Transcript: White House COVID-19 response team and public health officials

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Updated: March 7, 2021

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Hi, this is Andy Slavitt, the senior advisor at the White House for our COVID response. Thank you all for joining us.

I hope these briefing are helpful in bringing straightforward information on our whole-of-government effort to combat COVID-19. We will use them to highlight various efforts and leaders who are driving daily results on our national strategy to defeat COVID.

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Let me tell you about the agenda today. CDC Director Dr. Walensky will give a brief report on the state of the pandemic, and then Dr. Fauci will provide some important scientific updates. Then I’ve invited Tim Manning, who coordinates our supply chain, to provide detail into questions many of you have had about how we are scaling production of vaccines and other things, including by using the Defense Production Act.

We’re going to discuss three specific ways we’re using the Defense Production Act. First, to increase existing supply of vaccinations Americans need. Second, to scale production of the tests that Americans need to get back their lives. And third, to reduce our long-term dependence on foreign production of supplies that we need to protect our workforce and fight pandemics.

Before we get to that, I have an announcement or two to make at the top.

So, on Monday, you heard me announce that the Biden administration will scale production of at-home COVID tests from a company called Ellume. At-home tests are one of the key steps to getting back to normal life. We announced that by the end of the year, Ellume would be producing 8.5 million tests.

Today, you’ll hear even more action on testing. We will announce that six more companies will surge manufacturing of at-home test kits with the goal of, by summer, having millions of Americans being able to access at-home tests at a multiple of what we talked about on Monday.

It won’t be easy, and it is not happening overnight. But today’s announcement represents another step in the long journey back to normal life.

In addition, I want to announce that the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, has approved FEMA’s request to augment and expedite vaccinations across the country. He’s ordered the first contingent of more than 1,000 active-duty military personnel to support state vaccination sites. Part of this group will start to arrive in California within the next 10 days to begin operations there around February 15th, with additional vaccination missions soon to follow.

The military’s critical role in supporting sites will help vaccinate thousands of people per day and ensure that every American who wants a vaccine will receive one.

I know DOD will be providing a briefing this afternoon with more details, but I want to make sure you are aware of this important development in our whole-of-government response.

With that, I will turn it over to Dr. Walensky.

DR. WALENSKY: Thank you very much. I’m glad to be back with you today. Let’s start with a snapshot of the pandemic.

The United States continues to see a decrease in COVID-19 cases since its peak on January 8th. The number of new cases on February 3rd — approximately 121,000 — represents a 61 percent decrease since the peak on January 8th. 

Similarly, the number of new hospital admissions reported on February 2nd — approximately 10,500 — was down nearly 42 percent since the hospitalization peak of 18,000 reported on January 5th.

On Wednesday, I noted the peak — the pace of deaths appears to be slowing and that we anticipated deaths would start to decrease in the coming weeks. 

Early data suggests now we’re starting to see this decrease with a seven-day average number of deaths declining 6.7 percent to slightly more than 3,000 deaths per day from January 28th through February 3rd.

While we watch these data closely to see if these will be a confirmed trend, prior data do suggest that peaks in deaths usually trail the peaks in cases by somewhere between 9 and 20 days. 

However, we also may see variation in the daily numbers for different reasons, including reporting delays. As such, we will know better if this trend becomes a stable downward slope over the next week.

While the data are moving in the right direction, context is important because cases, hospital admissions, and deaths all remain high and well above the levels that we saw in the summer and early fall.

In order to keep these trends moving in the right trajectory, we must continue to wear masks, continue to social distance, avoid travel and crowds, and get vaccinated when it is your turn. 

And I want to underscore the importance of mask wearing. Today, CDC will be releasing two reports in the MMWR that describe the case — the decline in COVID-19 hospitalization growth rates when statewide mask mandates are in place, as well as a study detailing facemask use among college students on college campuses with mask mandates.

Finally, I want to highlight another dimension of the COVID-19 pandemic on society, specifically the impact on mental health and substance abuse. 

Yesterday, CDC reported a study in the MMWR among U.S. adults and found that 28 percent reported symptoms of depression, 8 percent reported suicidal thoughts, and 18 percent reported they had started or increased substance use to cope with emotions during the pandemic. The study also found that these outcomes were higher for some racial and ethnic groups, including Hispanic adults.

