparing for this moment for a long time. When the President took office, he made a commitment that — to keep all families safe from COVID-19 across America. The availability of these vaccines brings us that much closer to that goal.
Now, to make sure that these vaccines get to the families that want them, we have launched a comprehensive effort with trusted partners. These partners include states, local health departments, pediatricians, family physicians, rural and community health centers, and pharmacies. In fact, our largest federal pharmacy partners — Walgreens, CVS, and Walmart — are stepping up and are already vaccinating children, as are many pediatricians across the country.
Now, as I have said to all of you on many occasions, we know this vaccination program will ramp up over time. Remember, vaccines could not be shipped until they were authorized by the FDA on Friday. As of today, I can report that more than 4 million doses have been delivered within days of authorization to approximately 13,000 sites across the country. And as more doses are received and more sites make those doses available, that information will also become available on Vaccines.gov.
Now, when you look at this vaccination program for our littlest Americans, it will feel a little different than the vaccination programs we’ve run before. And that’s because we know parents will be turning to their pediatricians and their family physicians.
We have been guided in our approach by very clear data that says that most parents want to vaccinate their littlest ones in familiar settings. We also know that many parents have questions. And we want to encourage every physici- — I’m sorry — every parent to talk to their physician, to talk to the pediatrician, to talk to the family physician.
We also know that confidence in vaccines builds over time. And I remind people that at the start of the adult vaccination program back in December of 2020, only one in three adults said they were eager to get the shot. Today, nearly 90 percent of adults have gotten at least one shot.
We know the importance of working with trusted voices and community leaders, and we’re doing just that. HHS has partnered with over a thousand organizations, many of which work in minority and rural communities, organizations like the National Parent Teacher Association and the Cobb Institute of the National Medical Association. Both of them have been great partners.
We’ve also started the COVID-19 Community Corps, an effort that has grown to include 17,000 members across healthcare, sports, rural, and faith organizations — organizations like Black Doctors for the COVID-19 Consortium and the National Indian Health Board.
Now, I want to address one issue that’s very important, and that is the issue of misinformation about vaccines and about kids and COVID in this pandemic.
So let’s set the record straight, because the data here is actually quite clear: Kids are better protected if they are vaccinated. If they are vaccinated, they are far less likely to get seriously ill. They’re far less likely to end up in the hospital, far less likely to end up in the ICU.
Tens of millions of children in the U.S. and around the world have already been vaccinated against COVID. And the safety profile of these vaccines is extraordinary.
I have three children, all of whom have been vaccinated. In fact, every physician I know, including and particularly pediatricians, have all vaccinated their eligible children.
Now, we’ve come a long way in our fight against COVID-19, with vaccines and treatments and other tools, like testing that have become widely available.
And I’m pleased to make another announcement today: The Biden-Harris administration is making more accessible tests available for individuals who are blind or visually impaired. These tests are available for free through COVIDTest.gov.
We developed this plan in close partnership with members of the disability community. An issue raised consistently was that individuals who are blind or low vision are often unable to utilize rapid self-tests on their own. The President has made clear he is committed to addressing the needs of individuals with disabilities regardless of where they live or the level of community transmission. Ensuring everyone has equitable access to COVID-19 testing and all other critical missio- — all other critical mitigation strategies is of the utmost importance.
So, in closing, the numbers in our fight against COVID-19 speak for themselves. Nearly three months after cases began to rise in the U.S., the deaths are actually down, and down 90 percent since the day the President took office. Why? This has not happened randomly. Deaths are down because two out of three Americans are fully vaccinated, and half of them are boosted, because we have widespread availability of therapeutics like Paxlovid.
So, yes, we’ve made a lot of progress, but our job is not done. The pandemic is not over. And while we still have a lot of worth to — work to do, it is worth celebrating milestones.
And this week, as the littlest members of our society begin to get vaccinated, we need to take a moment and reflect on the good news that is.
All right, with that, I’m going to turn it over to Dr. Rochelle Walensky who will update us on the state of the pandemic and the importance of getting vaccinated — getting children vaccinated.
Over to you, Rochelle.
DR. WALENSKY: Thank you, Ashish. And good afternoon, everyone. As per my usual, I’d like to start by walking through the latest data.
So, our current seven-day daily average of cases is about 99,400. And that represents a decrease of about 4 percent over the prior week.
The seven-day average of hospital admissions is about 4,400 cases per day, which is an increase of about 2 percent over the prior week.
And as Dr. Jha noted, the seven-day average of daily deaths is about 250 per day, which is a decrease of about 16 percent over the prior week.
