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President Biden Announces New Actions To Fight COVID-19

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As many as 100 million Americans are under new federal vaccine requirements. They apply to all federal workers and contractors, health care workers, businesses with 100 or more employees, as well. The sweeping rules are a part of President Biden's new pandemic strategy, which he announced yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We still have nearly 80 million Americans who have failed to get the shot. And to make matters worse, there are elected officials actively working to undermine the fight against COVID-19.

MARTIN: We are joined this morning by Dr. Francis Collins. He is director of the National Institutes of Health. Thanks so much for being with us, Dr. Collins.

FRANCIS COLLINS: Glad to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: Explain why these federal vaccine mandates are happening now as opposed to months ago.

COLLINS: Well, I think this is a big deal. And I think the president has decided to pull some additional powerful levers here to try to achieve a number of things. The most visible of those in his presentation was about vaccinations for those roughly 80 million people who are still on the fence. Why didn't we do it months ago? I guess there was some expectation that people would just decide to do the right thing. The evidence is so compelling that these vaccines are safe and effective and they save lives. And yet somehow, we haven't quite succeeded in getting through, and maybe it's necessary, therefore, to get a bit more muscular about it. I think the president's on the right side of history here. It's also the case that we do now have full approval of the Pfizer vaccine. So the argument that this is still emergency use and therefore you shouldn't mandate it has gone away.

MARTIN: I mean, as you know, this is going to affect tens of millions of Americans. How do you enforce it?

COLLINS: Well, that's going to be interesting. I think when you talk about the 80 million who work at companies that have at least 100 employees who will now be mandated to get vaccinated or, if they refuse that, to be tested at least once a week, that is going to be a big duty for those employers to be able to set that up. But I understand the Department of Labor aims to make that happen. In terms of health care providers, again, I think many of us thought maybe they were already expecting to be vaccinated. And many of them, of course, are. But this now stretches into any institution that gets funds from Medicare or Medicaid. Those funds are in jeopardy if they - institutions don't show that they have achieved full vaccination.

MARTIN: Is there an expectation, Dr. Collins, that these federal vaccine mandates will give some cover for state and city leaders who want to enact their own mandates?

COLLINS: Well, I think so. I think when you see the federal government stepping out in a leadership role this way, making it very clear that this is, from a public health perspective, the right thing to do to save lives and that it is a circumstance where you have the legal authority to do so based on longstanding precedent going back many decades when you're talking about a public health emergency, then I think it will empower some of the others that may have been a little reluctant to jump in. And boy, do we need to do this, Rachel, 'cause look at this delta surge. And if we're going to get ourselves out of this, basically implementing all of those public health measures that we know can be effective, but which have been only managed in a spotty way across the country. It's time to get serious here.

MARTIN: I want to ask about students. The Los Angeles school board voted to mandate COVID vaccines for students 12 and older who are attending in-person classes. It's the first major school district in the U.S. to do so. Should other districts follow?

COLLINS: Again, the vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective in 12- to 17-year-olds, as well as adults, but only about half of them have been immunized. I think Los Angeles, scientifically and from a public health circumstance, they're doing the right thing.

MARTIN: And the young ones - part of the administration's plan are on keeping schools open safely is helping expedite the FDA review of vaccines for kids under 12 years old. What can you tell us about the status of that review?

COLLINS: Well, the data that is going to support the trials that have been done on younger kids is supposed to come to FDA the end of this month. I know FDA is prepared to stay up all night as many nights as it takes to go through this and make sure that everything is in place. Depending on what the data looks like, it could be within a couple, three, four weeks after that that they could make a judgment, and then kids under 12 could become ready for vaccination. But you want to be sure this is done right. Kids are not miniature adults, and we want to be sure that everything that's put forward is going to be safe and effective.

MARTIN: Lastly, one of the big criticisms of the Biden administration has been confusing messaging, frankly, about face masks, vaccinations, potential booster shots. How is your office coordinating with the CDC and the FDA and the rest of the administration to make sure the messaging about this next phase - these mandates and the next phase of the pandemic are clear?

COLLINS: And I know people are frustrated by what seems to be a change in the recommendations. But frankly, that needs to be understood is the fact that the science is changing. You know, I said to somebody if your stockbroker told you to buy last week and told you to sell this week, you wouldn't accuse them of being a flip-flopper. You'd say, oh, the data must have changed. Well, that's happening here, as well. We are coordinating, Rachel. Gosh. I meet with the CDC director, the acting commissioner the FDA, the surgeon general, Tony Fauci, Dr. Kessler. We meet at least once a week, and this is a main thing we talk about. We're talking about it today. How do we make sure we've got our messages coordinated so we don't further add the confusion by having differences in the recommendations, even if they're subtle? Yeah, we understand. We got to get the messages as clear as possible. But don't be surprised if they change over time because the virus requires us to do that when we see new evidence of things that we should be doing.

MARTIN: Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. Thank you so much for your time.

COLLINS: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.