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U.S. Surgeon General Answers Your Questions About The State Of The Pandemic

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Right now there are more than 100,000 people in the U.S. hospitalized because of the coronavirus. It's the highest number since January of this year. Case numbers are spiking across the country mostly among the unvaccinated. This week, the FDA gave full approval to the Pfizer COVID vaccine, which health officials hope will encourage more people to get vaccinated. There's also been a lot of talk about booster shots for people who've already gotten the vaccine. Our co-host A Martinez held a Twitter Spaces conversation with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and asked him what the road ahead on booster shots looks like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIVEK MURTHY: For the time being, people don't have to do anything regarding boosters. You don't have to go out and get a booster. You're not too late to get your booster. The one exception is for the 3% or so of the population that's immunocompromised. And there we've learned that they do need an extra shot. And the CDC recently put out guidance for them to get that shot. But for everyone else, what we're anticipating is that starting the week of September 20 that people will start to become eligible for their boosters. And that'll happen on an eight-month anniversary from your last dose.

A MARTINEZ, BYLINE: This week, I heard Dr. Fauci say that if the overwhelming majority of people who have not been vaccinated get vaccinated, he hopes that we can start to get some good control of COVID in the spring of 2022. What does good control look like and sound like to you?

MURTHY: I think about a couple of things - one, about the vast majority of people in our country being vaccinated. That is the single most important pathway to getting the virus under control. The second thing I think about also is us being prepared to adjust our approach to the vaccines depending on new variants that come down the line. And the third thing I think about is our ability to do mitigation. That's what I think about when I think about control. When that's going to happen? That really depends on us.

MARTINEZ: If full FDA approval of a vaccine still isn't enough for some people to get a dose, how do you reach them?

MURTHY: I do think that the full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine is a really important milestone. I do think that there are some people, you know, who were waiting for that who will actually now get vaccinated. I don't know how large that sample is. I'm not sure I 100% believe the surveys that say it's as big as it is. But finally, let's not forget that one of the most powerful things we can do to help people get vaccinated is to help them have conversations with people they trust. So that's the broader, as I think of it, people-powered movement, to have conversations with the people we love, help them understand the benefits of the vaccine that we need to do even more of in the weeks and months ahead.

MARTINEZ: All right. Let's go out to some audience questions. Let's start off with Tamara Star (ph). Tamara Star, you've got a question for Dr. Murthy.

TAMARA STAR: Yes. Hi, Dr. Murthy. A big question I have is actually about the boosters. With Pfizer getting its FDA approval, will there still be booster options for people who've taken the Johnson & Johnson or the Moderna vaccines?

MURTHY: The answer is absolutely yes. And let me explain why. The announcement around the full approval for the Pfizer vaccine, that doesn't impact our broader kind of boosters. The FDA is actually looking at evidence for the safety and efficacy of a third dose for people who got the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. And we anticipate soon, when the Johnson & Johnson company submits their data on a second dose of J&J, that the FDA will also review that and do so thoroughly but expeditiously. And that's what will help us have an option for people who got any of the three vaccines in terms of boosters. And we anticipate that will happen for the two mRNA vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer, by September 20 and hopefully not too long thereafter for J&J.

MARTINEZ: It's time for schools to be opening up. They're opening up all over the country. And I've had conversations with educate - early education educators, so that's, like, pre-K or even day care. And they tell me all the time how tricky it's all been to navigate medically how to reopen their facilities. They've got to check with the county health department. Then they've got to check with the state health department. Then they've got to check at the federal level with, say, the CDC. On a wide-scale public health crisis, why isn't there more uniformity?

MURTHY: That is one of the challenges that we face in an environment where we do have a lot of local control, in public health. And I know that that can make it challenging for individuals as they're trying to figure out what to do in their own lives. This is why I think it's - the role that doctors and nurses and health professionals play each and every day in the lives of their patients is so important because having somebody that you trust who can advise you on how to think about everything from how to make schools safer for your kids to how to make the experience of going back to work safer, to how to think about getting your children vaccinated, it's really important to have those trusted relationships. And what we've got to do is recognize also that a lot of people don't have a doctor. They don't have someone that they can trust in their life who they can turn to like that. That's part of the broader health safety net gap that we've got to fix, you know, as we think about responding to this pandemic and preparing for the next.

MARTINEZ: One last thing, doctor. Are we at a point or close to a point where you might have to consider COVID to be endemic, something that we just have to live with and mitigate instead of thinking that we can snuff it out.

MURTHY: Well, I'm really glad you asked that because it brings up the question of, what is success in this larger pandemic effort? And success is not necessarily eradicating COVID. Success is getting to a point where we know how to live with COVID, where it doesn't cost us dearly in terms of lives and hospitalizations the way we're seeing right now. There are other respiratory illnesses that we have learned to live with over time. The flu is one of them, the common cold is another. And the way that we knock COVID down, the way we take away its power and relegate it to being in the family of routine viruses that we deal with is by protecting ourselves with vaccines, it's by investing and developing therapeutics like monoclonal antibodies that many people have used, that saved many lives - and developing, hopefully, more therapeutics, hopefully ones that can actually help even prevent COVID from developing when people are exposed. So we've got to invest in those therapeutics. We're really blessed to have these vaccines. But we've got to use them. And if we do, then we can knock the power of this virus down. We can learn to live with it. And that's ultimately how the pandemic will end.

MARTINEZ: That's U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. Thank you very much for taking the time.

MURTHY: Thank you so much, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMOCK'S "FLOATING AWAY IN EVERY DIRECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.