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CDC Director On Global Vaccine Deliveries, Variants, Masks And Mass Eviction Threats


It's feeling like the early days of the pandemic - so much news about the coronavirus each and every day. And today is no different. Just this afternoon the Biden administration is marking the delivery of 110 million COVID-19 vaccine doses. They've gone to more than 50 countries from Afghanistan to Zambia. This is an effort to combat the ever-evolving coronavirus variants. That comes along with news that the CDC is announcing a new, limited eviction moratorium. It targets counties experiencing high and substantial spread of the coronavirus, largely driven by the highly infectious delta variant. That would cover about 90% of the country. I asked CDC Director Rochelle Walensky about the new moratorium when we spoke today.

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Clearly, things are different than they were a month ago in this country. I don't think you can deny that. Where we are right now, with such high disease rates, we felt a new, tailored order to make sure that people who - working Americans who were at risk of eviction could be stably housed during this really tenuous, challenging period of time.

KELLY: When you say new and tailored, would this look different than the ban that just expired on Saturday night?

WALENSKY: Well, we're talking more about areas of highest transmission, where areas are people that would be most at risk, most public health challenges, so areas in - similar to the areas where we have last week put forward recommendations for people to mask. So areas that...

KELLY: So it sounds like you think there is something that would be good to do here and that it may be coming very soon. Watch this space.

WALENSKY: I think there's a moral imperative here to make sure that people who are unstably housed in a period of time where we have extraordinary disease transmission in many parts of this country - that this is a true public health threat and that we need to keep people stably housed.

KELLY: To the other headline today that the U.S. has now sent 100 million-plus vaccines to the rest of the world, which now presents this huge logistics task - same as in the U.S. It's one thing to have shots available. It's another thing to actually get them into people's arms. What is the CDC role in making that happen, which is so crucial to preventing the next variant, the next delta or whatever's coming at us?

WALENSKY: Absolutely. I think we know from this pandemic and, truly, many infectious threats that have hit our shores previously that no one is safe in the world until we are all safe. And this movement of hundreds of millions of doses of vaccine - a hundred million doses of vaccine is among the ways that we are going to assist in making sure that not only are we safe here in the United States but the world is safe from COVID-19.

We at the CDC have offices and programs in over 60 countries, and we provide technical support on the ground on implementation of these vaccines, on safety monitoring and delivery and vaccine confidence. So we are going to do exactly what we have been doing here in the United States, and we look forward to doing so around the world.

KELLY: Let me shift to mask guidance. You, the CDC, announced new mask guidance last week. Whatever the science underpinning it, from a messaging perspective, it is confusing, and the guidance keeps changing. In a sentence or two, what is the message you want to get across to Americans about masks?

WALENSKY: First and foremost, I just want to say this is hard. As we follow the science and the science changes because the variant changes, we have to update our recommendations. It is not well-received - Americans do not want to receive a message that we need to be masking up again. But it is the safest thing to do right now, and that is what I promised the American people I would do to keep them safe. Our guidance is that if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission, which right now is 80% of counties in the United States, we are asking people who are outdoor - indoors in public settings to put on their masks again regardless of whether they're vaccinated or not.

KELLY: So I hear you saying, look; the threat is changing. Therefore, the guidance needs to change. But for people who feel jerked around at this point, you know, the message - just saying, trust us; we know what we're doing - is a hard sell a year and a half into this. How do you get past that?

WALENSKY: Well, we are trying to be and working towards being as transparent as we can with the data that we're seeing. The data with alpha were simply different than the data with delta. We had - two months ago, we had mostly alpha in this country. Now we have mostly delta. So as we present the science and as we see this country moving towards more and more transmission, our responsibility is to keep Americans safe. People don't want to put their masks back on. I certainly didn't want to put my mask back on. But right now the main message is vaccination is the path out of this. We have to get Americans vaccinated. The more people who are vaccinated, the less disease we have. The less disease we have, the less we need to wear our masks. So there is a clear path forward, but it starts with vaccination.

KELLY: I tweeted that I was about to interview you and asked what people wanted to know. And a lot of worried parents are out there of kids too young to be vaccinated, kids who are heading back to school, often to schools where masks will not be mandated. What is the CDC doing to protect those children?

WALENSKY: We are doubling down on the need to have our children back in school and safely back in school. We're asking parents to make sure that their kids are masked and to lean in and advocate to ensure that the classrooms are masked. We...

KELLY: Is there more you could be doing to lean in and advocate in terms of mask mandates in schools?

WALENSKY: And we are doing so. We're working with the states. I'm working with Secretary Cardona in Education. We're doing everything we can to encourage masking. I'm encouraged by what happened in Louisiana yesterday - full mask mandates in Louisiana. So we are doing everything we can to ensure that our children are safe.

KELLY: And, very quickly, timeline on vaccinating kids younger than 12.

WALENSKY: Oh, that lives with the FDA. But I'm really hoping before the end of the year, hopefully late fall.

KELLY: CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, I know you've got a ton on your plate.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

WALENSKY: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.