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You Asked, We Got Answers: The U.S. Surgeon General Takes On Your COVID-19 Questions

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Here are some numbers to get excited about. In the U.S., more than half the eligible population - that's people 12 and older - are fully vaccinated. And new coronavirus infections have fallen to their lowest point since the pandemic began - under 14,000 a day.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

But we know you still have a lot of unanswered questions. For example, how long does vaccine protection last?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Will there be booster shots available?

CHANG: When can young children get vaccinated?

CHRISTINE STERN: Are they carriers?

CHANG: And what is the U.S. doing to prevent the spread of variants?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: When will Americans feel safe in terms of international travel and global pandemic management?

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And what is the U.S. doing to prevent the spread of variants? So when we got the chance to do an interview with the U.S. surgeon general this week, we got answers. We did that on Twitter Spaces, a social media platform for live audio conversations. And that's what you're about to hear - Dr. Vivek Murthy in front of a virtual audience. And the first question - how exactly does the Biden administration plan to meet its goal of getting 70% of adults vaccinated by Independence Day with the rate of vaccinations slowing?

VIVEK MURTHY: We're going to have to work really hard to make sure that there are more and more ways to access the vaccine, from, you know, extended hours at pharmacies to getting it into doctors' offices to free rides through Uber and Lyft and free childcare as well. You know, I'm optimistic that we'll make the 70%. But it's not going to be easy. It's going to take all of us.

CORNISH: You've talked about the idea of the issues being access as a problem, right? Then there's also the issue of, I guess, confidence, people who basically say, look. This vaccine was developed too fast. And I've got my reservations, so I'm going to wait. That's a not-uncommon thing to hear.

MURTHY: It's a great question, Audie. And I would say that there are three buckets of reasons why people are not getting vaccinated that we're really focused on. One is access, as we spoke about. And for many people, time off from work, getting a ride to get a vaccine - these are all actually important logistical barriers that they need help overcoming.

The second bucket, though, has to do with mobilization. And we know that there are a number of people who aren't sure if they still need the vaccine. They see cases coming down, or they think, well, I'm young and healthy. I'm at low risk. Do I really need to get vaccinated? By the way...

CORNISH: Are they wrong?

MURTHY: No. So it's a great question. And the answer is absolutely yes, it is important to get vaccinated. And I'll go into why in just a second. But the third bucket actually has to do with exactly what you brought up, which is information. We know that about 2/3 of people who are not vaccinated right now either believe some of the commonly held myths that are out there or think they might be true. They're not sure. And some of those myths include, for example, number one, that you don't need to get the COVID vaccine if you've already had COVID. And the answer is you actually absolutely do because the immunity that you get from natural infection is not nearly as robust, especially against the new variants, as the immunity you get from the vaccine. There are also some myths out there that you can get COVID from the vaccine itself, which is absolutely not true.

CORNISH: But in a way, we know what the myths are. I think what we don't know is, what's the script you're giving to providers to counter them? Because what you guys have right now is, like, a regional problem, right? You have a lot of southern states where there are less than 40% of people vaccinated. In Mississippi, that number is 33%. Are we looking at a political problem - a red state problem - versus a scientific one?

MURTHY: Well, what we've learned in the last many months is that the key to getting people vaccinated is for them to hear from people they trust. And we're a big, diverse country, and the people we trust and listen to aren't always the same. And that's one of the reasons we're - we've been working so closely with faith leaders, with rural clinics and rural hospitals, teachers and educators or doctors and nurses. But that's really going to be the key to ensuring that we lift vaccination rates in all parts of the country.

CORNISH: We're going to be taking questions from within the room in just a few minutes. We actually reached out to listeners for questions. So the surgeon general is going to take one or two questions from that batch now.

STERN: Hi. My name is Christine Stern, 47, of Paso Robles, Calif. Last week, our public school board announced masks were not required for grades TK through second, ages 4 to 8. But being only kids 12 and up can be vaccinated, I feel like younger children are sitting ducks. What is the real risk of having this age group in school without a mask? Can they transmit the virus?

