On Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci joined Adrienne Bankert on NewsNation’s Morning in America for an interview that included questions from NewsNation viewers.
Below is a full transcript of the interview, edited for grammar and clarity.
Adrienne Bankert: According to Johns Hopkins University, the United States is on average reporting 265,000 new cases per day, surpassing the previous record of 250,000 set back in January of this year. We’re seeing the highly contagious omicron variant affect businesses and airlines, people from coast to coast waiting in long lines to get tested, more kids being hospitalized — we’re going to talk about those numbers. And the more than 13,000 National Guard members deploying in 48 states to support doctors and nurses working around the clock to treat and care for tens of thousands of patients. Here to talk about all of this is Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden. Dr. Fauci, good morning. Thanks for being with us.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: Good morning. It’s good to be with you.
Bankert: Before we get to all my questions, we know this pandemic has been relentless. We’ve talked to doctors and nurses who are burnt out and exhausted. How has it been for you?
Fauci: Well, it certainly has been stressful. I’ve been doing this now for two years. The first awareness of this was on New Year’s Eve two years ago. So it’s been two years. It’s been tough, but it’s been tough for everyone. I think it’s been tough mostly for the health care providers who have been struggling, literally 24/7 inpatients who are desperately ill. So it’s been tough on everybody, not only just me.
Bankert: Right. Well, just thinking about you as a doctor and hoping that I have that much energy when I’m in my 80s as well. We have a lot to talk about, so I’m hoping to get to as many questions as possible, including our viewer questions. So we’re at this time when we have more positive cases reported, then there’s the quarantine and isolation guidelines for those without symptoms just recommended by the CDC shortened to just five days; what changed?
Fauci: Well, the reason is that now that we have such an overwhelming volume of cases coming in, many of which are without symptoms, there’s the danger that this is going to have a really negative impact on our ability to really get society to function properly. You’re hearing reports from cities throughout the country with substantial percentages of firefighters, policemen, people with critical jobs who are infected and required to stay home in isolation for ten days. So the CDC made a decision to balance what’s good for public health, at the same time keeping the society running. So the decision was made instead of having ten-day isolation, if you are without symptoms, namely, you feel well, that instead of being 10, you would stay for five days in isolation. And then you could go out into the community and do your job provided you very consistently wear a mask. And they thought the balance of those two was the appropriate and prudent balance to keep people safe at the same time, as you do not drain society of they’re very critical workers.
Bankert: I think a lot of people would have hoped that this would happen much sooner. Do we know more now about asymptomatic patients not being as contagious as before?
Fauci: No, it’s not a question of asymptomatic people not being as contagious; it has to do with the duration of the time in which you are contagious. So we know that if you get infected, now you don’t have the same level of virus in your nasal pharynx — nor potential to transmit it when you compare the first five days with the second five days. The first five days, it’s much more likely that you have the capability of transmitting it, whether you’re with symptoms or without symptoms. But, as you get into day 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and beyond, the likelihood of your being able to transmit it — you might still be infected — but the likelihood of your being able to transmit it to someone else diminishes considerably in those second five days.
Bankert: It seems as though there is this disconnect or dissonance in the medical community because you have some people speaking out saying this is dangerous that we’re reducing this isolation time? What do you think is the issue here?
Fauci: Well, it may not have been as communicated as well by the CDC when they came out with it. I think now that’s the reason why you have people like myself and (CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky) out here talking to you in your program to try and explain that there was a rationale to do that. The CDC thought it out well, it’s not 100% risk-free, but then again, nothing is 100% risk-free. There are so many people walking around in society without symptoms who don’t know they’re infected, and they’re infecting other people. This is a highly transmissible virus. So when you have someone that you know is infected, as long as they are without symptoms, it was felt to be prudent, keep them isolated for five days. And then in the second half of that 10-day period, when the likelihood of transmission is extremely low, let them go out with a mask, being careful so that they could fulfill their job in the society to keep society going smoothly.
Bankert: Well, we’ve obviously seen the economy here ravaged by the pandemic; how much do you care about business returning to normal?
Fauci: When you say how do I care, I’m a citizen of the country. I care about everybody else, but my job as a public health official, physician, and scientist. So my job is to make sure the country’s health is preserved. But of course, we’re all negatively impacted when the country gets into trouble economically.
Bankert: Please explain the messaging from the White House promising no more shutdowns in light of so many new cases.
Fauci: Well, the country, certainly if you look at the mood of the country, it would be very, very difficult to be able to shut down we’d have to get much, much worse than we are right now to do that. The country is exhausted with restrictions. Restrictions sometimes have to occur because they necessarily preserve health. The decision was made by the government, by the president, by advice from the medical team that we can do things that would mitigate against needing to have to shut down completely. One of the things we should mention, because it seems to go unmentioned and that is to get the message to the tens of millions of people who are eligible to be vaccinated, who decide that they do not want to get vaccinated. That is a major factor in keeping this outbreak going at the rate it’s going. If we had the overwhelming proportion of those people vaccinated, not only would it be good for their own health and that of their families, but there’s a communal responsibility that you have as being part of the effort to contain the outbreak, you don’t live in a vacuum by yourself. You’ve got to realize there’s a responsibility as a nation to pull together to get us out of this outbreak.
