Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and it's January 2022. Do you know your COVID status? Are you vaccinated, boosted, even if you're both, have you had a COVID test recently? Were you negative? What kind of test was it? Was it positive? Do you have any symptoms? If you do have symptoms, are you just feeling crummy or are you alarmed by just how sick you're feeling? This is January 2022.
Are you any more confident about what you know about COVID, or are, you like so many of us right here on The Takeaway, feeling confused, nervous, and just plain exhausted as we continue to navigate the disruptions and mourn the deaths of the still raging COVID-19 pandemic?
About 63% of people in the US are now vaccinated and the vaccines are overwhelmingly effective at preventing severe cases of COVID-19, but as Omicron surges, I'm willing to bet that all of us know people, both vaccinated and unvaxxed, or we ourselves have fallen ill or gotten a positive test in recent weeks. With nearly 2,000 people dying each and every day from COVID in this country, we are most certainly not in a post COVID moment.
Dr. Anthony Fauci has been a familiar face and a consistent companion throughout this long journey. Having served during both the Trump administration and now the Biden administration, Dr. Fauci is the now-familiar face and voice of American public health. It's a position that's also made him a favorite target of derision for some on the right, as was on full display last week during his tense exchange with Senator Rand Paul.
Senator Rand Paul: You really think it's appropriate to use your $420,000 salary to attack scientists that disagree with you?
Dr. Anthony Fauci: Senator, you are distorting everything about me. This wasn't the only time. You were making a catastrophic epidemic for your political gain.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Far happier than Senator Paul, I was pleased to welcome Dr. Fauci and chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden to The Takeaway. We began by talking about last week's Supreme Court decision, which struck down the Biden administration's mandate that companies with more than 100 employees require their workers to get vaccinated.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: Well, it certainly is very disappointing because we still have literally tens of millions of people. We have 63% of the country is vaccinated, which means 37% is not fully vaccinated. Among adults, 28% are not vaccinated. That's a lot of people and we're still having a very serious surge, as we all are now aware of SARS-CoV-2 particularly the Omicron variant. We're having 156,000 people hospitalized. We had about 800,000 cases on an average over the last 14 days, and we have close to 2,000 deaths.
We really need to get more people vaccinated. That's the reason why this decision is really quite disappointing as we want to get as many people vaccinated and protected and vaccinated and boosted as we possibly can.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: Dr. Fauci, I want to dig into the response you just gave because you did what I think has become very natural for many of us over the course of the past two years when we were trying to think about where we are in any given moment in this pandemic, which is to look at the rate, and number of positive cases, to look at the hospitalizations, to look at the number of deaths, and yet Omicron seems to be different in some important ways from earlier variants. Just help me to understand what are the relevant numbers we should be considering?
Dr. Anthony Fauci: The relevant numbers are the hospitalizations and the deaths. Now, there's no doubt if you look at the number of hospitalizations per number of cases, in other words, the percentage of cases that get hospitalized. If you look at the seriousness of the cases, if you look at the duration of time in a hospital, and if you look at, for example, requirements for ventilation or for assisted ventilation, we're seeing that in South Africa, the UK, and we're seeing the beginning of it right now in the United States, that there's no doubt that on a person-to-person basis, the Omicron variant is not as severe as Delta.
The only problem is that Omicron is so much more transmissible than the other variants, that by sheer volume of cases, you were going to get a lot of hospitalizations and a lot of deaths. It's that thing that you don't want to confuse people because you don't want them to be overconfident and complacent and say, "Well, it's not as severe," but you say, "Well, wait a minute. If you get 50 people that get infected and 10% of them get hospitalized, let's say, that means there are five people that are hospitalized, but if you get 500 people who are infected, even though 1% of them are hospitalized, you still have a lot of hospitalized people."
Even though it's inherently a less severe variant, the total number of people who are getting infected are leading to the average of almost 2,000 deaths and having 157,000 people in the hospital right now. Those are numbers that need to be taken very seriously even though, inherently, we're dealing with a less severe virus.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We tend to discuss the unvaccinated as though it is primarily about vaccine hesitancy or boosting hesitancy. How much of this, however, is still about vaccine and booster access?
Dr. Anthony Fauci: I don't think it's any problem. It might have been some time ago, right now, if you look at access and take a look, for example, among minority populations. Right now, if you look at the percent people at various ages among African-American, Hispanics, other members of the population, it's virtually equivalent. We're falling a little bit behind on the people who are vaccinated and getting boosted when you talk about disparities and ethnic and racial, but I don't think one can say that vaccines are not easily accessible. Vaccines are highly available. They're highly effective, they're safe and they're free.
I don't think one can invoke access. You could say people are not inherently hesitant because they still feel issues about safety or issues about do they really work? That's the reason why you try to get as much information that's correct information out there. The problem that one deals with when you're dealing with social media is that there's so much misinformation and disinformation about vaccines that sometimes confuses people who are not really sure what the correct information is.
