JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
Before we start the show, I need to ask you for some help, especially if you’re new to listening to the show or you haven’t shared your thoughts before. I’m trying to figure out what folks like about this show and what they don’t like as much. So if you don’t mind, go ahead, hit pause and head to npr.org/podcastsurvey. I promise the survey is short. It’s anonymous. But it would really mean a lot to us. Thanks so much.
DEE: Hi. This is Dee (ph) in my current home in Phoenix, Ariz. I just had the privilege of celebrating my eighth-year anniversary as a naturalized citizen of the United States. Every year, I read the letter given to me from the White House. One sentence in the letter states – our democratic principles and liberties are yours to uphold through active and engaged participation. And one way that I actively engage is tuning into the POLITICS PODCAST. This podcast was recorded at…
SUMMERS: 2:05 p.m. on Wednesday, July 21.
DEE: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. OK. Here’s the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA’S “TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)”)
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: That is just too great.
SUMMERS: I know. Happy eighth anniversary. And congratulations. That’s so wonderful.
KEITH: Yeah. Naturalized or natural born, engaging in civil society is a good thing indeed.
SUMMERS: Indeed. Hey there. It’s the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I’m Juana Summers. I cover politics.
KEITH: And I’m Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
SUMMERS: And we are joined today by Rob Stein from NPR’s Science and Health Teams. Hey, Rob.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there. Nice to be here.
SUMMERS: Glad you’re here because it feels like, yet again, there has been a shift in tone around the coronavirus. We’re starting to see infections creep back up in a lot of parts of the country, particularly in the South and Midwest. Can you just tell us what you’re seeing and hearing?
STEIN: Yeah. You know, it is kind of amazing how quickly things have changed. You know, it seems like it was just a week or two ago when it looked like the country was finally starting to put the pandemic behind it and life was finally starting to get back to normal. You know, infections, hospitalizations, deaths had all been plummeting for months. Everything was opening up. You know, summer vacation, summer camps were back, beaches, restaurants, airports are crowded again. But then the super-contagious Delta variant just took off and took over. And suddenly, all the numbers are going in the wrong direction. Again, infections are soaring in hot spots all over the country, you know, especially in places where most of the people still aren’t vaccinated. Hospitals are filling up again with COVID patients. Deaths are rising. The situation doesn’t look good, to put it mildly.
SUMMERS: You know, Tam, as I read the news from across the country, you know, we just hear these increasingly bleak warnings from public health officials and health care workers in these states where cases are on the rise. And it just is worth noting here that this is still an incredibly serious situation where the outlook for people in this country that are vaccinated and the outlook for people in this country who are not vaccinated is starkly different. You’re at the White House. What have you heard from the administration about these cases and just how concerned are they about what we’re seeing right now?
KEITH: You have certainly seen the case numbers just take off. And watching those numbers go up and up is concerning. The White House is concerned about it. They have settled on a new message, which is that this is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Now, that probably oversimplifies things a little bit. And we will talk about breakthrough infections later in the pod. But the argument they’re making is there is a solution for a lot of people in this country, and the solution is just to get vaccinated. The reality is that they’re just, you know, I guess we know the exact number. It is 32% of Americans at this point who are – adult Americans who are not yet vaccinated, haven’t gotten their first shot.
SUMMERS: Do you have a sense from the White House as to how they plan to work with partners across the country to get these people vaccinated? This has been the same message from the White House time and time again, that vaccination is the answer. And yet there are still so many people who, for a variety of reasons, it is an individual choice, but they have not yet taken that step.
KEITH: The White House says that they are doing everything that they can do. And, you know, I’ve talked to people outside of the White House who basically agree. Short of promoting mandates or otherwise requiring vaccination, which this White House has made clear they don’t intend to do at this point or any point, as far as we can tell, short of that, they’re out there. They – you know, they’re doing everything that they can to promote vaccination, to make sure that when someone decides that they’re ready, there is a – that, you know, getting to a vaccine is not an impediment.
SUMMERS: Rob, just from looking at all of this, it seems fair to me that the White House could have anticipated that there would have been some people out there who would have either been hesitant to get vaccinated or perhaps not wanted to do so at all. From your vantage point, is there anything they perhaps could have done if they indeed anticipate that?
STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, there is a sort of growing chorus at the moment among some public health experts advocating for the FDA to give full and formal approval to the vaccines. Right now, as you probably remember, it’s under this emergency use authorization. And the thinking is that there is this group of people for whom that could tip the balance who are just a little hesitant to get the vaccine because it hasn’t gotten fully approved. And so they’re hoping that if that happens, that could move that group into the – not vaccinated into the vaccinated group. And also, it could make it easier for employers to actually mandate vaccination.
SUMMERS: So we’ve talked a lot here about people who are still unvaccinated. But the other thing that’s been coming up a lot is what you referred to, Tam, those breakthrough cases of COVID, cases where people who have been vaccinated but are testing positive for the virus. I mean, we’ve heard about them anecdotally among our peers, but they’ve also been a big topic of conversation in Washington at the White House, as well as on Capitol Hill.
KEITH: Right. There is a congressman who tested positive. There are the Texas – the Democrats from Texas who are here and like six of them have tested positive. And there’s also a White House official, an unnamed White House official who tested positive for the coronavirus. And at the White House briefing yesterday, we learned that, in fact, there have been other breakthrough infections at the White House over the past six months that they just haven’t told us about. But the reality is that this will happen. And Rob can speak to this better than I can. But these are not 100% effective super shields against ever getting the coronavirus. But they are pretty darn effective at at preventing people from dying and preventing people from being hospitalized.
