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More People Need Shots In Arms To Reduce COVID Cases, NIH Director Says


For more on the implications of what we just heard, I'm joined now by Dr. Francis Collins. He is the director of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Collins, I mean, at least a dozen states, including hot spots such as Louisiana and Arkansas, have seen an increase in vaccinations. But how much more does the vaccine rate need to increase before we can contain the surge from the delta variant?

FRANCIS COLLINS: Well, we got a long way to go when you consider that some of those areas are only at about 30% vaccination rates. And yeah, the surge is pretty scary looking there if you look at the map of what's happening in Louisiana and Arkansas, Missouri and the Gulf Coast and all across Florida. So one would like to see that bumped up in the range of 70% to 80% immunization of adults. That's where we think you really start to drive the virus out of there. And you can see in the Northeast, where some of those numbers have been achieved, there's a very different story.

I'm really pleased to see the increase in vaccinations going to - Louisiana has tripled their vaccination rate in the last two weeks. But that needs to be increased even more and certainly sustained over several weeks if we're going to see a success in tackling this very contagious delta variant.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, OK, we've done a lot of reporting about the so-called breakthrough infections - meaning fully vaccinated Americans who test positive for COVID. How likely is it for a fully vaccinated person to get infected with the virus?

COLLINS: It's much less likely than if you were unvaccinated. And if you do get infected as a vaccinated person, the chances are extremely good that you're going to have either no symptoms or mild symptoms like a cold. You know, the reduction in your likelihood of having a severe case is at least 25-fold. So, yeah, I'm a little worried that as there's been a lot of buzz about breakthrough infections, that people begin to think, oh, maybe the vaccines aren't really protecting me. Oh, yes, they are. They're still incredibly good and incredibly good against delta. It is important to recognize - and this came out of those observations in Barnstable County, Mass. - that vaccinated people are capable of carrying the virus...


COLLINS: ...Possibly transmitting it, hence the need to change the mask guidance. But people who are vaccinated should not be fearful that this says they're not protected; they are.

MARTÍNEZ: But unvaccinated people who can spread COVID as easily as the unvaccinated - what does that finding mean for the trajectory of the pandemic?

COLLINS: Well, it doesn't help, of course. We would love it if somehow vaccinated people were incapable of having the virus in their system at all. And apparently, they can harbor it, and they can probably transmit it to others. And that means, yes, we've got one more challenge in order to try to keep gatherings of people indoors from turning into spreading events, which is why now even vaccinated people like me are going to need to put their masks on when they're indoors in a crowded space in a community where the virus is spreading, which is about three-quarters of the counties right now in the United States.

MARTÍNEZ: Doctor, what do you think this means for schools reopening?

COLLINS: Well, I think schools need to reopen, absolutely, for sure. We must do that. But since kids under 12 can't be vaccinated, I think for the purposes of keeping the virus from spreading further in that setting, kids will need to be masks. And I know people are not happy to hear that. I actually think kids are pretty resilient. Sometimes I think their parents are more upset about this than they are. But, you know, this is the price we've got to pay for the fact that we didn't do a great job of getting this under control over the course of the last seven or eight months where we might have. And if we don't want it to get worse again - gosh, look at those curves right now - this is what we're going to have to do. And as Americans, we're challenged once again to do the right thing.

MARTÍNEZ: Doctor, reading about a new study out of France that found the delta variant has mutations that allow it to evade some of the safeguards provided by the vaccines or even by natural infection - how concerned are you about the potential of the delta variant mutating yet again?

COLLINS: That has to be a concern, and that's another reason why we really need to try to keep this from spreading so rapidly, that all those virus infections of millions of people provide yet other opportunities for mutations to arise. Right now we're OK. Delta, even though it is highly contagious, it is protected against by the current vaccines, but a few more mutations and you might get to a place where you have a virus that's sufficiently different from the strain that was used to immunize everybody, that we start to escape that protection, and then we have to come up with a booster strategy.

Let me be clear - we don't need boosters right now, but believe me, we're watching that with incredibly close attention to see if any additional mutations might be popping up. Many of us are, on a daily basis, tracking that information, trying to be sure that we've got the earliest possible signs of trouble. So far, we're OK. But the best thing we can do to prevent that is to reduce the number of new infections.

MARTÍNEZ: Dr. Francis Collins is director of the National Institutes of Health. Doctor, thanks a lot.

COLLINS: Thank you, A. Have a good morning.

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