This study underscores the need to ensure that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic includes attention to behavioral health needs of communities, and it reminds us that the longstanding, systemic health and social inequities have put many racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk for poor health outcomes, including COVID-19. And it underscores the need for health equity to underpin everything we are doing in response to this pandemic. 

Thank you. I’ll now turn it over to Dr. Fauci.

Dr. Fauci.

DR. FAUCI: Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky. What I’d like to do in the next couple of minutes is just to bring you up to date on one of the issues that we discussed at our last briefing, and that is the progress along the way of the J&J, on the basis of the data from their ENSEMBLE trial in getting the information to the FDA, examining it in preparation for the possibility of an emergency use authorization. 

The data are now with the FDA. They are examining it. They have scheduled the advisory committee there, VRBPAC — the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee — which will meet in three weeks. 

So let me just very briefly review for you where we are and where we hope to go. 

As you know, the data on efficacy of this ENSEMBLE trial, which involve three countries — the United States, Brazil, and the Republic of South Africa — showed a overall efficacy of 66 percent. But when you unpacked from the different countries, you had a 72 percent efficacy for mild to moderate disease in the USA. 

In the Republic of South Africa — which, as you now, is of concern to us because of the mutant and the lineage that is now dominant in the Republic of South Africa, namely the B1351 — in that, the protection against moderate disease was 57 percent. 

But the good news is that when you looked across all of the countries, the protection against truly severe disease was well over 80 percent; in fact, about 88.8 percent. 

Also of interest is that, in the South African study, as well as all of the others, there were essentially no hospitalizations or deaths. So the sobering news is that we are dealing with variants — antigenic variation — which does have clinical consequences, as I mentioned on the last press briefing, of escape from some of the monoclonal antibody protection and a diminution in some of the protection that we have from the current vaccines.

But the somewhat encouraging news is the rather complete protection against very severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths. 

Now, when you look at what’s going on in our own country, clearly, as the days and the weeks go by, you see, as predicted, an increase in the prevalence of the UK variant — the B117 in the United States — which, as you well know, has been shown by the Brits to have an increase in efficiency of transmissibility, as well as a recent paper showing that there was some increase in pathogenesis leading to severe disease. 

So this is something that we will have to deal with because this is something that’s expanding in its prevalence in the United States. 

The point that I want to make and end with is something that I said last time that I really think it’s important for us here in the United States to realize: that the evolution of variants occurs only when you have a certain degree of replication of the virus in the community, and that means spread from person to person. Viruses will not evolve and mutate if you do not give them an open playing field to replicate and replicate in, essentially, an unbridled fashion. 

For that reason, the message that we keep giving — that Dr. Walensky and I and others on the team keep giving — is that now is the time to do a couple of things. One, double down on the adherence to the public health measures that we talk about all the time: the uniform masking that the President has spoken about; the physical distancing; the avoiding congregate settings, particularly indoors; and the washing of hands. 

At the same time, as another very important mechanism of dampening down the replication in a given community is that distribution efficiently and effectively of vaccines. You’ll be hearing about that in a moment. 

But the message that we have: When a vaccine becomes available to you, get vaccinated. You will not only be protecting yourself, your family, but you will be making a major step in a positive way to protecting the community. 

I’ll stop there, and back to you, Andy.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Thank you. Tim?

MR. MANNING: Thank you, Andy. Thank you, Dr. Fauci and Dr. Walensky.

So, first, since I may not be as well-known as Drs. Fauci Walensky, please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Tim Manning. I’m the National Supply Chain Coordinator for the COVID Response. I’m an emergency manager, having done disaster and emergency response for the past 25 years, and I’ve worked at the local and state level and served as a deputy administrator at FEMA for 8 years. I’ve also been a firefighter and EMT, and I know firsthand the importance of having the equipment and supplies you need, when you need it, on the frontlines of a crisis. 

Right now, I work with teams across the government, from the Department of Defense to the Department of Health and Human Services, to ensure our country has the supplies we need not just now, but into the future. 

That’s why, on day one, President Biden signed an executive order directing us to use all necessary powers, including the Defense Production Act, to get this pandemic under control. In fact, the administration identified shortfalls in 12 critical categories of supplies. 

