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Fauci urges people to get COVID vaccines and boosters to curtail variants

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's turn once again to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president's chief medical adviser. Dr. Fauci, good morning.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I have similar questions for you to when you were on the program a few weeks ago, but maybe more is known, as I know that more is day by day and week by week. First, is the variant spreading in the United States as rapidly as people initially feared it could?

FAUCI: Well, we are certainly, literally, on a day-by-day basis getting more states that are reporting cases, but I think the thing that people need to understand is that the delta variant is still overwhelmingly the dominant variant and the dominant isolate with more than 99%. But we can expect, if the transmissibility that we're seeing in South Africa holds true here, that there will be increasing in cases. How it competes with the delta variant in the sense of being more transmissible or not really remains to be seen because we have a different demographic population here in the United States, obviously, than they do in South Africa. So yes, it's here. Yes, it's increasing. But the pace is still uncertain right now.

INSKEEP: There is some hope, as I'm sure you know, that cases from this variant overall are going to be more mild than other variants, which actually means that if omicron is successful, if it wins this race, it could potentially be better and lead to a milder pandemic. Is it actually heading in that direction, does it seem?

FAUCI: It's still preliminary, Steve. It's still anecdotal. We're getting reports from South Africa - I just got a report literally this morning - that when they look at them it looks like the hospitalization rate is less. But that could be because it is seemingly right now going through younger people more so than older people. But all reports that we've heard anecdotally is that it does look like it might be a bit milder, but you have to wait until the outbreak matures a bit before you can actually make any definitive statement.

INSKEEP: I want to circle back to what you said and what we heard in Allison's reporting, that 99% of the cases at the moment are actually the delta variant and overall cases have gone up 50% in a month. Now, I know we're heading into colder weather, but we were also in a phase where there was hope of a substantial improvement of the pandemic through the winter and into the spring. We even had a projection here on NPR News that things could be much better in the spring. But we're going in the opposite direction. What kind of a winter are we in for?

FAUCI: Well, that's going to be up to us, Steve, really, because we know that vaccines certainly work in the sense of certainly preventing severe illness and hospitalization. Now that we know - as we gather more data from boosters, it's absolutely essential for those who have been vaccinated, fully vaccinated to get their booster shot. We have now about 40 million people who have been boosted, but we have about a hundred million people who are eligible for boosters who have not yet gotten boosters. We know that when you boost someone, you dramatically elevate the level of antibodies and other immune parameters that can protect you against infection but much more likely against severe disease. So going into the winter with the challenge of the colder months, that's what we have to do in addition to the other things, like wearing masks when you're indoors - when you are in indoor congregate settings.

INSKEEP: Dr. Fauci, I'd like to ask you also about some reporting by our NPR colleague Geoff Brumfiel, who did some research and found that when you look at counties across the United States and you compare counties that voted heavily for Donald Trump with counties that voted heavily for Joe Biden, I guess it's not too surprising that the Trump counties have much less vaccination, but what Geoff also reveals is that they have three times the death rate. That seems to be a fact that you're facing as a public health professional. What do you do with that reality as a public health professional?

FAUCI: Well, you try to get people to appreciate that the politicization of public health is really, really not relevant and important right now. We have got to get people to pull together. It's counterproductive to politicize a public health issue like we're seeing.

INSKEEP: Have you reached out to any Republican officials and asked them to step up their messaging to reach out to their base supporters?

FAUCI: I do that at congressional hearings, Steve, all the time. I practically plead with people to put aside political ideology and concentrate on public health.

INSKEEP: Dr. Anthony Fauci, thanks so much.

FAUCI: Thank you. Good to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TESK'S "LEGO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.