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Latest update on COVID-19 in U.S.

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Updated: February 24, 2021

Press Briefing by White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Officials

Via Teleconference 

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11:02 A.M. EST

    MR. ZIENTS: Good morning. Three weeks ago, the President launched his comprehensive whole-of-government strategy to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Central to that strategy is getting shots into the arms of the American people. We’ve been making steady progress over the past few weeks, getting more vaccine supply, getting more vaccinators on the ground, and creating more places to get vaccinated. We are on track to meet the President’s goal of delivering 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office.

Today I want to give you an update on our execution against that goal. We’ll also hear from Dr. Nunez-Smith, get a state-of-the-pandemic update from Dr. Walensky, and an update on the latest science from Dr. Fauci. We’ll then open it up for questions.

The President has made clear that we’re not going to solve this crisis overnight, but we are using every tool at our disposal to make progress in our effort to put this pandemic behind us.

First, we continue to take steps to increase the vaccine supply and get it out the door as fast as the manufacturers can make it. Yesterday we announced another increase in the weekly allocations of vaccine doses to states, tribes, and territories. We have achieved a 28 percent increase in the first three weeks of the administration.

We’re helping states administer the supply more efficiently and equitably by providing them with visibility into the supply they will receive over the coming three weeks.

Second, we’re mobilizing teams to get shots in arms. At the President’s direction, we’re moving quickly to get more vaccinators on the ground, including retired doctors and nurses. We’ve deployed hundreds of personnel across the federal government, from FEMA to USDA to HHS and other federal agencies, to support vaccination operations nationwide. And we have plans to deploy thousands more.

Third, we’re creating more places where Americans can get vaccinated. To do so, we’ve expedited financial support to bolster community vaccination centers nationwide, with over $3 billion in federal funding across 35 states, tribes, and territories. We’re putting equity front and center, partnering with states to increase vaccinations in the hardest-hit and hardest-to-reach communities. We’ve launched efforts to get more vaccines to pharmacies and community health centers.

And we’re building new vaccination centers from the ground up, in stadiums, community centers, school gyms, and parking lots across the country.

And the data show that these efforts are working. As you can see in our vaccination progress report, our seven-day average daily doses administered is now 1.5 million shots per day, up from 1.1 million only two weeks ago.

But let me be very clear: We have much more work to do. This is just the start.

Today we have two updates on how we continue to increase the number of places to get vaccinated and ensure our response is equitable.

First, we are building new vaccination sites. Last week, we announced new mass vaccination centers in California. And today I’m pleased to announce that we’ll partner with the state of Texas to build three new major community vaccination centers in Dallas, Arlington, and Houston — communities hit hard by the pandemic. In Houston, we’re building a major site at NRG Stadium; in South Dallas, a new site at Fair Park; and in Arlington, a site at AT&T Stadium. Together, these sites will be capable of administering more than 10,000 shots in arms a day.

We are deploying federal teams immediately to work hand in hand with the state and local jurisdiction.

We appreciate Governor Abbott, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, Representative Mark Veasey, and Representative Ron Wright. Local mayors and county leaders are also part of this partnership.

We expect these sites to start getting shots in arms beginning the week of February 22nd.

Importantly, FEMA has partnered with CDC to launch these and other vaccination sites that use processes and are in locations that promote equity, deploying CDC’s social vulnerability index.

Second on this point, we continue to put equity at the center of our work more broadly, guided by Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith. 

Today we’re pleased to announce the members of our Health Equity Task Force. Ensuring that we reach every person in our response is something that the President and Vice President feel very strongly about.

On his second day in office, President Biden signed an executive order to create this task force. And we could not have picked a better leader in Dr. Nunez-Smith to help drive this work.

I also want to note that Vice President Harris’s work in the Senate informed the development of the mission and work of the Health Equity Task Force. Then, Senator Harris introduced the COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparity Task Force Act to gather data about disproportionally affected communities and provide recommendations combat the racial and ethnic disparities in the COVID-19 response. Today, that vision becomes a reality as we create this task force to help lead our national response. 