CDC does follow COVID-19 community levels, and that allows individuals and communities to take action to protect themselves and others based on their local community level. This also allows us to focus our efforts on protecting those who are most at risk of severe COVID-19 illness.
Last week, CDC reported 21 percent of the U.S. population was living in a high COVID-19 community level, and nearly 40 percent was living in a medium community level, and 39 percent was living in a low community level.
We will have updated COVID-19 community levels posted tonight, and we do anticipate things shifting among our communities across the country. So please go to CDC.gov where you can find your COVID-19 community level online.
As Dr. Jha noted, this past week, we’ve taken another important step forward in our fight against COVID-19. Following rigorous scientific review and a transparent and comprehensive discussion by ACIP on their immune response, safety, and ability of vaccines to protect children against disease, CDC expanded its COVID-19 vaccine recommendations to all children six months through five years of age. This makes nearly 20 million additional children eligible for vaccines.
I know there’s been a great deal of anticipation for parents surrounding the authorization and recommendation of COVID-19 vaccines for our youngest children. And for many, the opportunity to vaccinate their children comes as a welcome relief.
For those who may still be hesitant, I want to emphasize that COVID-19 vaccines have and continue to undergo the most intense safety monitoring in our history.
Parents, it is, of course, okay if you still have questions. And if you do, I encourage you to talk to your child’s provider or your local pharmacist to learn more about the benefits and, of course, the safety of these vaccines.
In the meantime, I’d like to outline why COVID-19 vaccinations for our children are particularly important.
We do know that COVID-19 illness can be serious for children and that, as parents, we are always looking to do what’s right to protect them against harm.
While we want to prevent severe outcomes for every age, it’s exper- — it’s especially concerning to see severe outcomes in our youngest children — the hospitalizations and deaths.
Children should not need to be hospitalized. They should not need to go to the ICU, to be on a ventilator, and they certainly should not lose their life to this virus at such a young age.
During the Omicron wave, we saw a huge spike in COVID-19 cases in children and the highest hospitalization rates in children than at any other point during this pandemic, especially among our youngest, ages six months through four years, who had the highest rate of hospitalization among any age group under the age of 17.
Since January 2020, we’ve lost 215 children — each six months to four years — to COVID-19.
To put that in perspective, during March 2020 through April 2022, COVID-19 was among the top five leading causes of death in every age group of children under the age of 19 and the number one infectious cause of death in children.
No parent should have to face the stress of having a child who’s severely ill. Protecting — protection gained from COVID-19 vaccination could be the difference between a hospitalization, a hospital — a hospital visit, or even che- — saving a child’s life. And that’s unequivocally great news for parents.
We all want to do what’s best for our children. And for the safest vaccine and protection against COVID-19, do go and get your child COVID-19 vaccinated.
Young children do not need to have an underlying condition to be at risk of severe disease. In fact, over half of children hospitalized with COVID-19 were otherwise healthy and had no underlying medical condition. And children who have previously had COVID-19 can also still benefit from a COVID-19 vaccine.
Evidence has shown that vaccine immunity results in a broader neutralizing antibody response that has broader protection against variants compared with infection-induced immunity alone.
So as a parent, as a physician, and as your CDC director, I strongly encourage all parents to get their child vaccinated.
Our fight against COVID-19 is not over, as Dr. Jha mentioned. But we are in a much better place. And we are now armed with vaccines for our very youngest, and we have the armamentarium in our toolbox to face this virus head on.
Thank you. I’ll now turn things over to Dr. Fauci.
DR. FAUCI: Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky. What I’d like to do over the next minute or two is to just underscore and answer preemptively some of the questions that Dr. Walensky and Dr. Jha and I have received over the last few days since the announcement was made.
Let’s just take a very quick review of the questions that people ask. For example, parents ask: How did they come to this conclusion? What was the data that led to the approval and recommendation of these drugs? Well, as you know — of these vaccines.
As you know, we have two in question — Moderna and Pfizer. Both of those have gone under extensive placebo, blinded control trials, which is the gold standard of determining efficacy and safety.
If we go first to the Moderna trial, it involves 6,400 children and infants. The important point to emphasize is that this is a vaccine which is two doses four weeks apart.
Importantly, the immune responses that were elicited by the vaccines were comparable to those responses in younger adults and in adults that were receiving a higher dose that unequivocally, in a clinical trial, led to a clinical benefit.
So even though this is mostly an immunological bridging study, the fact remains that it is highly correlated with a good clinical effect.
What about the safety of the Moderna? When you do vaccines, one of the things you address is what’s called reactogenicity. Namely, what’s the immediate local or systemic effect?