MURTHY: Well, I look at it as the dad of young kids, too. And my kids are 4 and 3, and they don't have a vaccine that's available to them - you know, kids under 12 - right now. And so we do have to take steps to be cautious. What we've seen is that - in schools where masking is actually implemented, we've seen that you're able to actually keep infection rates quite low. And so that's what we've got to do. I think removing the requirement for masks for children who are - we're expecting to go to school and be in close proximity to other children when they don't have a vaccine available to them - that's not consistent with everything that we've learned from a public health and medical perspective about COVID-19.

CORNISH: We have two questions from Twitter Spaces. And we're going to start with Sam (ph) and then go to Katie (ph). Sam, if you can open up your mic and give your question to the U.S. surgeon general.

SAM: Hi. I go to a university, a public university. It being a public university means that money comes through federal funds. Does that mean that if there is a vaccination mandate, that would extend to all universities as well?

MURTHY: Well, Sam, that's a great question, and thanks for asking it. We do not anticipate a federal mandate for vaccinations. So I would not anticipate any direction for the federal government telling your university that they should require you to get a vaccine.

On the other hand, I absolutely do hope that you will strongly consider getting vaccinated if you're not already and that you'll also tell your classmates. Because one thing we've learned is not only is the vaccine important for people who are younger, even though you're at less risk of having a bad outcome compared to somebody in their 60s, 70s or 80s, we still have had thousands and thousands of young people who have been hospitalized, a number who have lost their lives to this virus. We want to prevent that. The vaccine is the best way to do that.

CORNISH: Sam, thank you for your question because I think you're trying to take my job. That was a very specific (laughter) and very smart question. We want to turn the mic over to Katie. Katie, open up, and let's talk with the surgeon general.

KATIE: Perfect. Hello. And, Audie, thank you. And thank you, NPR, for having this informative discussion. You know, I have a child who is too young to be vaccinated in the current moment. Do you have any predictions about when the below-12 set will be in on this? Because I'm a bit worried about those variants breaking through my vaccination protection and me bringing home a real serious problem for my youngest. So if you could shed some light, I would appreciate it. Thank you.

MURTHY: Well, Katie, first of all, thank you so much for your question. And there are trials underway. I think there's a pretty good chance that by the end of the calendar year, there may be a vaccine available for your kids and for my kids. But the second thing I would also just reinforce about the variants, since you raised those - all the evidence we have tells us that the vaccines we have in the United States are effective against the variants circulating in the United States. And we obviously want it to stay that way, which is why we're working hard to get vaccine to other countries around the world until we can tamp down the development of variants elsewhere, too. But that is good news

CORNISH: Since we're heading into the summer, I think this question is pertinent. It's from Toby Algya.

TOBY ALGYA: With summer fast approaching, I was wondering, what is the statistical probability of contracting COVID from an outdoor event? For example, how many people have gotten COVID from being outdoors, and how many people do you expect to contract COVID from outdoor events this summer? Thank you.

MURTHY: Toby, that's a really good question. And the good news is that being outdoors seems to be one of the most effective things you can do to reduce your likelihood of getting COVID. And we've learned during the course of this pandemic that ventilation is a critical factor in determining how much risk there is in your interaction with other people. So the one exception, I'd say, is if you're unvaccinated, and if you're going to be in really tight, crowded spaces for a prolonged period of time, that's the circumstance where you're going to want to wear a mask.

CORNISH: So you still want people to be giving each other some space, I mean, if you're doing the picnic outside.

MURTHY: Well, so, generally, if you're having a picnic, you're at low risk. What I'm talking about when I say really jammed up is if you imagine an outdoor concert, if you're unvaccinated, where a whole bunch of people are just really jammed up right against each other tightly. You can't really move. You're inches away from other people for a prolonged period of time. I don't anticipate most people are going to be in those circumstances, but I mentioned it as an aside. But the vast majority of outdoor circumstances - barbecues, walks with friends, outdoor dining - most of those things, you know, we feel pretty good about from a safety perspective because of the good ventilation outdoors.

But finally, just a reminder, Toby - the way to really reduce your risk is just make sure you get vaccinated. It really - it's not just about protecting you from getting COVID. But I'd say the most powerful effects of getting vaccinated is a reduction in worry because you know you're going to be safe. You know you can interact with other people without putting them at risk. And that means a lot.

CORNISH: Thank you to Dr. Vivek Murthy, who is the U.S. surgeon general.

MURTHY: Thanks, everyone. Take care, Audie.

CORNISH: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.