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Homeland Security

Press Briefing by White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Officials

March 26, 2021

10:17 A.M. EDT

MR. ZIENTS: Thank you for joining us. Today, we will get a state-of-the-pandemic update from Dr. Walensky, and Dr. Fauci will highlight the latest science.

But first, I want to start with the next national vaccination goal the President announced yesterday: 200 million shots by his 100th day in office. That's double the initial goal the President set in December of 100 million shots in the first 100 days.

With 200 million shots in the first 100 days, more than half of all adult Americans will have gotten at least one shot by April 29th. No one even contemplated reaching this goal a few months ago. But it is now possible, because of the aggressive actions we have taken, to get more vaccine supply, more vaccinators in the field, and more places for people to get vaccinated.

Overall, we've made significant progress toward our ultimate goal: getting Americans vaccinated as quickly, as efficiently, and as equitably as possible.

As you can see on our weekly vaccination progress report, for the last two weeks, we are consistently vaccinating 2.5 million Americans per day. To hit our 200 million shot goal, we need to keep up this pace every day for the next five weeks. That is the equivalent of vaccinating a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium 50 times a day or the entire population of the city of Houston in just one day. That's the scale of this effort each and every day.
Two hundred million shots in a hundred days — this is an unprecedented pace. No country has ever vaccinated this many people this fast. And this effort will coincide with us reaching into harder-to-reach communities all across the country to keep up this pace and ensure and fairness. We are making progress.

As of today, 71 percent of individuals 65 and over have received at least one shot. That's important because seniors sadly account for 80 percent of COVID deaths. Overall, more than 1 in 3 adults have had at least one dose, and more than 47 million adult Americans are now fully vaccinated. We will need to continue to build on this progress to meet our new goal of 200 million shots in the first 100 days.

And thanks to resources of the American Rescue Plan, we have the resources to scale up activity, fully implement this strategy, and put the pandemic behind us.

I want to briefly outline how, in order to reach our new goal, we will continue to increase vaccine supply, vaccinators, and places to get vaccinated.

On vaccine supply, we've taken aggressive action to accelerate the production timelines of Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, including using the Defense Production Act to expedite critical supplies, equipment, and materials, and brokering the historic partnership between Merck and Johnson & Johnson.

This week, a total of more than 27 million doses went to states, Tribes, and territories and through the federal channels. That's more than three times the weekly supply that was being distributed when we took office — from 8.6 million doses to more than 27 million doses this week.

This significant increase in supply means by the end of May we will have enough vaccine for every adult in the U.S. To be clear, this is the direct result of all of our work with the vaccine manufacturers. It has produced results. They are setting and hitting targets. And we will continue to get all available vaccine supply out the door as soon as it's available.

On vaccinators in the field, we've deployed over 6,500 federal personnel to serve as vaccinators and to support vaccinations, including calling on FEMA, retired doctors and nurses, and active-duty military to administer shots. And in the coming weeks, at the President's direction, we will increase the 2,900 active-duty military men and women in the field to over 6,000 active-duty troops.

On places to get vaccinated, we've dramatically increased the number of convenient and trusted places for people to get a shot. Today, across the country, there are nearly 50,000 sites where Americans can go to get a shot. This number of sites continues to grow and includes 16,000 local pharmacies in the federal pharmacy program that we launched a few weeks ago. Millions of Americans can now get a shot in their local pharmacy the exact same way they get their flu shot. We will increase the total number of participating pharmacies to more than 20,000.

There are 300 community health centers providing vaccines, which we will expand up to 950 in the coming weeks. Importantly, over 65 percent of the shots administered at these community health centers have been to people of color.

In addition to pharmacies and community health centers, there are over 650 federally supported community vaccination sites across the country. And we're also continuing to bring more federally run mass vaccination centers online, including three new sites we're announcing today in Boston, Massachusetts; Norfolk, Virginia; and Newark, New Jersey. Together, these three new sites are capable of administering 15,000 doses a day.

And we're meeting people where they are, from deploying more than 500 mobile clinics, to our new program to get vaccines directly to dialysis centers. Because of the progress we're making, states are following the President's call to open up eligibility to all adult Americans no later than May 1.