So in summary, and very briefly, the reactogenicity of this vaccine was essentially the same — no better or worse than what we’ve seen with any of a number of childhood vaccines that we regularly administer to our children.
There was no incidence of myocarditis or multisystem inflammatory syndrome of children.
Very quickly, moving on to the Pfizer, which was a bit different — it was in three doses. First doses separated by three weeks, second dose by eight weeks.
Again, the bridging immunological situation indicated that the responses that were elicited by this vaccine was equivalent to the responses in other studies, including young adults and in adults which were clearly associated with a beneficial clinical response.
With regard to the safety data of Pfizer BioNTech, the same thing: The reactogenicity — for example, fevers, pain at the site — were really quite comparable to what we’ve seen in vaccines that all of us have been administering to our children over years and years.
The bottom line of all of this is that the FDA evaluation and analysis of the safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing data were very rigorously and comprehensively looked at to support the EUA. The known and potential benefits clearly outweigh the known and potential risks in this pediatric population.
And we want to make sure you understand, parents, that prior to making the decision to authorize and recommend these vaccines, the FDA’s and CDC’s independent advisory committees, as you heard, were consulted and voted unanimously in support of the authorization and the recommendation. Therefore, we are all very enthusiastic about getting your children vaccinated with these now available products.
Back to you, Dr. Jha.
DR. JHA: Great. Thank you, Drs. Fauci and Walensky. Let’s go ahead and go to questions. And I’m going to ask my colleague, Kevin Munoz, to get us get us going on that. Kevin?
MODERATOR: Thanks, Dr. Jha. I say this a lot, but we have to keep to one question per person. So, please do that so we can get through as many as we can.
Sheryl Stolberg, New York Times.
Q Hi, thanks for doing this call. I’m going to immediately violate your admonition and ask two questions. The first is about the kids’ vaccines. I noticed on the Vaccines.gov that a lot of these pharmacies say they’ll vaccinate ages three and up, and I wondered why that is and if there’s a problem with getting vaccines to the youngest children.
And then — so this is for Dr. Fauci. Dr. Fauci, I think a lot of Americans are just wondering how you’re feeling and what your experience with COVID was and how you got infected. And I just wondered if you could share a little bit of that.
DR. JHA: Well, why don’t we start there? Tony, give us an update on how you’re feeling.
DR. FAUCI: Well, I’m actually — Sheryl, thank you for asking — I’m feeling really fine. I had some mild symptoms last Tuesday. I checked my antigen test on Wednesday. It was positive. I had one day of symptomatology. I started on Wednesday on Paxlovid. And I was on Paxlovid for five days, and I have now finished Paxlovid and I’m still feeling really quite fine.
I think I’m an example, given my age, of what we’re all talking about today. I’m vaccinated. I’m doubly boosted. And I believe if that were not the case, I very likely would not be talking to you looking as well as I look, I think, right now. So, all is well with Fauci, and thank you for asking.
DR. JHA: You look great, Tony. So, indeed, thank goodness for vaccines and Paxlovid.
On the issue of kids under three, this is — and vaccinating kids under three, this is really about the PREP Act. And, Rochelle, I don’t know if you know more about the details behind this to comment about why it is that some places will vaccinate kids under three and other places on won’t.
DR. WALENSKY: Yeah, no, I would say much of this may be related to the PREP Act, but also ability of pharmacies to handle younger kids and also the willingness of parents to potentially want to take their younger kids to where they routinely get vaccinated, whether it’s their local community health center or their local pediatrician.
DR. JHA: Great. Next question.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to Tamara Keith at NPR.
Q Thanks for taking my question. President Biden was recently asked if there is enough supply of vaccines for these children, and he said that, “We’ll get through at least this year,” with the current level of funding. I’m hoping you could verify whether that is the case and also expand out. Is there enough funding for every American who needs a bivalent vaccine, if one of those is developed, to be able to get that?
DR. JHA: Yeah, so he was asked — I think I was there when he was asked this question. He was largely being asked about the current campaign for kids. And so, let me be very clear on that. We have more than enough Moderna and Pfizer for every child who wants one or every parent of a child who wants one for this pediatric vaccine campaign.
As you all know, we’ve been very open that we have moved money from other critical programs at HHS to an effort to buy some vaccines. We do not believe we have actually, just based on — again, without getting into the details of the contracting, which has not happened yet — we will not have enough vaccines for every American who wants one this fall and winter. So, that’s, of course, the bivalent vaccines that we’re talking about. We should have enough for potentially high-risk individuals.
But one of the reasons we’ve been asking for additional funding from Congress is we need funding to make sure that every American who wants a bivalent vaccine, should one be authorized by the FDA, has the ability to do that.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to MJ Lee at CNN.