STEIN: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. The vaccines may not work quite as well against the Delta variant as it did against the earlier versions of the virus. But it’s quite clear that they are still working extremely well doing their main job, which is keeping people out of the hospital and out of the morgue as one expert I’ve been talking to about this keeps saying. Almost all the people who end up in the hospital and die are people who aren’t vaccinated, which is that – what the administration keeps hammering on is evidence of why people need to get vaccinated. But, you know, these vaccines, as Tam said, aren’t some kind of impenetrable force field.
Vaccinated people can still catch the virus in what appear to be pretty rare cases. The good news is that most of the time they probably won’t even know it because they probably won’t get any symptoms. Or, you know, if they do get sick, it’ll be pretty mild, like a cold, maybe a bad cold or some sniffles or something like that. And so far, the evidence is they probably won’t even spread the virus. But, you know, that is a big open question that researchers are urgently investigating right now.
SUMMERS: All right. We’re going to take a quick break. And we’ll talk more about all of this when we get back.
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SUMMERS: And we’re back. Over the last couple of days, we’ve seen a lot of top Republicans publicly urging their supporters, their constituents, that they need to go get vaccinated. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been talking about this for a while, but we heard him this week yet again warn that if unvaccinated people do not get shots and arms, the country could end up reversing the progress it has made. And on the other side of the Capitol, we saw Republican Congressman Steve Scalise get his first dose of the vaccine in light of the recent spread of the Delta variant. And then there was also this stark message this week from Fox News anchor Sean Hannity.
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SEAN HANNITY: And it absolutely makes sense for many Americans to get vaccinated. I believe in science. I believe in the science of vaccination.
SUMMERS: Tam, what do you make of this kind of changing message from some Republicans?
KEITH: Part of it is certainly that if you look at the map, there states, the red states, the states that many of these representatives represent or that senators represent, these are the states that are being hit hardest right now. And there is very real concern about what comes next, whether the caseload could continue to build and whether more and more unvaccinated people will get sick and die unnecessarily. But it really did seem like, is there a trend? Was there a memo?
I checked with one very well-connected Republican today, texted him about it, and he was like, no, there’s no official memo. He pointed out that Tucker Carlson is still raging against the vaccines. But he said that there could be a legitimate concern that if this continues to go in a bad direction, that these lawmakers could get blamed for not – and also, Fox News personalities could get blamed for not advocating for vaccination that, you know, clearly the Delta variant has shown us that this pandemic isn’t over.
SUMMERS: That’s right. Another official that we heard from a previous Republican administration this week is former Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who served under President Trump. And he is among those officials who suggested that the CDC was wrong. He said actually that they should rethink their guidance around masking. And he talked with our colleague, A Martinez, on Morning Edition.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
JEROME ADAMS: Though well-intentioned, the former CDC guidance, or more appropriately, the messaging of it has just absolutely, unequivocally failed. Cases are arising everywhere. More people than ever, vaccinated and unvaccinated, are going maskless. And it doesn’t seem to have convinced anyone to get vaccinated.
SUMMERS: So, Rob, what Adams is suggesting that the CDC might need to rethink this, is that something that we’re hearing others say? Is that something they might do?
STEIN: You know, so far, the CDC seems like it’s pretty much sticking to its guidelines. But I got to say, almost all of the public health experts and, you know, infectious disease experts I’ve been talking to agree that, you know, we got to really kind of kick up our masking game here and are, in fact, changing their own behavior. They’re all telling me that they’re wearing masks again indoors, especially when they’re in places where the virus is surging. And there may be lots of unvaccinated people because that’s the riskiest situation. You know, if you walk into a store and see most people are not wearing masks, you know that not all of them are vaccinated because of the low vaccination rate. And there’s no way to know who is and who isn’t.
You know, I got to say, I was in a couple of beach towns the last couple of weeks and was kind of shocked. You know, hardly anyone was wearing a mask anywhere, not even kids, not even like store employees. You know, at one point, I brought my young son into a couple of souvenir stores and quickly fled, even though I’m fully vaccinated and he was wearing a mask because, you know, this Delta virus is so super contagious. People who are infected are spewing so much more virus that I just didn’t want to take the risk.
SUMMERS: So, Tam, given the situation that is before the White House right now, do you get the sense they’re going to backpedal at all or change any of the current guidance?
KEITH: The White House is following the lead of the CDC. They say that they trust in the science and they are following the science. And unless CDC changes, their position isn’t going to change. The White House reporters have asked them about, for instance, LA County instituting a mask mandate indoors once again. And the response is local jurisdictions can do what they feel is best for their jurisdiction. But it’s pretty clear that the political will does not exist for another nationwide mass mandate or to beg people to wear masks coming from the White House. That period is over. That’s past.
SUMMERS: All right. We’re going to leave it there for now. Rob Stein, I’m so glad you were here to share your reporting with us.
STEIN: Oh, it’s always a pleasure.
SUMMERS: And a quick reminder – whether this is your first episode of the show or your 500th, please go right now and take our short survey at npr.org/podcastsurvey. Before you move on with your day, I just can’t tell you how much this helps us out. And we really appreciate it.
I’m Juana Summers. I cover politics.
KEITH: And I’m Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
SUMMERS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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