As you can see from this map, 46 states and the District of Columbia have already announced plans to open up eligibility no later than May 1. That's the goal the President announced earlier this month. In navy blue, 14 states have already opened eligibility to all adults or will open eligibility in the next week. And in blue, in further good news, 12 additional states are opening up eligibility to all adults by April 15. So, in total, about half the states will have opened up eligibility to all adults by mid-April.

The President's new goal of 200 million shots in his first 100 days is only possible because of the President's whole-of-government national strategy and our partnership with state, territorial, tribal, and local officials; vaccine manufacturers; federal workers; and the not-for-profit and private sectors.

Before I hand it over to Dr. Walensky to talk about the state of the pandemic, let me close by saying it's clear there is a case for optimism, but there is not a case for relaxation. This is not the time to let down our guard. We need to follow the public health guidance, wear a mask, socially distance, and get a vaccine when it's your turn.

Over to Dr. Walensky.

DR. WALENSKY: Thank you, Jeff. It's a pleasure to be back with you today. Since early in the pandemic, it's been clear that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected certain groups in the United States, particularly Blacks, Latino, Native American communities, as well as in rural and low-income communities.

Not only have these communities seen disproportionate cases of COVID-19, but they have also often had higher rates of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease that have resulted in increased hospitalizations and deaths. Additionally, survey data indicate that these communities are facing higher rates of stress, anxiety, and other mental health challenges as they navigate the pandemic.

These communities have experienced longstanding disparities in access to care and services which have been further exacerbated during the pandemic. And I worry that these disparities will have health consequences that far outlast the infectious disease aspects of this pandemic.

We already know that life expectancy has dropped more significantly in Black and Latino Americans compared to white Americans. We can and must do more to address these inequities.

Yesterday, CDC announced several actions that will represent important steps in our agency-wide commitment to health equity. CDC will provide $3 billion from the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan to 64 jurisdictions to support broad-based vaccine distribution, access, and administration efforts.

Importantly, this funding will continue our work to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines by those disproportionately affected by the virus. To achieve this goal, 75 percent of the funding must focus on specific programs and initiatives intended to increase vaccine access, acceptance, and uptake among racial and ethnic minority communities.

In addition, 60 percent of the funding must go to support local health departments, community-based organizations, and community health centers. Jurisdictions may use these new resources to provide funding to local health departments, faith-based and other community-based organizations to identify and train trusted messengers in communities to conduct door-to-door outreach, to raise awareness about COVID-19 vaccines, to help get individuals sign up for appointments, and to provide them transportation to vaccine appointments.

A food assistance and housing nonprofit in a rural high-poverty community could receive these funding to conduct vaccine outreach and education and to ensure its clients, including those with disabilities and limited mobility, of transportation to a FEMA-supported mass vaccination site.

Funding could also be used by local health departments to partner with local businesses to support vaccination clinics in local communities and at places of business frequented by communities that are medically vulnerable and underserved.

In addition, CDC announced a separate investment of $300 million that will train, deploy, and engage more community health workers to help communities and individuals hardest hit by the pandemic.

And I am proud that CDC is helping to lead the new effort in vaccinating patients receiving dialysis for chronic kidney disease across the country. Working with these dialysis clinics to vaccinate patients is a health equity imperative.

These actions are an important step to help spread — stop the spread of COVID-19 and to begin to address the longstanding inequities that prevent some communities from achieving optimal health. We are doing this person by person, one person at a time. And we are working to do it through trusted, supported members of your community within your community.

Finally, I want to give you a brief update on where we are in the pandemic. The most recent seven-day average is about 57,000 cases per day, which is an increase of 7 percent from the prior seven days. The most recent seven-day average of new hospitalizations, about 4,700 per day, represents also a slight increase from the prior seven-day period. The seven-day average of deaths continues to hover at 1,000 deaths per day.

I remain deeply concerned about this trajectory. We have seen cases and hospital admissions move from historic declines, to stagnations, to increases. And we know from prior surges that if we don't control things now, there is a real potential for the epidemic curve to soar again. Please, take this moment very seriously.

We're vaccinating at 2.5 million people a day and they are protected from COVID. If you haven't been vaccinated, your turn is likely very soon. We can turn this around, but it will take all of us working together. Please keep wearing your well-fitting mask and taking the public health actions now that we know can reverse these concerning trends.