Q Thank you. This question is for Dr. Jha. Just revisiting the warning that you had made last month that the U.S. could potentially see 100 million new COVID infections if Congress doesn’t approve more funding. Given that that was based on preliminary and early data from modelers and experts, I’m just wondering whether now, more than a month later, you have an update or a revision on the forecast for the fall and winter, or does the 100 million new infections still fall somewhere in the middle of the projections that you have been studying.
DR. JHA: Yeah, so, MJ, as I — as I said about a month ago, we are constantly looking at a whole range of data, both internal models developed by government scientists, as well as external models. And we’re planning for a range of scenarios. And that’s — of course, one of the range of scenarios we have is that we could see a substantial wave of infections.
We’re expecting new models and new data in the upcoming weeks. Again, it’s always hard to make longer-term projections. As we get closer to the date, you get more modeling data coming out.
And, you know, my feeling is that we’re going to update people with kind of both what we’re seeing in the modeling data, but also what kinds of different scenarios we’re planning for. At the end of the day — and I’ve said this before — we try not to be in the prediction business and we try to be in the planning business. And we have to plan for a range of scenarios, obviously always hoping that we get a very mild winter that we have very few infections. But hoping is not a strategy. We are planning for a range of different scenarios.
Q So is the 100 million still somewhere in the ra- — the middle of the range of the projections that you’ve been seeing, since that was a warning you had made last month?
DR. JHA: Yeah, so it was a couple of months ago, and I said it was one of the many things that we were seeing. And we have not gotten any updated numbers that I can report back on today.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to Tom Howell at the Washington Times.
Q Hey, thanks for doing this. Just real quick, do you know how many of these pediatric shots have been administered this week, not just delivered? And can you talk about how or why the U.S. became the first country in the world to offer these vaccines to zero to four years old? It seems like places like the UK or Israel sometimes beat the U.S. to the punch. I’m just wondering why that was not the case this time. Thanks.
DR. JHA: Yeah. So let me start on the second. And then the first question of when we will have data on vaccines administered, I’m going to turn it over to Dr. Walensky, since CDC tracks that very closely.
You know, we had been among the first on getting vaccines authorized for almost every age group. Certainly on mRNA vaccines, we were the first to do that for adults. And then we have moved very quickly on getting authorizations for kids 12 to 17, then 5 to 11, and now zero to 4.
I think it is a combination of really vigorous scientific work that’s been done by the companies in close partnership with FDA, who has been very transparent and open about the standards required to get these authorizations. So I think it’s been a lot of very proactive work on these vaccines that has actually made America pretty consistently a leader, certainly on the mRNA vaccines, in terms of authorizing it for different populations.
On the issue of how many kids have gotten vaccinated, administered doses, I’m going to turn it over to Rochelle. Rochelle, when are we going to be able to see data coming in on that?
DR. WALENSKY: Great. Thank you, Ashish. We intend — we plan to be very transparent in terms of the administration numbers, as we have been for all of our cohorts of children and adults getting vaccinated and boosted. Right now, we’re doing the work of delivering and then, of course, the administration. And we’re working with our immunization partners in our jurisdictions to receive the administration data. When we have those in a more complete fashion, we’ll be able to report those publicly.
DR. JHA: All right, next question.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to Meg Tirrell at CNBC.
Q Well, thank you. Just one quick one, and then another one. The clinical guidelines from the CDC say that the doses can be spaced for the primary series for the littlest kids from you know, four or three, depending if it’s Moderna or Pfizer, up to eight weeks. Just wondering how you’d advise parents to think about how far they should space out those doses.
And then, just more broadly, you talked about the individual protection against severe disease from these vaccines. What will some of the social effects be of having this vaccine available? Will it mean things like you won’t have to quarantine if you’re in daycare, things like that? What will be — what will be the effect on parents and families?
DR. JHA: Rochelle, why don’t I have you handle both those?
DR. WALENSKY: Yeah, so I would say part of the reason for the range is to just recognize that it may be hard to keep — especially during summertime, with travel and with kids in camp, it may be hard to be strict to do the three or four weeks.
But I would say if you’re at risk of severe outcomes, if you’re — certainly if you’re immunocompromised, you want to be able to be fully protected as soon as possible. So I would err on the earlier side of that administration course.
With regard to guidance for families and for updated guidance, you know, we are actively — always continuously looking at our guidance. I would say the most important thing to do is to get your child vaccinated and get your family vaccinated, and that will deliver the most protection to you and your family and allow you to not be at risk of severe disease.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to Cheyenne Haslett at ABC News.
