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As COVID-19 Cases Surge, Fauci Says 'We've Got To Do Much Better'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the U.S., this was supposed to be the summer where things began to feel like they used to. COVID-19 vaccines were going into arms, case rates were going down, crowds going back to restaurants and concerts and baseball games. But starting around late June, confirmed infections started to tick up again. We started hearing more and more about the delta variant - two times as transmissible as the original strain. And we started hearing of more breakthrough cases - fully vaccinated people testing positive. So where do we stand? Well, with us is Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief COVID-19 medical adviser to the president.

Hi, Dr. Fauci.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Hi, Mary Louise. How are you?

KELLY: I am all right. I wonder if we can start with that question - the where do we stand question - because it feels scarier than where we were maybe just a month ago.

FAUCI: Well, the delta variant is a very problematic variant. It is now more than 83% of all the new infections in the United States. When you look at the United States as a whole, there are some areas of the country where it's up to 90-plus percent. It is a highly transmissible virus, considerably more than the other variants that we've had experience with. And if you look at the recent seven-day or 14-day averages of cases, for example, the cases are up by, like, 195%. The hospitalizations are up 46%. And the 14-day average for deaths are up 42%. So certainly...

KELLY: Up, up, up and up.

FAUCI: Yes, indeed.

KELLY: It's not the direction we wanted to be going.

FAUCI: No, it's not the direction we want it to be. And just that is such an important reason why we really need to do better with regard to vaccinations. That is such a message that these data are crying out with that message that we really - we've done well, but we've got to do much better. There's still - half the country is not fully vaccinated, when you look at the country as a whole.

KELLY: So I want to ask about breakthrough cases in people...

FAUCI: Yes.

KELLY: ...Who are vaccinated. Yesterday was a case at the White House and several cases on Capitol Hill. And there are cases of Olympic athletes who are trying to compete in Tokyo. Do we have data on how widespread this is?

FAUCI: We are collecting that, Mary Louise. I'd like to say we have all the precise data, but when you look at it, it looks like certainly there appears to be more breakthrough cases. And for the audience to appreciate, that means someone that is fully vaccinated and still gets infected. The part about that that's a little bit comforting is that when you look at the breakthrough infections, the vast majority of them are either without symptoms or minimally symptomatic. When you look at how the vaccines are doing with regard to severe disease, leading to hospitalizations and death, it seems to be holding up pretty well. So that's the good news. We don't like the idea that we're seeing breakthrough infections at all, but the fact that the hospitalizations and the deaths are not skyrocketing up - they're just holding up there with regard to a pretty high degree of protection.

KELLY: So to people who might be listening and might say, gosh, if even people who got the vaccine are still getting sick, why should I bother, you say what?

FAUCI: Well, I say look at the numbers. If you look at the number of deaths of COVID-19 in this country, 99.5% of them are among unvaccinated individuals, and 0.5% are among vaccinated individuals. I think that's a statistic that is pretty self-explanatory.

KELLY: Masks - the case numbers are rising, as you nodded to. Should the CDC reconsider its advice on masking, at least indoors? And I want to let you hear something that former Surgeon General Jerome Adams said. We had him on NPR yesterday. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JEROME ADAMS: The former CDC guidance or, more appropriately, the messaging of it has just absolutely, unequivocally failed. Cases are rising everywhere. More people than ever, vaccinated and unvaccinated, are going maskless. And it doesn't seem to have convinced anyone to get vaccinated.

KELLY: Dr. Fauci, what do you think?

FAUCI: Well, certainly at the local level, what we are seeing is that health authorities - people at the state, the city and the county level - and I think the classic example of that is in Los Angeles County, where, in fact, they've said quite clearly that even if you are appropriately and doubly vaccinated, that when you're indoors, you should be wearing a mask. And that's understandable. And I think what we're seeing is that although the CDC still has a broad recommendation that if you are fully vaccinated, you do not need to wear a mask indoor and outdoor, they make it very clear that they yield in many respects to the local authorities, depending upon the situation of the ground. For example...

KELLY: It can make it so chaotic, though, as you know.

FAUCI: Yeah.

KELLY: Early on in the pandemic, when some states were doing it one way...

FAUCI: Right.

KELLY: ...And other states weren't mandating and they were all trying to figure it out on their own - I mean, nobody wanted to be back to this, where every city and state is figuring it out piecemeal.

FAUCI: Right. Exactly. And I think what's happening is that the piecemeal is coming into one. I mean, I was in a situation just the other night talking to health authorities from multiple different cities throughout the country, and they all felt the same way - that given the fact that we are seeing this uptick in cases in general and certainly in breakthrough cases, that they're all recommending that, in fact, when (inaudible) in an indoor situation, that they wear masks no matter what.

KELLY: When I interviewed you earlier this month, July 8, you told me you were not masking anymore.

FAUCI: Right.

KELLY: Is that still the case? What might cause you to reconsider?

FAUCI: Well, in fact, I'm 80 years old, Mary Louise. And I can tell you, just because of my situation, I'm fundamentally locked into my desk. I do most of the things by Zoom. But I can tell you, if I were in an area where the level of infection was high and I was going indoors, I would definitely seriously consider wearing a mask because I am a high-risk person.

KELLY: Last thing I want to ask you about in the couple minutes we have left - you got into a very testy exchange at a Senate hearing yesterday with Republican Senator Rand Paul. You told him he didn't know what he's talking about and, quote, "If anybody is lying here, senator, it is you." I raise this not to revisit specifics of your back and forth with Senator Paul, but because it was as frustrated as I have heard you during this pandemic. It felt like we were watching you have a visceral reaction to the politicization of science. Were you?

FAUCI: Yes, I was. I mean, I was having a reaction to a complete misrepresentation of reality on the part of the senator. He was conflating things that were completely inappropriate, in the sense of conflating this idea about lab leak with people dying and we're responsible, which was completely out of line, Mary Louise. I mean, it just was. I mean, we're in there trying to do our very best to protect the people of this country, and he's out there talking about things that are totally non-reality and, quite frankly, not true.

KELLY: I guess I was curious because you have withstood a lot of political attacks during this pandemic, and I was wondering what it was about this one that seemed to be the straw that broke the camel's back. Is it where we are in the pandemic?

FAUCI: Well, no, Mary Louise. It's the inappropriateness of it. He started off the questioning. I could believe - I mean, I am totally of the mindset that you can ask people difficult questions at a hearing. That's what a hearing's for. Mary Louise, I have testified before close to 300 congressional hearings in my almost 40 years, so I've been asked tough questions. But when you start off by telling me you have lied under oath and you can go to jail for that - do you want to change your mind? Like, are you kidding me? What kind of a question is that?

KELLY: Just a couple seconds left. Do you feel like...

FAUCI: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Some folks who have not embraced the science might be coming around?

FAUCI: I hope so. I think what we're seeing - yeah, we're seeing people that are saying they didn't want to get vaccinated and you shouldn't get vaccinated realizing that that is the wrong way to go. They're going to be on the wrong side of history.

KELLY: That is Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Always good to talk to you.

Thank you, sir.

FAUCI: Thank you very much for having me.

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