Thank you. I will now turn things over to Dr. Fauci.

DR. FAUCI: Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky. I'd like to spend the next few minutes introducing you to a new clinical trial that started yesterday that will ask a very — and answer a very important question related to what people who are vaccinated can and cannot do.

The trial — if I can have the first slide — will test if COVID-19 vaccine prevents infection as well as spread or transmission of SARS-CoV-2 among college students.

Next slide.

This is a question of extreme importance, because we know when people are vaccinated, that the endpoint of the trial showed that they were protected against clinically apparent disease. But the prevailing question is: When these people get infected, how often is that? If they're asymptomatic, how much virus do they have in their nose and do they transmit it to people who are their close contacts? Again, this will help inform science-based decisions about mask use and about social distancing post vaccination.

This is a randomized, open-label, controlled study involving 12,000 college kids between 18 and 26 years of age at more than 26 — 20 universities shown on the slide of the map of the United States. They'd be followed over five months. And as I mentioned, the study started yesterday.

Next slide.

The students are going to be randomized into two groups: 6,000 will receive vaccine immediately and another 6,000 will be vaccinated with a delay of four months later. The delayed vaccination group will serve initially as a control cohort. Both of these groups are going to receive the FDA-authorized vaccine regimen of two 100-microgram doses of mRNA-1273, the Moderna product, administered 28 days apart.

Next slide.

The participants are going to complete questionnaires with an electronic diary app. They will swab their nose daily for SARS-Co infection and provide periodic blood samples.

Importantly, about 25,000 individuals will be identified by the participants in the main study as "close contacts." They will provide samples. The degree of transmission from vaccinated individuals will be determined by the infection rate in the close contacts.

So we hope that within the next five or so months we'll be able to answer the very important question about whether vaccinated people get infected asymptomatically, and if they do, do they transmit the infection to others.

I'll stop there. And back to you, Jeff.

MR. ZIENTS: Well, thank you, Dr. Fauci, and thank you, Dr. Walensky. Let's go ahead and open it up for a few questions.

MODERATOR: Great. And a reminder, one question per person. First up, we'll go to Maureen Groppe at USA Today.

Q Hi. Thanks for taking my question. You mentioned the number of states that are opening up vaccine eligibility to all adults, but some of those that are doing at the fastest — you know, this month and the first week of April — are lagging behind when it comes to vaccinating their residents, including seniors 65-plus. I'm wondering if that is a mistake — if they should be focusing on that more first.

And I know you said one question, but if I — a colleague asked me to ask about Robert Redfield's comments this morning that he believes that the coronavirus escape from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

MR. ZIENTS: Let's start with the second question. Over to you, Dr. Fauci.

DR. FAUCI: Okay, so when you think about the possibilities of how this virus appeared in the human population, obviously there are a number of theories. The issue that would have someone think it's possible to have escaped from a lab would mean that it essentially entered the outside human population already well adapted to humans, suggesting that it was adapted in the lab.

However, the alternative explanation, which most public health individuals go by, is that this virus was actually circulating in China, likely in Wuhan, for a month or more before they were clinically recognized at the end of December of 2019. If that were the case, the virus clearly could have adapted itself to a greater efficiency of transmissibility over that period of time up to and at the time it was recognized.

So, Dr. Redfield was mentioning that he was giving an opinion as to a possibility. But, again, there are other alternatives — others that most people hold by.

DR. WALENSKY: And we are looking forward to a WHO report that should be coming out soon that examines the origin of this pandemic and of SARS-CoV-2 in humans, and we'll look forward to reviewing that.

MR. ZIENTS: So, to your first question, I think states across the country have done a good job of prioritizing the most vulnerable, and I think that being at 71 percent of individuals 65 years and older across the country having received at least their first shot is real progress. And about 45 percent of those seniors are fully vaccinated. But we have to keep prioritizing the most vulnerable populations. And if there are states that are lagging behind, we're working with those states to ensure that they continue to prioritize the most vulnerable populations.

That said, with the increase in demand, we think it's a good thing that states are opening up eligibility to all Americans no later than May 1.

Next question.

MODERATOR: Next we'll go to Zeke Miller at the Associated Press.

