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Dr. Fauci On The CDC's New Mask Mandate

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Joe Biden is going to start wearing a mask again in some settings. The fully vaccinated commander in chief will comply with the new mask guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That guidance today advises vaccinated Americans to return to wearing masks indoors in areas with high rates of infection. It's a response to the highly infectious delta variant, which is driving an explosion of coronavirus cases for unvaccinated Americans and breakthrough infections even among those who are vaccinated. Dr. Anthony Fauci is the nation's top infectious disease doctor and President Biden's chief medical adviser.

Thank you for joining us today.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Good to be with you, Ari. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: What is the rationale behind this new mask guidance for vaccinated people?

FAUCI: Well, the rationale, Ari, is that we're really dealing with a different virus because when the original CDC recommendations were made that if you were fully vaccinated, you don't need to wear a mask indoor was when we had the alpha variant dominant and the delta variant being about 1- or 2% or so of the viruses in the country. Now the delta variant is totally dominant. It's well over 80-, 85%. And in some sections of the country, it's close to or above 90%. This variant is much more capable of transmitting from people to people. And we know now...

SHAPIRO: Even vaccinated people.

FAUCI: Even - well, yes, that's the point. I mean, that's the critical new information; that even though breakthrough infections among vaccinated people are rare - they still comprise a very small fraction of the infections that occur - is that when people who are vaccinated do get a breakthrough infection, we know now as a fact that they are capable of transmitting the infection to someone else. And given that that's the case, now when we're talking about vaccinated people being indoors in settings where you don't know what the status is, particularly in an area, as you mentioned correctly, that has a high degree of protection, the recommendation is that you wear a mask even indoors, even if you're vaccinated.

SHAPIRO: And the CDC is also reversing itself on mask guidance for schools. Just recently, it said vaccinated students would not have to wear masks in schools. You know, early in the pandemic, as you're aware, there was confusing and sometimes contradictory guidance on masks. Are you concerned...

FAUCI: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...That this back-and-forth, the change in guidance, will make it tough for people to track what they're supposed to be doing and also undermine confidence in the guidance that they're getting?

FAUCI: Well, I mean, obviously, that's a risk, Ari. And that's something we have to address, which is the reason why, when we communicate this, I think it's important right up front to say the reason for this is that it isn't so much that we've changed in a vacuum or that the CDC has changed in a vacuum. It's that the virus has changed. We are dealing with a different virus now. This is not the original virus that we were dealing with. This has different capabilities much more efficient in transmitting from person to person.

SHAPIRO: President Biden said this afternoon that he is considering mandating vaccines for federal workers. Is that something you would encourage him to do?

FAUCI: You know, I think that that is something we may have to go to, Ari. I am - lean towards doing that. I actually do. We had the first version of that, I think, when Denis McDonough, who is the secretary of the Veterans Affair Administration (ph), said that people, particularly, you know, those who are taking care of patients in the veterans hospitals, that they should be wearing a mask, that they are mandated to wear a mask. I think you're going to start to see local mandates. I don't think you're going to be seeing a federal mandate from the president, but I think we're going to be seeing local mandates, including maybe some agencies in the federal government.

SHAPIRO: People we've talked to who are pushing for those mandates say it would be helpful if the FDA would grant full approval to the vaccines. When do you expect that to happen?

FAUCI: Well, I do hope it happens soon. I mean, the FDA has to do their thing. And you don't want to get ahead of the FDA because that would, I think, be a bad thing. It would, you know, be diminishing the confidence in the independent judgment of the FDA about matters of this, so they're going to do what they're going to do in their own time. I would hope that this is soon. I hope by the end of this coming month of August we see it. I can't guarantee it because that is totally up to the FDA. But I do hope it's soon because you're right. Once they get full approval, a lot of people will feel much more confident in taking the vaccine.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about where the trend lines are heading right now. NPR has reported that COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub expects daily deaths could triple from where they are now, with the delta variant accelerating through the fall into October. Do you agree with that modeling? And how concerned are you about the trend lines right now?

FAUCI: Well, you know, Ari, as you well know, whenever you have models, you put different assumptions into the model. There's the worst-case scenario, the best-case scenario. What usually happens, it lands somewhere in the middle. I certainly believe that if we keep up right now at the rate of acceleration of cases, which is really predominantly - overwhelmingly predominantly among unvaccinated people, that we are going to see a surge in infections that is going to be really quite disturbing. And when you have a surge in infections among unvaccinated people, you will definitely get increased hospitalizations, and that will lead to increased deaths. The thing about this that people need to realize - this is all entirely preventable if we get the overwhelming proportion of the population vaccinated. This is...

SHAPIRO: We are seeing an increase in people getting vaccinated. Is it enough to reverse the trend lines, do you think?

FAUCI: Well, it's not enough unless you get - first of all, it's going the right direction. We are seeing an increase. That's good. But we have approximately 100 million people who are eligible to be vaccinated who are not vaccinated now. That's a ways to go. We have got to make a big, big dent in that to get the overwhelming proportion of that group that still is recalcitrant to get them vaccinated.

SHAPIRO: And so what do these trend lines mean for parents who are hoping or planning on sending their kids back to school in person in the fall?

FAUCI: Well, I don't think that's going to impact. I think - I mean, and the CDC was very clear in their announcement today that they are recommending that we have in the school, that vaccinated or not, everybody wears a mask - the teachers, the staff and the students. So the students should be back in school in person in the fall. They will have to wear a mask. If...

SHAPIRO: And...

FAUCI: ...You see - I'm sorry, go ahead.

SHAPIRO: Well, I was going to say, and on the subject of students, what can you tell us about the timeline for an emergency use authorization for vaccinating 5- to 11-year-old kids who are not yet eligible to get the vaccine?

FAUCI: You know, I can't predict that, Ari. That's going to be up to the FDA because it's a regulatory decision. What I can tell you - that the information that will be the basis for that is being very actively collected right now. We are doing a number of what we call age de-escalation studies, where you take people - children from 12 to 9, 9 to 6, 6 to 2 and then 6 months to 2 years. Those studies are going to be completed by the time we get into the fall and late fall, early winter.

SHAPIRO: That's Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease doctor and President Biden's chief medical adviser.

It's always a pleasure to have you on the program. Thank you again for joining us today.

FAUCI: Good to be with you, Ari. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTOPHER VON DEYLEN'S "FREE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.