Bankert: Well, let’s jump to the numbers specifically with children. I’m going to talk about testing because I know that’s a huge issue here. But you talk about the responsibility of unvaccinated people. And we here at NewsNation have spoken to people from every background every walk of life, many of whom have been vaccinated, many who decide that they don’t want to get vaccinated. We have numbers from the CDC of 334 children in the hospital between December 21 and December 27. That’s up 58.1% from the previous seven days on your screen there; that’s about zero to four cases per 1.1 million. And a lot of parents aren’t quite seeing the justification to get their children vaccinated. Still, even with all of this admonition and encouragement from the medical community, because they just don’t see the numbers adding up. What do you say to them?
Fauci: Well, first of all, we get children vaccinated for many diseases to prevent it. So the rationale of parents, though, maybe understandable, doesn’t make any sense for the following reason. We vaccinate children for a number of childhood diseases, where the mortality of those diseases is far less than the mortality and the morbidity of COVID-19 on children. The numbers are very low. When it’s your child, it’s a very high number. So if you look at the number of children right now going to the hospital who are in trouble getting seriously ill, you almost have to say it’s the responsibility of the parent to protect their child. It is true that when you compare the hospitalizations and severe illness in young children compared to adults, particularly the elderly, there’s no doubt that the likelihood of getting seriously ill for a child is less than for an adult when you’re dealing with COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean that children do not get seriously ill. And all you have to do is go to any pediatric hospital right now, virtually anywhere in the country. You see children there who are suffering, some even dying, who need not be in that situation, if they were vaccinated, because virtually all — not 100% but close to that — of the children who are seriously ill in a hospital from COVID-19 are children whose parents decided they did not want to vaccinate them, and that is avoidable.
Bankert: There are a lot of people who have heard your message loud and clear. In fact, we were looking at statistics again from the CDC. Right now, we have 77.9% of people ages five and up who have had at least one shot. What is the magic number that you and the medical community are looking for in terms of stopping the spread of this virus?
Fauci: Well, we want everybody to be vaccinated, so there’s no that magic number to spread. You get as many children and as many adults as you possibly can because each individual needs to be protected. The more individuals that are protected, the better society controls the outbreak. So you’ve got to think not only of controlling the outbreak, you’ve got to think about the individual safety of the children.
Bankert: A lot of people care about at-home testing. In light of the holidays, you’ve been encouraging people to get tested before they get to their holiday gatherings, including this New Year’s Eve weekend. But we’ve seen long lines at testing sites; it’s been near impossible for some people to buy an at-home test. We’re two years into this thing, why is there such a testing shortage?
Fauci: Well, it’s an extraordinary demand that demand is associated with the concern about omicron, which is a highly, highly transmissible virus, much more so than any of the other variants, as well as the fact that there’s the surge around the holiday season, where you have people who are traveling, or who are gathering and wanting to gather with family and friends, and, as you said, want to make the extra safety step to get a test. That is true. And you’re right there are all lines in certain cities, certain cities have plenty of tests, but certain cities, particularly the bigger cities, by having large lines, such as in New York, and Miami, and other places, we’re doing much better than we were a year ago, but we still have a ways to go. I believe, and I’m certain that as we get into January, the first few weeks in January, things will markedly improve because there will be 500 million tests available in January. And then, in the succeeding months, subsequent months, they will be anywhere from 200 to 500 million tests per month available, including the ability to go online and order a test and have it delivered to your home free. So things are going to improve in January greatly and beyond.
Bankert: You’re talking about long lines being in only specific places. Many people are asking why it seems as though the messaging has been that hospitals everywhere are inundated with patients when that’s not necessarily the case. We’re seeing some hospitals inundated. Isn’t it true that omicron is not spreading as quickly in other communities, and delta isn’t either?
Fauci: Well, yes, but we’ve got to be careful. When you’re dealing with omicron, it is so highly transmissible that although some cities, some regions, and some states may not be as bad as others, there will be a surge in those places sooner or later, except if they are very highly vaccinated and boosted. If you look at the map of the country, and you look at the burden of disease. It’s heavily weighted towards areas where people have not been vaccinated.
Bankert: I want to share some viewer questions right now. Bruce Jones from Florida writes, I had two Maderna shots last January and February, and a Pfizer shot in early August. Should I get another shot after six months, and which one now?