Q Thanks for doing the call. Jeff, this one might be for you. You mentioned that, over the last couple of weeks, the rate of vaccination has been stable at roughly two and a half million shots per day. Is your sense that that is, sort of, the capacity of the existing system, or is it still a supply-constrained environment? And what is your projection for, you know, once you get these additional sites online, how many — how many doses can you administer? What is the maximum capacity of shots that can be injected per day once supply is no longer constrained?

MR. ZIENTS: So, thanks, Zeke. First, I want to start with we're doubling our original goal to — you know, it's now to do 200 million shots in the first 100 days. Clearly unprecedented.

And then, furthermore, this next second — the second 100 million is going to be done in a faster period — a shorter period of time than the first 100 million. 2.5 million has been the consistent pace of the last couple of weeks, and it's a record that we hope to build on.

I think, as we continue to increase the number of vaccinators in the field, the number of sites where Americans can get vaccinated — we announced three new additional federally run mass vaccination sites just today — and as states open up eligibility — you put that all together with the increased weekly supply, and I think it is possible that we can build off of the 2.5 million average that we've had for the last 14 days.

Next question.

MODERATOR: Josh Wingrove at Bloomberg.

Q Hi, thank you so much for taking the time. Jeff, can you give us an update on supply? Do you think the vaccine manufacturers are going to hit their Q1 targets, or are you having hiccups there, or are things looking good?

And, Dr. Fauci or Dr. Walensky, I'm wondering also if you can give us an update on the variants, in particular how widely spread that B117 is in the U.S.? Thank you.

MR. ZIENTS: All right. Let's go in reverse order. Doctors Walensky, Fauci — do want to talk about the variants?

DR. WALENSKY: We continue to scale up our surveillance of the variants. B117 has now been detected in 51 jurisdictions, over 8,000 cases. We're watching it very closely. It is, you know, a percent of those — of the variants is a little bit lagging behind our data because it takes a while to do the sequences and to sequence the variants and do that population-based analysis. But, yes, we're worried about the increase.

DR. FAUCI: Yeah. The issue is the dynamics of the increase are telling us that it was going to continue to be a greater proportion. Because if you look from week to week, 117 becomes more of a percentage, and as the percentage goes up, that's a reflection that it has the capability to become dominant.

MR. ZIENTS: Josh, on your first question about the manufacturers and their quarterly targets, let me start with Moderna and Pfizer. As you know, we've done a lot to help accelerate their production. And they've maintained a steady cadence of production. And both Moderna and Pfizer appear on track to meet their first-quarter targets.

We've also been working closely with J&J. And we said right at the beginning that they started with an inventory of about 4 million doses, which we distributed immediately; that their first couple of weeks of March was likely to not have a lot of additional supply, which ended up being the case. The — as you know, early in the manufacturing process, they are ramping up.

We are expecting a significant number of doses, and we talked to the governors and our federal partners to expect a significant number of doses next week. They've told us they'll deliver least 11 million, which would take them to 20 million doses.

So, we've done a lot to help J&J. We're monitoring that very closely, and we anticipate a significant increase at the end of this month, which will enable them to hit at least 20 million doses.

Next question.

MODERATOR: Next we'll go to Kaitlan Collins at CNN.

Q Thanks very much for doing this. Two questions. One, Jeff, on those J&J numbers that you just announced, the 11 million, that's a lot bigger than what we were expecting. So could you explain how that number jumped so much, given it seemed to be in doubt just a few days ago that J&J would actually make that goal?

And then for Dr. Fauci, you were talking about the comments made by Dr. Redfield. Are you surprised by his comments? And is there any evidence within the CDC that this is a possibility? Or what is he basing this off of, do you believe?

MR. ZIENTS: Why don't you go first, Dr. Fauci?

DR. FAUCI: Yeah, Kaitlan, from what I gather from the press of what he said, he said that this is a possibility, and he's entitled to his "opinion" now. That were his exact words. I think what he likely was expressing is that there certainly are possibilities, as I mentioned just a few moments ago, of how a virus adapt itself to a efficient spread among humans.