If you look at the track record of the vaccines globally, not only in the United States, they're highly effective and they're very safe. If you look at the effect of proper mask-wearing, there's no doubt. There were so many studies now. A year and a half, two years ago, there weren't as many studies, but the studies that are coming out now continually show the high efficacy of masks in protecting you from getting infected, as well as preventing you from infecting others.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, vaccine access may be much less of a problem, but testing access is clearly still an issue. I know that the administration has moved forward with accessibility of some home testing, but this hasn't gone particularly well. Can you talk a little bit more about testing access?
Dr. Anthony Fauci: Yes, certainly, you're correct. Up until recently and literally is going to change very, very quickly. The president himself has said in a press conference that I was with him at that we needed to do better. That they're the huge demand, unprecedented demand for tests with the Omicron surge, as well as around the holiday season when people were traveling and understandably and appropriately wanted to get tested, but right now that is being corrected because in January 19th, we'll be seeing literally a half a billion tests starting to go out free to individuals.
There'll be another half a billion soon thereafter. There'll be a website in which individuals can get on the website and have tests delivered to their home free. Then there'll be many, many more tests that will be available at 20,000 testing sites throughout the country. You are correct, and there's no denying that we could have done better with testing, but that should improve dramatically very, very soon, literally within days.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, as you were talking about the challenge of battling misinformation made me think about the fact that you just had some recent very tense exchanges with Republican senators, Rand Paul, Roger Marshall, and public health has become very politicized over the course of the past two years. I'm wondering if you currently consider particular ideologies, individuals, maybe even full media outlets, or perhaps the entire Republican party to be a threat to public health?
Dr. Anthony Fauci: No, I'm not going to be saying that. You know where that will go if I say that. I think you just have to look at what's going on out there vis-a-vis the states and regions that are under-vaccinated. Obviously, unfortunately, that's along ideologic lines, which is really, really unfortunate because this should not be a political issue. We have a common enemy here and a common enemy is the virus and to have decisions about sound public health principles being dictated by ideology or by political persuasion is just very counterproductive to having a successful effort to really counter this historic pandemic.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Fauci, we do have some calls from listeners, so I want to play a few of them for you. Each one is pretty brief.
Justin: Justin calling from Brooklyn. I have a message for Dr. Fauci. I personally don't have HIV, but I know people who does, does the coronavirus take all the resources from looking at cure for HIV?
Dr. Anthony Fauci: Certainly, COVID has dominated the global scene and because of disruptions, for example, of supply chain of drugs and of testing for other diseases, whether that's a mammogram for breast cancer or colonoscopy to prevent colon cancer, or getting people tested for HIV and on appropriate therapy, or getting pre-exposure prophylaxis. We've tried very hard not to have that disruption in the service for persons with HIV or at risk for HIV as best as we could, but there have been some disruptions.
I'm particularly sensitive about that because I've spent the bulk of my 50-year career and the last 41 years of my professional career very deeply involved and committed to HIV research and the care of individuals living with HIV. That question is particularly meaningful to me and that's the reason why we try our best not to have any disruptions in the care or accessibility of care for people living with HIV.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've got a call here around masks from Katrina.
Katrina: My name is Katrina. I'm calling from Wichita, Kansas. It seems to me like the whole point of wearing a mask is to keep other people from becoming sick if you have COVID, whether you realize you have it or not, but I feel like the more socially accepted view about wearing a mask is that it's there to keep you safe from other people. The question, I guess, basically, just has to do with the idea of like if I'm in a room full of people who are very sick with COVID, and I have a mask on of a very high quality, will I get sick? Thank you.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: That's an excellent question, and the answer is simple. It goes both ways. There was some question about that some time ago but right now, it's very clear that a high quality, well-fitted mask, if used properly, not only will prevent you if you are infected from spreading it to someone else, but it will protect you from getting infected if you are surrounded by people who are infected, even people who have no symptoms, who you don't know that they're infected, as well as someone who you actually it's obvious that they're infected. It's a both way protection.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Our final call, Dr. Fauci, is on a bit of a lighter note, it's a very empathetic call from Elana.
Elana: Hi, this is Elana from Encinitas, California. I would really like to know what Dr. Fauci's self-care routine is?
Dr. Anthony Fauci: Thank you so much for that question. Unfortunately, given the stress and the strain and the intensity of what is going on, I think I've lapsed a bit on my self-care, as you call it. Unfortunately, I don't have much time to be concerned about self-care because there are so many challenges out there to get this outbreak under control but thank you so much for asking. I appreciate your concern.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Anthony Fauci is the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, and he needs a little time for self-care. Dr. Fauci, thanks so much.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Wam: Hi, this is Wam from Cambridge, Massachusetts. I want Dr. Fauci to know that everybody I know is incredibly grateful for his agreeing to stay on and continue working tirelessly on behalf of all of us when he had every right to just walk off into the sunset for a well-deserved retirement after navigating administration after administration, guiding us through HIV, H1N1, Ebola.
Please, know that we appreciate you, Dr. Fauci, and all of the public health practitioners working to keep us safe despite all of the louder voices of the political rants and social media hype.
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