Fauci: If you have had three shots of an mRNA, you do not need to get a fourth shot, we need to find out, and we are carefully following this as what the durability of protection is with that third shot. If it seems that the protection begins to wane, we hope it doesn’t, but if it does, then very likely there will be a recommendation to get an additional shot. But right now, we are not there yet. So if you’ve gotten your two shots of mRNA and your third shot boost, you are okay for now; you don’t need to get an additional shot.
Bankert: Heather is asking from San Diego, California, do recently infected people need a booster shot? Why shouldn’t they just get the antibody test to see if they’re still immune? And if people had delta, do we know how they’re reacting to omicron?
Fauci: Well, we know there are plenty of breakthrough infections of people, and we know that very, very clearly from our South African colleagues and accumulating evidence here that omicron is so effective that it is very good at getting breakthrough infections, even though you have been infected with another variant including Delta. We recommend that people, even though they’ve been infected and recovered, still get vaccinated because the level of protection that you get following infection when you do get vaccinated is extremely high. Good enough to protect you very well against virtually anything, and that’s the reason why we recommend that if you get infected and recover, you still should give yourself the extra protection of getting vaccinated.
Bankert: One more question from a viewer Mike Doyle from Grand ledge Michigan, says, Why are traditional vaccines like the World Health Organization approved Covaxin, which is proven to be safe and effective in India, and which appears to have the potential to be effective against new variants being delayed for approval in the U.S.? We had so many people ask about Covaxin.
Fauci: We have enough vaccines, the best vaccines available, in the United States. I’m puzzled by that question. We have more vaccines than we need right now. We just need the people to get vaccinated with the vaccines that we have. The mRNA vaccines are desired by everyone else in the world. So we have what we need; we need to use it.
Bankert: Are you opposed to alternative treatments?
Fauci: What do you mean alternative? It’s not an alternative. It’s another vaccine. We don’t need another vaccine; we have plenty of vaccines, they have not applied to get approved. When you try to get approved, the FDA looks at the data, and if the data are in order and give you a good scientific rationale to approve it, the FDA will approve it. There are no interventions that are not being approved for reasons other than they’ve either not been submitted for approval or the data are not strong enough to warrant approval.
Editor’s note – Covaxin was submitted for FDA emergency authorization this fall. After the interview, Dr. Fauci offered this statement: Bharat Biotech, the company that has developed Covaxin, has applied to the FDA for an emergency use authorization (EUA) for their vaccine. The FDA is currently evaluating the data and no decision has been made.
The interview continues below:
Bankert: One more question for you, Dr. Fauci. When are we out of the pandemic? Is the word pandemic still appropriate at this time? Are we entering another phase?
Fauci: No, there’s no doubt we are still in the middle of the pandemic. We had 300,000 cases yesterday. That’s a pandemic. Hopefully, we’ll be out of it and get down to the phase where we have good control. But we are not there right now.
Bankert: What numbers do we need to hit to be through to the other side?
Fauci: There is no magic number. When the level of vaccine and the level of virus is so low in society, it doesn’t interfere with our function. Three hundred thousand per day is not out of it; you want to get very, very low. You know, (if I give a number it could be) thrown back (at me) as well. “We’re at this number, and we still have an issue,” (someone might say.) It’s going to be very low. I have said in the past, maybe 10,000 or less infections per day. But really, what’s important is less the number of infections, particularly if many of them are without symptoms. What’s important is getting a level of hospitalization that’s quite low so that people are not concerned that if they get infected, they’re going to wind up seriously ill, so that it’s a very unusual event when someone gets hospitalized as opposed to now, when we have in the hospital at any given time 70-80,000 people. That’s not where we want to be; we need to be much lower than that.
Bankert: I do have to ask you this only in light of the fact that we’ve seen the CDC responding to the economic implications of this pandemic. You can’t disassociate mental health from this pandemic, either. What is your thought about the health of our children, men and women all across America who have been debilitated because of extenuating circumstances surrounding this pandemic, isolation mask mandates, and frustration over keeping their staff when there are people who disagree with vaccine mandates. What are your thoughts on mental health?
Fauci: Mental health is a very important and difficult situation that we’re dealing with right now. This outbreak has had a major impact on the mental health of so many people on the mental health of the health care providers who are stressed to the limit and taking care of patients, to children whose normal life as a child is often disrupted with regard to schooling and interaction with their peers with their playmates, about the stress of people losing family members. Mental health is a very, very important part of what’s going on right now, and that’s the reason why there are programs now that are specifically addressing that. The United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has spoken very explicitly about the importance of addressing the mental health issues associated with this pandemic.
Bankert: Dr. Murthy and yourself advising the Biden administration to do something specifically to tackle mental health into the new year?
Fauci: Yeah, there will be programs that are looking at it very, very carefully. Yes.
Bankert: All right, Dr. Fauci, I appreciate you being so generous with your time today and answering many of our viewers’ questions. Thank you again.
Fauci: My pleasure to be with you.
Bankert: Happy New Year.
Fauci: You too. Thank you.