WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — Dr. Deborah Birx, global health expert and member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force spoke one-on-one with NewsNation anchor Marni Hughes Wednesday.
Hughes asks Birx about the safety of children returning to schools for in-person learning; the real story behind reports that the White House and task force members pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to relax school reopening guidelines; the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine and if children will receive the same vaccine as adults; and what the biggest misconception is about the virus.
Watch the full interview above, and read the transcript of the interview below:
Marni: Let’s talk about schools and our kids. From a medical standpoint, at this point in the pandemic, is it safe for our kids to return to in-person learning?
Birx: Well, schools, no matter where they are, are a reflection on what’s happening in the community cause the virus doesn’t pipe in from somewhere, it comes in from the community and we’ve learned that in nursing homes, we’ve learned that in prisons and we’ll learn that in schools. So what we can do right now to ensure that children can be in schools is to stop community spread and as Americans, we know how to do that. If we wear a mask like I’m doing, cause I have been on the road for the last 3 or 4 months around America to 29 states, we know how to stop the spread of this virus. If we wear a mask, if we physically distance while maintaining our social engagement with each other, and if we stop parties in the neighborhoods and our families and bringing people together… asymptomatic spread is real, we have to protect one another going into the Fall and we have to ensure we get cases down in these communities. Now, New York and the New York City area had been in a very good place and what we have to really assure over these next few weeks, it won’t be because of the schools went back, it will be because of this early data coming out of the Bronx and King County that they may have increased community spread again. That’s what we have to do as Americans to stop that community spread as our bridge to when we have a vaccine.
Marni: So is it safe for kids to be in school?
Birx: Again, it matters what’s happening in the community and I think that’s why it was clear that local school districts should make that decision based on their local data and that’s why we write a governors report to every single governor and health team every single Monday that reflects county by county, community-by-community what’s happening in that state and then what needs to be done to stop community spread, because again schools are a reflection of the community. Everybody in the community needs to work together to stop the spread.
Marni: The New York Times is reporting the White House and members of the Coronavirus Task Force pressured the CDC to relax guidelines for schools to reopen. Is that true?
Birx: I think you saw, and probably many people saw, the one email I wrote to Dr. Redfield, we go back for decades. I wrote him an email that said, ‘because I’m the coordinator and supposed to be coordinating a response,’ I said ‘here is the data coming out from SAMHSA about mental health and children, and here’s the data coming out of the National Institutes of Mental Health at the NIH. Please have your team review that data and see if it can be incorporated into the introduction.’ Not changing science, not changing their dialogue, not changing guidance. I think that’s how we should all work together. We should look at each other’s information and be sure we’re incorporating all of the best ideas when we write guidance. No one has pressured, at least that I know of, from the task force or from my personal dealings with the CDC. We have disagreed sometimes on the scientific evidence and that’s a healthy disagreement but you can see that asking someone to look at other people’s data related to the mental health of children as well as the academic health of children was an important dialogue at that time and the CDC decided whether to incorporate it or not. No one, I did not personally, nor did anyone that I know of pressure the CDC to change their guidelines.
Marni: What about kids playing sports? What are the recommendations on return to play?
Birx: Well this is why I’ve been in the communities since the end of June really going community by community because you have to understand the circumstances of every single community and their leadership and their local community leadership to really understand that question. I think right now in many of our universities where I’ve started the trips over the last several weeks was really understanding what precautions have the athletic teams taken and when you look at the precautions that they’ve taken and when you look at the precautions at the stadium level to really ensure physical distancing both in the arena, in the stadium and also critically concessions and bathrooms and really that attention to detail of what it takes. When I look at what university staff have done and frankly what the K-12 staff have done, these facility managers. We sometimes, we talk a lot about the teachers, there have been facility managers and staff rearranging these classrooms and working every day at the universities to really ensure that they’re taking the best CDC guidance and applying it in the classroom and in the sports programs to really not only protect the students but also protect the coaches and staff.
Marni: We know the push is on for the COVID-19 vaccine. What do you say to people who are worried and say they won’t get the vaccine because they’re concerned it won’t be safe?
Birx: You know it’s just like with the testing and they should go back and look at how America’s private sector and the federal government have worked together to provide quality, highly sensitive and specific tests. They should look at the therapeutics and say we brought forward safe therapeutics with efficacy that improves people’s lives in the hospital. The vaccines will be no different and I just really want to remind every American and thank the Americans that we’re getting close to probably 70-to 100,000 Americans who volunteered for these vaccine trials to help other Americans. That’s what we do in America. We come together as a community and so no vaccine will go forward to the American public that hasn’t been shown to be safe and efficacious in the same way that we’ve developed quality tests and ensured that Remdesivir and steroids are available and hopefully we’ll have improved data on the plasma that are on-going those plasma studies. So we’ve seen efficacy across the board in many of the early studies and we’re pushing hard. I know, we’re impatient, I’m personally impatient, I would like to have more options every day and I know all of us are impatient to have a safe and effective vaccine but I can promise you that these pharmaceutical companies will not take their data to the FDA without the independent data safety monitoring board – that independent group that has nothing to do with the federal government looking at the data and saying they believe there is safety and efficacy and that the product should move forward.
Marni: Will kids get the same vaccine as adults?
Birx: Well that’s a great question. You know we have three vaccines in active phase three trials. Two of them that are messenger RNA, one of them that is vectored and several other candidates moving into trial that are what we call sub-unit vaccines and so really matching the type of vaccine and the type of immunogenicity it develops with the age cohort may be critical cause we don’t have all the immunogenicity and efficacy data yet and so all of that will go into the decision making of who should receive which vaccine.
Marni: Within the last week we hit more than 200,000 deaths in U.S. We crossed the 1-million mark globally. How long until we get to a point where we are no longer afraid of this virus?
Birx: Well two things. Part of it is ensuring every day that we’re doing our part, that we’re wearing our masks, that we’re physically distancing, that we’re not having parties in our family room with the neighbors or our extended family really ensuring that we’re doing everything we can now as the bridge to the vaccine but the way forward in every pandemic we have faced is to have a safe and effective vaccine and have it available to the globe. And I know there are people working on that now. We have great institutions like GAVI to really secure doses for the global community at the same time that we’re working every day that we have a safe and effective vaccine for Americans.
Marni: Finally, you’ve spent a lot of time on the road, talking to people about the pandemic and cautioning us not to become complacent. What would you say is the biggest misconception about the virus, and are we doing enough right now?
Birx: I think the biggest misconception that the American people have right now is they can tell who’s infected. And that’s because we normally think of flu and other diseases as having symptoms. In this case, we have an incredible spectrum of disease, from really no evidence of disease to very serious disease and death and I know that makes it harder, but by looking at a person you cannot tell if they’re infected or not. Johnny down the street could be infected and you brought them into your household. You could be infected. So if anyone has done those things that I’ve talked about: been in a crowded space, taken off their mask, done those things because we’re not perfect human beings, please go and get a test. We can stop the spread of this virus by those who are asymptomatic becoming knowledgeable and ensuring that they’re protecting the vulnerable in their household.