You know, one of them is in the lab, and one of them — which is the more likely, which most public health officials agree with — is that it likely was below the radar screen, spreading in the community in China for several weeks, if not a month or more, which allowed it, when it first got recognized clinically, to be pretty well adapted. But according to the words of Dr. Redfield, he was saying — he was just expressing an opinion and an option of what it could be.

With regard to the information at the CDC, I'll pass that back to Dr. Walensky.

DR. WALENSKY: Thank you. I don't have any indication for or against either of the hypotheses that Dr. Fauci just outlined.

MR. ZIENTS: Good. Kaitlan, on your first question, as I said earlier, as we anticipated, there would be a sharp increase at the end of the month. You know, Johnson & Johnson is still in its earlier stages of manufacturing when you benchmark versus a Moderna or Pfizer, and will achieve across time a more regular cadence — a more regular weekly cadence.

The company has said they'll deliver the 20 million by the end of March. And from our conversations with the company, they appear on track to meet that goal with at least 11 million doses delivered next week.

I want to reiterate something that we've talked about before: As soon as those doses are made available to the U.S. government, we will, in turn, make them available for delivery to our state, local, and federal partners.

Next question.

MODERATOR: All right, we have time for one more question. We'll go to Kristen Welker at NBC.

Q Thank you so much for doing this call. Really appreciate it. Two more quick questions. Dr. Walensky, first one to you. You've repeatedly urged Americans to slow down on reopening — to hang on a little bit longer until more people get vaccinated. What we are seeing though, as we've discussed, is that more and more states are rolling back their mitigation efforts. I'm wondering if there's any discussion about changing or targeting the messaging to focus on specific states, specific groups of people.

And then, just as a quick follow-up to that — and this might be for you, Dr. Fauci: We're hearing about breakthrough cases — people who are vaccinated but then getting sick. Minneapolis reporting there have been 89 reported breakthrough cases — not a lot when you consider that 800,000 people have been vaccinated. But I just wonder what the takeaway is from that.

DR. WALENSKY: So maybe I'll just —

DR. FAUCI: Go ahead.

DR. WALENSKY: Yeah, I was going to say, I'll get started. This has been a long year, and I know people are tired. And they don't want to hear that it's going to take us a little while longer, but it's going to take us a little while longer. Our advice is clear. We're vaccinating really, really quickly. And we're just asking people to hang on a little while longer in terms of the masks and the mitigation strategies so that we can get the majority of people vaccinated.

We've done a lot. We have a mask mandate at the federal land and buildings. We have it at the interstate level. We're on weekly governors' calls to encourage them to hold on for just a little while longer.

And what I would say is this is an individual choice. People can practice these mitigation strategies with or without their government supp- — their government efforts.

So I would just ask the American public: We have seen so much evidence now that our vaccination strategies are working, that people who are getting vaccinated in the healthcare system and are — among our older communities are protected from disease. And so we just want to make sure that we don't end up in a surge that truly is avoidable.

DR. FAUCI: With regard to the breakthrough cases of people who've been vaccinated and ultimately have gotten infection, obviously this is something that we take seriously and follow closely.

You will see breakthrough infections in any vaccination when you're vaccinating literally tens and tens and tens of millions of people. So, in some respects, that's not surprising.

One of the important things that will be done and must be done is to sequence the genome of the virus that's the breakthrough virus, because it would be very important to see if they broke through with the wild-type virus, which would indicate a real diminution of immunity, or whether it broke through with one of the variants, which would be much more explainable if you don't have enough cross-reactivity.

So all of that information will be collected and will be very informative to us about what the type and the frequency of breakthrough that we'll be seeing.

MR. ZIENTS: Let me just, in closing, reiterate what Dr. Walensky said, which is: We certainly understand that people are tired and everyone wants to return to some state more normal as quickly as possible, but we can't let down our guard. And the President is doing everything he can with the mask mandate on federal land and buildings, the mask mandate on interstate travel.

Each time the President speaks about the virus, he reminds people that it's a time, as I said earlier, for optimism but not for relaxation; that we just need to continue to push ourselves so that everyone does everything they can to stay vigilant, follow the public health measures, and get vaccinated as soon as it is your turn.

So, thank you for joining the briefing. We'll be back on Monday. Thank you.

10:48 A.M. EDT

To view the COVID Press Briefing slides



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