So now I’ll turn it over to Dr. Nunez-Smith. 

Dr. Nunez-Smith.

Dr. Nunez-Smith, are you on mute? Maybe you can try again, Dr. Nunez-Smith.

DR. NUNEZ-SMITH: Okay, we’ll start over.  

MR. ZIENTS: That’s perfect. Thank you. Thank you.  

DR. NUNEZ-SMITH: Okay, great.

MR. ZIENTS: Wonderful.

DR. NUNEZ-SMITH: So, thank you, Jeff. And good morning to everyone. You know, shortly after COVID-19 was first identified in the United States, we began to see disparities in testing, in cases, and in rates of hospitalization and mortality. And these inequities were quickly evident by race, ethnicity, geography, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other factors. 

You know, as the pandemic has progressed over the past year, so too have the inequities. And over the fast — the past few months, we’ve seen new disparities emerge — you know, most notably with regards to access to therapeutics and vaccines.

So, absolutely, make no mistake about it: Beating this pandemic is hard work. And beating this pandemic while making sure that everyone in every community has a fair chance to stay safe or to regain their health, well, that’s the hard work done the right way.

So President Biden and Vice President Harris have made it clear since the beginning that they are committed to centering their administration’s COVID-19 response on equity. And as Jeff mentioned, Vice President Harris set a blueprint for how to advise this commitment during her time in the Senate. And President Biden not only agreed with the necessity of such a task force — you know, as Jeff said, he signed an executive order requiring its formation in his first full day in office.

Next slide, please.

And today, that vision for our federal COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force officially becomes a reality. Not only am I humbled and honored that President Biden has asked me to serve as the chair of this COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, but I am truly excited to share that the President has announced the 12 individuals he has selected to serve as non-federal members.

These individuals were identified through conversations with stakeholder groups, on recommendation by organizations and individuals, and through the visible effort and expertise they have lent to their communities in the fight against COVID-19. And their bios are available on the Department of Health and Human Services website.

But in addition to their noteworthy backgrounds and expertise, these individuals represent a range of racial and ethnic groups and also key constituencies, including children and youth; educators and students; healthcare providers; immigrants; individuals with disabilities; LGBTQ-plus individuals; public health experts; rural communities; state, local, territorial, and tribal governments; and unions.

And in my discretion as chair of this task force, I will be asking representatives from the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, and Labor to sit on this task force, as well, to offer their critical perspective on some of the most effective levers we can pull in our efforts for COVID-19 health equity.

Next slide, please.

Just a quick word on the actual work of this task force. This advisory body is charged with issuing a range of recommendations to help inform the COVID-19 response and recovery. So this includes thinking about the equitable allocation of COVID-19 resources and relief funds; you know, effective outreach and communication to underserved and minoritized populations; and improving cultural responsiveness within the federal government.

You know, additional recommendations will advise on efforts to improve our data collection and use, as well as a long-term plan to address data shortfalls regarding communities of color and underserved populations. 

And the work of the task force will conclude after issuing a final report to the COVID-19 response coordinator on the drivers of observe (inaudible) COVID-19 inequities, the potential for ongoing disparities facing COVID-19 survivors, and actions to ensure that future pandemic responses do not ignore or exacerbated health inequities.

We want everyone to feel connected to this work. So, in addition to this COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, the administration has already begun — will, of course, continue. And that will include the launch of a series of constituent listening sessions to engage with key communities whose voices we know are so important to (inaudible) conversation about equity. We will always, always (inaudible) endeavor to engage with every community to inform (inaudible) necessary to drive positive change.

MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Nunez-Smith? 

DR. NUNEZ-SMITH: So I just want to issue congratulations to all of the individuals. 

MR. ZIENTS: We’re having a little bit of technical difficulty. Why don’t we do this: Why don’t we go to Dr. Walensky, sort through those technical difficulties. We’ll come back to you at the end for you to complete your remarks. 

So let’s go to Dr. Walensky on the state of the pandemic.

Dr. Walensky.

