4:40 P.M. EST
I’m joined today, and you’ll hear in a few moments, from members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, including those that are leading the effort of distribution of vaccinations under Operation Warp Speed. And I think you will be as impressed as I was at FEMA earlier today when I heard the detailed plans for the virtually immediate distribution of vaccines when they become approved and available to the American people.
From very early in this pandemic, at the President’s direction, we have followed an approach to this pandemic that was federally supported, state managed, and locally executed. And to that end, this past Monday, we completed our 41st conference call with all of the nation’s governors — every state, every territory. And there, we spoke about our current circumstances where we see cases and hospitalizations rising, but we also continue to speak to them about — about the expansion of testing, the availability of supplies, and our ongoing efforts to continue to drive forward toward the development and the distribution of a vaccine for the American people.
As we gather here today, with cases and hospitalizations rising across the country, President Trump directed us to host this briefing, to describe the ongoing work of our task force and our partnership with state and local officials and our partners in the private sector to continue to put the health of America first.
But first, let me begin simply by saying that our hearts and our prayers are with all of those families that have been impacted by the coronavirus over the course of the past 10 months. And let me say personally: Not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought personally about families that have lost loved ones. And I want to assure each of you that you will always be in our hearts and you will remain in our prayers.
But we wanted to take this opportunity also to thank the American people for the extraordinary sacrifices that you’ve made over the course of the past 10 months. We’ve been through a lot together. We went through 45 days to slow the spread, back when the positivity rate across this country was more than 20 percent. We managed to accomplish our objective: We slowed the spread, we flattened the curve, and we saved lives.
And then, during the outbreak across the Sun Belt this summer, when we saw positivity rise to nearly 10 percent, the American people, officials at the federal and state level stepped up again, and we put that outbreak in the past.
And even as we see help on the way, the vaccines being developed at a historic pace, as I mentioned before, as we gather today, we are seeing cases and positivity rising across the country.
But we approach this moment with the confidence of experience. We know the American people know what to do. We have forged a partnership that is truly seamless with state and local health authorities. And as we’ll describe to you today, we’ve continued to work seven days a week, all throughout this year and up to this very moment, to make sure the American people have access to the healthcare that we’d want any member of our family to have as we meet this pandemic.
Now, cases are rising throughout the country. Positivity in the last 30 days has risen from an average of 5 percent to 10 percent. And to that end, we’ve continued the mobilization that began at President Trump’s direction early this year. We increased testing from a standing start in the month of February to now, as of today, we’ve completed more than 170 million tests, and we continue to approve new tests, including an at- home test that the FDA just recently approved. And we’re distributing more than 150 million Binax tests to schools and nursing homes around America as we speak.
Our mobilization of supplies you will hear described in great detail continues to surge each and every day. We actually are able to track PPE and supplies on a hospital-by-hospital basis. And so we’re carefully monitoring. We’re working with state officials, with hospital administrators, to make sure that our hospitals have the support they need.
Also, as we gather, more than 140 clinical trials for therapeutics continue to be underway, but effective therapies are already available and are widely known among the American people. And for those over the age of 70, we’re proud to report that we actually have decreased the fatality rate by more than 70 percent since those heartbreaking days of April.
In May of this year, of course, as the President spoke last week in the Rose Garden, we launched Operation Warp Speed, focusing on accelerating the development, the manufacture, and the distribution of a safe and effective vaccine. And you’ll have an update today on the progress from two of our leading experts and those that are coordinating Operation Warp Speed.
What I want to say in the midst of all of this to the American people, as we begin this briefing, is that with the — with a massive increase in testing over the last 10 months, with PPE and medical supplies and equipment that are available to the American people, with the medicines and the therapeutics and, very soon, the vaccines that are available, America has never been more prepared to combat this virus than we are today.
And our pledge to each and every American looking on today is we’re going to work around the clock to keep it that way. We’re going to make sure that hospitals that are seeing patients coming in on an increasing basis know that we’re going to — we’re going to work around the clock to meet that need. And you have our continuing pledge and the practice of experience that we’ve had along the way.
So, in a few moments, you’ll hear from members of our team. We’re going to begin with Dr. Deborah Birx, who’s going to describe what we’re seeing in the rising cases. Literally every day, for members of the task force, begins with detailed analysis of what’s happening across the country. And she’ll give you our very best — our very best information on rising cases and hospitalizations. And that information is summarized each and every week for the nation’s governors and provided to them in particular detail as well.
After Dr. Birx speaks, we’ve asked General David Sanford with FEMA to provide an update on our ongoing efforts to provide PPE and medical supplies to our hospital needs. We’re literally going to make sure, as I said, that as we see cases rising, that we’re meeting the needs in hospitals around America to stand up the response that any one of us would want a family member to be able to have access to.
Then we’ve asked Dr. Fauci to give us an update on the incredible and historic progress on the development of vaccines. It seems like, with good news happening every couple of days, that’s a great encouragement to the American people.
And then, General Gus Perna will outline our distribution plans on Operation Warp Speed. I was at FEMA today and received a detailed briefing about our distribution plans. And I asked General Perna to come here today to make that presentation to the American people. And it is, in a very real sense, putting us in a position that literally, the day after one of these vaccines is approved, we’ll be shipping vaccines to the American people. And within a day after that, we’ll be seeing those vaccines injected into Americans with a particular focus on those most vulnerable and those that are providing healthcare to the American people.