And today, I’m announcing three ways in which the administration is using the Defense Production Act authorities to fight this pandemic. One has an immediate impact, one will be felt over the next few months, and one will help diminish our reliance on foreign manufacturing for PPE over the long term. 

Our first action gets Pfizer more equipment and supplies that are enabling them to ramp up production and deliver more vaccine faster. 

Our second action will deliver more than 60 million point- of-care tests or at-home tests by this summer. And that’s in addition to the news Andy announced on Monday about the Ellume test. 

Our third action will help Americans — help America produce more surgical gloves that our frontline workers desperately need. 

So let me start with increasing vaccine production. Since January 20th, we have increased the vaccine supply we are providing the states by over 20 percent. Right now, one of the limiting, constraining — one of the factors of constraining increased manufacturing of vaccines is limited equipment and ingredients. That’s why we’re leveraging an important power of the Defense Production Act: the ability to ensure that supplies and material critical to our national defense are going to areas of greatest need. This is called a “priority rating.” If the federal government puts a priority rating on a contract, it means that company can — say, a vaccine manufacturer — gets first access to the product they need before anyone else. 

Today we’re announcing we’re expanding the priority ratings for Pfizer to include filling pumps and tangential flow filtration skid units, critical components Pfizer needs to manufacture the COVID vaccine. It’s actions like these that will allow Pfizer to ramp up production and hit their targets of delivering hundreds of millions of doses over the coming months. 

We told you that when we heard of a bottleneck on needed equipment, supplies, or technology related to vaccine supply, that we would step in and help, and we are doing just that. 

Second, we’re using the DPA to increase our supply of at-home COVID tests. The country is well behind where we need to be in testing, particularly the rapid at-home tests that will allow us all to get back to normal activities, like work and school. 

Earlier this week, we announced investments to bring the first non-prescription at-home COVID test to Americans. And I’m pleased today that — to announce that over the coming weeks, the U.S. government has plans to invest in another six suppliers to rapidly surge domestic testing capability. And thanks to this action, 61 million point-of-care or at-home tests will be available by the end of this summer. 

To do this, we’ll help industry partners construct new plants and build new production lines here in the United States, bringing critical capacity to the fight and reducing our vulnerabilities to disruptions in the supply chain. 

And third, we’re very focused on procuring the personal protective equipment, or PPE, to keep America’s frontline healthcare workers safe. There’s a grave need for masks, shields, and gloves, and we currently aren’t producing these at the rate we need in order to keep up with demand.

We’re already working to increase the availability of N95 masks to frontline workers, but another critical area of concern we hear over and over is surgical gloves. Right now, we just don’t have enough gloves. We’re nearly 100 percent reliant on overseas manufacturers to export to us our country’s surgical gloves that protect healthcare workers. And that’s unacceptable, and we’re using all of our authorities to fix it. 

Over the past two weeks, we’ve pushed forward an effort to expand domestic manufacturing of surgical gloves. And I’m pleased to announce that we will build plants to make the raw materials — the nitrile butyl rubber — for surgical gloves here in the United States, and we’ll help build factories to make those gloves right here in the U.S. as well. And by the end of the year, we’ll produce more than a billion nitrile gloves a month, right here in America. We’ll now make enough to satisfy half of all the U.S. healthcare community demands, right here on U.S. shores. 

These are just three examples of how we’re using the DPA strategically and effectively in our national response. And there’s more to come.

I know there’s a great deal of interest in exactly where and with whom we’re contracting. For reasons of procurement law, I’m not able to disclose the ongoing contract negotiations until they’re finalized. (Inaudible) contracts take four to five weeks to finalize, and we’re about halfway through. So over the next few weeks, I expect we’ll have more announcements about the ways we’re using the DPA and other tools to combat the virus.

Now I want to end by encouraging Congress to act, because some of our additional plans to use DPA — including adding more domestic genomic sequencing, allowing us to track variants and see new ones, or ramp up molecular tests — require funding. Congress could help this effort greatly by passing the American Rescue Plan.

And with that, I’ll turn it back over to Andy.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Thank you, Tim. So why don’t we go to some questions.

MODERATOR: All right, thank you, everybody. First, we’re going to go with Peter Sullivan at The Hill.