DR. WALENSKY: Great, thank you so much, Jeff. And thanks to all of you again for being with us today. Cases and new hospital admissions continue to fall. Deaths have decreased slightly in the most recent seven days. And we are watching these data closely. Because cases, hospitalizations, and deaths remain high, and because we are still losing more than a thousand Americans daily to this disease, we must continue to take every action we can to protect our loved ones and our communities. 

One of the simple things we can all do, one thing that will make the biggest difference, is to wear a mask. I know some of you are both tired of hearing about masks, as well as tired of wearing them. Masks can be cumbersome. They can be inconvenient. And I also know that many of you still have questions about masks. You may be unsure if they work, what kind is best, and whether two masks are better than one. 

We’ve learned a lot about masks over the past year. Today, I want to share with you some new science that is emerging about masks and what we know now that we didn’t know when the pandemic started. 

The science is clear: Everyone needs to be wearing a mask when they are in public or when they’re in their own home but with people who do not live in their household. This is especially true with our ongoing concern about new variants spreading in the United States. 

Masks offer two kinds of protection. When I wear a mask, it protects you and it protects me. But to get the most protection possible, we all have to wear them. 

Research has demonstrated that COVID-19 infections and deaths have decreased when policies that require everyone to wear a mask have been implemented. So with cases, hospitalizations, and deaths still very high, now is not the time to roll back mask requirements.

I have also seen very — many well-meaning people wearing masks that do not fit well or fit incorrectly. In fact, recent survey data from Porter Novelli found that among adults who reported wearing masks in the past week, half said they wore their masks incorrectly in public.

New data released from CDC today underscore the importance of wearing a mask correctly and making sure it fits closely and snugly over your nose and mouth. 

In this new study, researchers used experiments in the laboratory, not the real world, to assess how different strategies to improve the fit of masks impacts masks’ ability to block aerosolized particles emitted during a simulated cough, as well as to reduce exposure to aerosol particles emitted during simulated breathing. 

The size of the aerosol particles in the experiment were designed to mimic the respiratory droplet particles most important for person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Specifically, the experiments compared the performance of no mask, a single cloth face mask, and a single medical procedure mask with two approaches to improve the mask fit of the surgical mask: wearing a cloth mask over the procedure mask, and knotting and tucking the ear loops of the medical procedure mask.

In the study, wearing any type of mask performs significantly better than not wearing a mask, and well-fitting masks provided the greatest performance both at blocking emitted aerosols and exposure of aerosols to the receiver.

In the breathing experiment, having both the source and the receiver wear masks modified to fit better reduced the receiver’s exposure by more than 95 percent, compared to no mask at all.  

These experimental data reinforce CDC’s prior guidance that everyone two years of age or older should wear a mask when in public and around others in the home — in the home, not living with you. 

We continue to recommend that masks should have two or more layers, completely cover your nose and mouth, and fit snugly against your nose and the sides of your face. 

I want to be clear that these new scientific data released today do not change the specific recommendations about who should wear a mask or when they should wear one, but they do provide new information on why wearing a well-fitting mask is so important to protect you and others.

Based on this new information, the CDC is updating the mask information for the public on the CDC website to provide new options on how to improve mask fit. This includes wearing a mask with a moldable nose wire, knotting the ear loops on your mask, or wearing a cloth mask over a procedure or disposable mask. 

There are also new options available to consumers, called “mask fitters” — small, reusable devices that cinch a cloth or medical mask and that can create a tighter fit against the face and thus improve mask performance. 

The bottom line is this: Masks work, and they work best when they have a good fit and are worn correctly.

Importantly, as per our usual guidance, masks should be used in combination with other prevention measures to offer you and your community the most protection from COVID-19. Stay at least six feet apart from other people you don’t live with, avoid crowds and travel, and wash your hands often.

When we take all of these prevention steps and wear masks that fit well, we protect ourselves and we take care of each other.

I also want to follow up on a question I received during Monday’s briefing from Kaitlan Collins. I was asked about CDC’s best estimate on the prevalence of variant cases in the United States based on current case data and volume of sequencing. 