Q Thank you for doing this. To follow up on the issue of COVID funding, can you say how many vaccines you’ve been able to purchase with that money that you diverted, or when you might be able to announce that, if it’s still in negotiations?
And what is the plan, if that’s not going to cover all Americans — since COVID funding seems off the table — to get people vaccines, you know, even if they’re not free from the government?
DR. JHA: Yeah. Two good questions. So we can’t talk about numbers because the negotiations have just gotten started, so there are no numbers to report.
Again, just to be very clear, we’re talking about bivalent vaccines that would be purchased for this fall and winter. Those bivalent vaccines have not even been authorized by the FDA. We think the FDA is going to authorize bivalent vaccines, but we’re not sure.
So, first of all, we’re going to hear more from the FDA next week. Then, negotiators — kind of, contract negotiators on behalf of U.S. government are going to enter into contract negotiations with Moderna and Pfizer, with the resources that we’ve been able to pull together, cobble together for vaccines for the fall. It’s very clear we’re not going to have enough vaccines for every adult who wants one.
But — and then we continue to have conversations, and we’ll continue to have conversations, with both Republicans and Democrats on the — on the Hill.
You know, look, I — I’m an eternal optimist. I remain convinced that Congress is not going to walk away at this point in the pandemic, when we have made so much progress and as we are looking into a fall and winter, with a new generation of vaccines. I don’t believe Congress will walk away and say, “We’re not going to make sure that every American who wants a vaccine is able to get one.”
There isn’t — there is not a commercialization plan that somehow would be — would be ready in time for this fall and winter. So we really have to make sure we have the resources we need so that people who want a vaccine this fall and winter from, you know, again, this new generation of vaccines — which we’ll hear more about from the FDA in the next week or so –we’ve got to make sure that that’s available to every American.
MODERATOR: Last question. Let’s go to Zeke Miller at the AP.
Q Thanks for doing this. Just to follow up on the last question: Is there a — has any country cut in front of the U.S. on the contracting front? Last month, when you were — Dr. Jha, when you were saying the U.S. needed the money now to start the contracting process, it was to prevent other countries from moving in front of the line. So if you can clarify, is the U.S. still at the front of the line?
And, relatedly, just on your last point there, you said there’s no commercialization plan in place for the fall. So if the U.S. doesn’t have money to provide free vaccines for populations that aren’t high risk — other adults, they won’t even be able to buy those vaccines out of their own pocket? They’re just out of luck? Is that the administration’s message to them right now?
DR. JHA: So, first of all, on the issue of countries, I can talk about what’s public. I know Germany has signed contracts for a next generation of vaccines, these bivalent vaccines. I believe, both with Moderna and Pfizer — although I’m not 100 percent sure — but they certainly have — what we know is that many European countries are far along in their — in their contract negotiations with these companies.
We have not entered into those negotiations. We’re about to, because we’ve pulled these resources together.
So, you know, this is a problem, right? And we want to make sure that when these vaccines get authorized by the FDA and they get produced, that Americans are able to get them in time, before we see any kind of a fall or winter surge where we just see one.
So the — one of the reasons we pulled resources from other critical programs was we just felt like we couldn’t wait any longer. And if we waited much longer, we would not be able to get these vaccines — certainly for our high-risk individuals — in time to protect them. Certainly, if we got an early surge of infections, we would be — we would really not have the vaccines we needed.
In terms of, you know, what to do for people who are not high risk for whom we may not be able to purchase vaccines — look, this is a huge challenge. As I said, there is not an obvious way to get these things commercialized.
If you think about it from the perspective of these companies, they’re negotiating with countries around the world. They have certain limitations to their — to their production capacity. And — and it’s — there’s not an easy way to make sure that the commercial purchasers somehow get in and beat out other countries to have product available.
So, we don’t — we’re — we’re looking at all the contingencies. We don’t get to walk away, right? And it’s one thing for Congress to say, “We’re not going to support this.” The administration doesn’t get to do that. We are in this. We’re going to figure out solutions. But it would be a whole lot easier to make sure every American who wants a vaccine can get one and be protected if we can get funding from Congress.
MODERATOR: We are done, Dr. Jha.
DR. JHA: Thank you very much, Kevin. Thank you, everybody, for joining us. Huge thanks to my colleagues, Drs. Walensky and Fauci. Great to see Dr. Fauci fully recovered and doing better.
Thank you for — all of you for joining us this afternoon. We will be back again to give you more updates, but really appreciate people taking the time. And thank you for your patience in the beginning when we had some technical issues. And have a great day. Thank you.
3:12 P.M. EDT
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