Q   Hey, thanks. I wanted to ask on rapid testing. I hear the announcements you’re making. Some people have pointed to the FDA as, sort of, a bottleneck on the rapid testing and say, you know, they’re not authorizing; they’re too –they’re maybe taking too conservative a view of accuracy comparing it to PCR and not, kind of, authorizing simple rapid tests that can be, you know, millions per day — maybe even more plentiful than what you’re talking about. 

So, I wonder — I mean, is there any consideration of either creating a new approval pathway at the FDA or taking more steps to kind of authorize more — even more plentiful rapid tests?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Yeah, thank you, Peter. Look, we understand that everybody who has something submitted to the FDA wants their product approved. And, you know, I would only observe, having been around the FDA for quite some time, that when they go fast, people criticize them; when they go slow, people criticize them. And I think we should be delighted with the announcement today, which, I think, is a counterfactual to the question. 

Having 60 million more at-home tests available over the course of the summer is exactly what the country needs. I think it will change things pretty significantly. So I’m very excited about this announcement, and I think many Americans, hopefully, will be as well.

MODERATOR: Great. Next, we’ll go to Michael Wilner at McClatchy.

Q   Thanks for doing this. Two questions from me. First, the Pentagon just announced it approved 1,110 active-duty service members to support five FEMA vaccination centers. Can you tell us where those vaccine centers will be?

And secondly, the National Strategy says that the administration plans to accelerate the pace of vaccinations by encouraging states to move through priority groups more quickly. So what does “more quickly” mean? Can you be specific what your guidance has been to states thus far? And if you’re leaving it to states to manage, what about your guidance is different from the prior administration, which also endorsed the ACIP guidelines?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Yep. Thanks for the question, Michael. I believe the Department of Defense is going to hold a briefing this afternoon to answer questions specifically about their announcement. All I can tell you is that it is — it’s such a critical part of our all-of-government response and the teamwork that I’ve observed since I’ve been here.

You know, I think with regard to increasing the pace of vaccinations and moving through priority groups, let me just first start by saying, all of us, and starting from the President, recognize that Americans are eager to get vaccinated and that we should have — we want to get that done as hastily, and as safely, and as equitably as possible. I would love to tell you that we are sitting on stockpiles of vaccines that we found when we came here, but unfortunately that’s not the case.

What we’ve done is we have been distributing vaccines as quickly as possible, and we’ve increased, now two periods in a row, the amount of vaccines that states are getting. I can assure you we are in constant conversation about an end-to-end last-mile approach to getting vaccines in people’s arms, and that that is, I think, taking — improving the states’ ability to get those vaccines in arms more quickly. 

As one data point, as I pointed out earlier in the week, when we got here on January 20th, about 46 percent of this — of the supply delivered to states had been administered, and that number is now over 60 percent. I’m not going to speak to the administration before ours; we weren’t here. I mean, we’re looking forward. We see lots of improvement opportunities. I think we’ve taken some, and we’re going to work with states to find additional ones.

Next question.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. Next, we will go to Sara Murray at CNN.

Q   Hi, thank you, guys, for doing this. I appreciate it. My first question is for Dr. Walensky. I just wanted to follow up on some of her comments about teachers. We’re wondering why it would be safe for teachers to return to the classroom if they have not been vaccinated, and whether that is considered the CDC’s official guidance, at this point, that teachers can go back into the classroom even if they have not been vaccinated.

And secondly, I’m just wondering what steps the administration is considering to try to ramp up production of the J&J vaccine, assuming it does get an EUA, since our understanding is the supply will be relatively limited in the beginning.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Dr. Walensky?

DR. WALENSKY: Sure. I’m happy to answer that. I want to just emphasize that our goal is to get children back to school. School should be the last places closed and the first places open. Our goal is to make sure, in getting children back to school, that we do so both with the safety of the children and the safety of the teachers as utmost and critical in making sure that that happens. 

Among the things that we need to do to make sure that schools are safe is to make sure that the community spread of this disease is down, and that means it’s all of our responsibility to work to get our children back to school safely and our teachers back to school safely.

We are actively working on the guidance — the official guidance — which will be released in the week ahead.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: With regard to your second question on Johnson & Johnson, you’re correct that, as is the case with other vaccines, we have not found that the level of manufacturing allows us to have as much vaccine as we think we need coming out of the gate. And without giving you a direct answer to your question, for reasons that I hope are obvious, every option is on the table to figure out how to accelerate manufacturing in the event that the FDA does approve the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Next question.