Our latest estimate nationally is that between 1 and 4 percent of cases in the United States are due to the B117 variant, the variant most frequently found in the United States.

It’s important to note that some states have seen higher numbers of variant cases, and thus the proportion attributable to B117 in these states is likely to be higher than in other states. We do not believe the variants are distributed equally across the country at this time. 

And with that, I will say thank you, and I will look forward to your questions and pass it back to Dr. Fauci.

Dr. Fauci?

DR. FAUCI: Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky. I would like to just take a couple of minutes to preemptively answer three types of questions that I have been asked over the last several days that I believe are important to address preemptively because they will come up. 

The first relates to the fact that many states, cities, and locations, who have gone from 1A to 1B, will soon or already — or have already gone into the 1C of the phase. 

Within 1C are persons 16 to 64 years of age with underlying conditions, including those that might be immunosuppressed because of certain drugs such as glucocorticoids or corticosteroids for diseases like autoinflammatory diseases or allergic diseases. 

There has been a number of individuals who feel that they should not get vaccinated because of those underlying conditions. I want to set the record straight for these individuals because they are more vulnerable to the more severe effects of if they do get infected. Therefore, they are the very people who should get vaccinated. 

When you think in terms of having an immunosuppressed state — for example, if you’re on glucocorticoids for rheumatoid arthritis or you’re on some of the monoclonal antibodies that block the markers of inflammation — that under those circumstances, if that’s where you are, there is not a safety issue with regard to the vaccine. Safety issues in immunosuppressed individuals relate to live, attenuated vaccines which are contraindicated in people who are immunosuppressed. There is no safety reason not to get vaccinated.

So for those who are thinking of getting vaccinated or soon will come up for vaccination, this is something that would be beneficial to you. The only potential downside might be that you might not have as robust a response to the vaccine as if you had a normal immune response. 

But clearly, getting a less-than-optimal response is much better than no response at all. And I’m sure we’ll be getting back to this question as more vaccines become available and more people in that category will be ready to get vaccinated. 

The next is the question of the vaccination of children, namely pediatrics and pregnant women. As we all know, these were not included in the original clinical trials that led to the EUA for the two vaccines that are currently available. 

But I want to point out that since the EUA and under the EUA, approximately 20,000 pregnant women have been vaccinated with no red flags, as we say, and this is being monitored by the CDC and the FDA. So that’s where we’re going there.

With regard to children and pregnant women, as I mentioned on a prior discussion with this group, the fact remains that we will be starting clinical trials, and some have already started. We will not need to do tens of thousands of people; we will need just enough measured in hundreds to thousands for safety and whether or not we induce an immune response that is equivalent to the immune response that has been proven to be protective under the trials that have now shown to be 94 to 95 percent effective.

And finally, the last issue relates to something that Dr. Walensky just said about the prevalence of the B117 or UK variant. The models tell us that this very well might become dominant in the United States by the end of March. That being the case, we should not despair at that because there are things that we can do to prevent that. It is not outside of our power to do that. 

For example, the vaccines that we are using clearly are effective against this. We know that from in-vitro correlate studies, as well as for vaccines that are other candidates. 

So the two things that we can do are some of the things that Dr. Walensky just mentioned: wearing of masks, avoiding congregate settings, keeping your distance, and washing your hands — together, when vaccine becomes available to you, to please get vaccinated. 

So I’ll hand it back to you, Jeff.

MR. ZIENTS: Well, thank you, Dr. Fauci. And, Dr. Nunez-Smith, I understand that you were at the end of your comments. So hopefully the technical issues are behind us and you’ll be available for questions. 

I just want to pick up where you left off, and that is that equity is core to our strategy to put this pandemic behind us. And we’re grateful to you for your expertise and leadership. Through efforts like community vaccination centers located in the hardest-hit areas, mobile units, the community health center program we announced yesterday, along with efforts to build vaccine confidence, we are providing tools to communities around the country to do this work. 

After this briefing, Dr. Nunez-Smith and I will join Governor Cuomo to announce two new community vaccination centers in underserved communities in the state of New York, another example of this work coming to life on the ground.