MODERATOR: Next, we’ll go to Chris Megerian at Los Angeles Times.

Q   Hello. I wanted to see if this is the first official use of the Defense Production Act to speed the production of the vaccines and wanted to see if this use of the DPA is going to increase the pace of vaccine production ahead of what was previously announced or just ensure that production meets the targets that were previously announced.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Tim, do you want to take the first? And you’re welcome to take the second or I can take the second, if you’d like.

MR. MANNING: Sure. Thanks, Andy. This amounts to the first sequence of actions in the Defense Production Act that we’ve taken under the Biden administration over the last couple of weeks. There have been DPA ratings — I think people probably familiar with the — in the last days of the Trump administration, there was — had some limited use of the Defense Production Act on the Pfizer vaccine, but there have been DPA ratings placed previously over the course of the last year in the manufacturing of the vaccines by the previous team as well.

And as far as second question, I’ll defer back over to Andy.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Yep. So I think that the use of the Defense Production Act that Tim outlined is what is allowing — “one of the things,” I should say — that’s allowing Pfizer to meet the targets. And I think you may be aware that, last week, they announced an acceleration of their targets of when they’ll be able to deliver vaccines. And I think our partnership with them is one of those reasons. I’m not going to say it’s the entire reason, but it’s certainly a critical factor.

Next question.

MODERATOR: All right. And last question, we’ll go to Tommy Christopher at Mediaite.

Q   Hi, can you hear me?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Yes.

Q   All right, thank you. My question is for Dr. Fauci principally, but really for any of you. The first — I had two questions. My first was: Can you tell me how frequently you on the team are in contact with President Biden and Vice President Harris? And how responsive do you think they’ve been to your policy recommendations?

And my second question was: Are you looking for or have you seen any evidence of the impact of President Biden’s mask orders?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: So, Dr. Fauci, this — I would never dream of taking a question that was intended for you.

DR. FAUCI: (Laughs.) Thank you, Andy. Yes, the interaction with the President is frequent. I mean, we’ve only been at this now, you know, for just a couple of weeks, and I’ve already had two — I think three interactions with the President in a direct briefing situation, either virtually or twice at the White House — once in the State Dining Room and once in the Oval Office just last week.

So he is very, very much involved, literally on a daily basis, obviously, because you have Jeff Zients briefing him continually. But personally, as a member of the team, together with Dr. Walensky and others on the team, we have seen him at least once a week and maybe a little bit more.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Yep. And I think that’s — that was this week, I think you’re referring to as well, not last week.

DR. FAUCI: Right.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: It’s still Friday, believe it or not. (Laughter.)

And, on that note, I think — was there another — I’m sorry — was there another part to your question that we didn’t answer?

Q   Yes, I was asking — can you hear me still?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Yes.

Q   All right, sorry. Yeah, I was asking if you are looking for and/or have you seen any evidence of the effects of President Biden’s mask orders.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: So, I’m going to ask Rochelle if you — Dr. Walensky — if you’ve seen any data that’s emerged on increases in mask use recently.

DR. WALENSKY: Thank you for that question. I think it’s probably too early to reflect on what is happening with the mask order now because it’ll be — you know, we have a lot of things that have happened, sort of, at the same time. 

First, it is the case that cases are coming down, and I do think the mask order is helping protect people and having those cases coming down. But all of — what is also happening is that, you know, we are coming off of the case bump from the holidays, and so a lot of things are happening at once. 

We are going to be watching the mask data very carefully. As I mentioned earlier, the MMWR that will be coming out today did demonstrate, in 10 states, that when mask orders were in place that, after three weeks, hospital growth rates went down.

So I think it’s probably still a bit too early to tell, but I’m encouraged with a decrease in case rates right now.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR SLAVITT: Thank you, Dr. Walensky. Okay, well, thank you all for attending this briefing and our other briefings this week. We think it was a productive week here. The team is working incredibly hard, and we are very cognizant of the fact that the public is eager to get their vaccinations and eager to move beyond this pandemic. And I want to thank everybody on the government side and in the private sector who has been demonstrating all the teamwork we need to get this done and move past it.

So, thank you, and we’ll talk to you again next week.

                            END               11:32 A.M. EST

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