With that, let me open it up for questions.

MODERATOR: All right, thank you, everybody. We only have time for a couple of questions today. First, we’re going to go to Bertha Coombs at NBC.

Q   Hi, thanks very much. When you’re talking about outreach in these underserved communities, one of the things that we are seeing right now is that there are several waiting lists or people who are already on state lists waiting, who haven’t gotten access. And now the pharmacies are opening up, but those seem to be first come, first served. How are you going to try to create an equitable access for people who already been waiting to be able to get access to these new vaccine doses coming online? 

MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Nunez-Smith, let’s see if your technical issues are resolved. 

DR. NUNEZ-SMITH: I know. Are you able to hear me? 

MR. ZIENTS: Yes.

Q   Yes. 

DR. NUNEZ-SMITH: Okay, great. Thank you so much for the question. You know, we are 100 percent committed to making sure that there is equitable access to the vaccines. 

And the points you raise around registration are well noted. I think there are great efforts underway. I would want to really lift up the work of community-based organizations and faith organizations and others to address, really, what — some of these mechanisms that we’ve talked about today, including location of mobile units, mobile access, as well as pop-up community vaccination sites. 

And we’re going to see more in the range of outreach, you know, with our federal — Federally Qualified Community Health Centers doing outreach to their patient populations to bring them in, as well as some of the pharmacies and others expanding ways to register through telephone and other things that I think will be really helpful.

We’re keeping a close eye on this, and we’ll continue to circle back with updates.

Q   And you’re making sure that, for example, if there is a pharmacy in Harlem or Overtown, that the people who wind up getting those slots aren’t sliding over from wealthier neighborhoods?

DR. NUNEZ-SMITH: It is our top priority, for anybody who is at “yes” and it is their turn, that they’re able to connect with vaccination.

Q   Thanks.

MODERATOR: Great. We have time for one more question. We’ll go to Laura Santhanam at PBS.

Q   Thank you so much for putting on this — this presentation. Can you talk to me a little bit more — or just elaborate on the points about variant prevalence and how vaccine supplies are responding to that? Thank you.

MR. ZIENTS: Dr. Fauci? 

DR. FAUCI: Yeah, as you heard from Dr. Walensky, and I alluded to that, the B117 is, you know, becoming widespread in the United States. It varials [sic]; it isn’t uniformly distributed throughout the United States. 

The variant — that is the 351, the South African variant — has been recognized in a couple of states with just a few people, but it is very likely more prevalent than that because we don’t have yet the full sequence surveillance that we’ll be doing.

When you’re talking about the relationship between vaccination and variants, there are a couple of things that we do know: We do know that the 117 — the one that is the UK, as it were; the one that we’re concerned that over the next month or so it might become dominant — if you look at the antibodies that are induced by the vaccines that we use, they do very well in vitro, in the test tube, against the B117 variant. 

Also, the J&J study, which was done in the UK — and, in fact, was able to show that the protection against that was really quite good to the tune of about 90 percent.

The other variant of concern is one that is a bit more problematic, and that is the one that is not yet, to any great degree, in the United States — although we know it’s here — and that’s the 351-lineage variant, which is the one that is dominating in South Africa. 

When you do those in vitro studies of looking at the antibodies that you induce by the vaccines that we use, there’s about a five- to six-fold diminution in efficacy against that. Fortunately, it stays within the realm of protection. So there is a degree of protection, even though it’s diminished somewhat. 

The good news that we got from other trials, particularly in South Africa, is that even though there was diminution in the effect of protection against mild to moderate disease, when you looked at serious disease, severe disease — particularly hospitalizations and deaths — there was rather substantial protection. In fact, with no hospitalizations or deaths in vaccinated individuals who were infected with the 351.

Bottom line is that we have vaccines that work well against it, and obviously, we’re going to be planning, if necessary, to upgrade vaccines in the future if we ever have to do that.

MR. ZIENTS: Well, thank you, Dr. Fauci. And I want to thank everybody for joining today’s briefing. Thank you.

 11:32 A.M. EST

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