Finally, we’ll talk with — a bit about the way forward. As state and local governments are continuing to act and take mitigation measures to slow the spread, you can assure them, as we did governors again this week, that we’ll support decision making at the local level. And we’ll continue to support decisions that are made in each individual community based on the circumstances on the ground.
But that being said, President Trump wanted me to make it clear that our task force, this administration, and our President does not support another national lockdown.
And we do not support closing schools. You’ll hear from Dr. Robert Redfield of the CDC that, actually, the CDC never recommended that we close schools at any point this year. And Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, who also serves with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services at HHS, will describe the real cost to children being away from school.
But in every one of these cases, we’re going to give you the best information that we have up to this moment. And I just want to assure the American people, as I trust that you will have a sense today, that we’re going to continue to work around the clock to meet this moment.
But help is on the way. We have every confidence that, in a short period of time, we could have one or more safe and effective vaccines for the American people. And as each of us does our part in partnership with state and local officials, and each of us does our part to look after our own families and our own communities, I believe the day is coming soon when we will put this coronavirus in the past.
But with that, let me introduce Dr. Deborah Birx, who will update us on cases. And after that — after that, we will get a presentation on the availability of supplies that we continue to make available to hospitals and healthcare providers around the country.
DR. BIRX: Thank you, Mr. Vice President. And it’s really a moment that we want to call on every American to increase their vigilance. And I want to go through some data about why we are asking people from Elko, Nevada, through Denver, Colorado, to Philadelphia; from Madison, Wisconsin, to El Paso, Texas, and across this great nation to really increase their vigilance at this moment.
I want to thank the governors and mayors and county commissioners that I’ve had the privilege to talk to over the last four and a half months of being on the road.
We can have the first slide, please.
The number of universities — 42 states, 30 universities, and a large number of chairmen from our tribal nations. The reason we wanted to really be in here is to really understand the reality on the ground, what they were facing, and understand how we could be more supportive. And this is really a call to action for every American to increase their vigilance because of the graphic that is shown here.
I wanted to show you the difference in slopes between the spring surge, the summer surge, and the fall surge so the American people know that this is more cases more rapidly than what we had seen before, but to also make it clear, like before, we do know what to do. And we’re asking every American to do those things today.
The next slide shows our increase in test positivity. The light brown bars are the number of tests that were performed. But even with the number — an ever-increasing number of tests performed, you can see the increase in test positivity to around 10 percent. In some areas of the country, it is much higher than that, and it illustrates the ongoing community spread in your counties, in your small and large metros, and in your rural areas.
The next slide really shows the country as a whole and why we’re asking every American to remain vigilant, to do those things that we have been asking you all to do: to wear a mask, to physically distance, to continue your hand hygiene, but really, in this moment of bringing people together, to really limit interactions indoors to immediate households when we see this level of community spread.
Behind this level of community spread is a lot of asymptomatic cases. People are spreading the virus because they don’t know they’re infected with the virus, and so people are coming together indoors. Everyone looks healthy, but among those individuals could be individuals that already are infected, have no symptoms, and are unknowingly spreading the virus to others.
It is because of this asymptomatic spread that we have asked people to wear a mask indoors and to ask people to wear a mask when among others. But sometimes when we go indoors and we’re with friends and family, we just assume that if you look okay, you are okay. And now we know that over 50 percent of the individuals, particularly among those under 35, many could be infected and unknowingly spreading the virus.
This virus increased so rapidly because there was an unusual cold snap that began in the Northern Plains and went down through the Heartland where, in the end of September/ beginning of October, large number of people moved indoors. So we’ve been going across the country to really tell them that, in the Mid-Atlantic states and the Northeast, to really increase testing, looking for these asymptomatic cases.
And I really want to thank the governors across this great land who have really heeded that call and set up what we call sentinel populations — whether it’s nursing home staff, K-through-12 teachers; whether it’s community college students, county workers, specific businesses — to really have routine weekly testing so that we can see the spread of this virus down to the zip code and really combat that with additional mitigation.
The next slide shows what we have been talking about, about the level of hospitalizations. And in this slide you can see the hospitalizations by the darkness of the color. And I just want to make it clear what the Vice President talked about: We now can see every admission every day. And I want to thank the hospitals who, from July, have been sending us that data and improving that data, and working with CDC so that we can see new admissions, we can see inpatient status, we can see CCU — ICU status, and we can see who’s being admitted by age group. Right now, it’s about 50/50 between those between 40 and 69 and those over 70.
But you can see that we have some areas of the country in the hot red, bright pink. And these are — the darkest red are those states that have more than 21 percent of their hospitals are COVID patients, and the light pink is between 16 and 20 percent, and the light orange between 12 and 15 percent.
But you do see that there’s still states in the green areas. And to all of those states that have not seen this surge: to really increase your testing among asymptomatics by setting up these sentinel populations.
When we did the 45 days to stop the spread and we asked each state to follow the gating criteria, part of that gating criteria included looking for asymptomatic cases. With these new antigen tests, we have the capacity to really expand testing to find those cases and stop that spread.
In the meantime, as we started with, we stopped the surge in the south through very targeted mitigations that start with masks, that start with physical distancing, but also include decreasing those friends and family gatherings where people come together and unknowingly spread the virus.
And I want to thank the mayors of Miami — Miami City and Miami County — who — they were the ones that first, in the summer, really found how much asymptomatic spread was occurring in household gatherings.
And so, as you bring together individuals, remember what the Vice President talked about: Every American needs to be vigilant in this moment because we know that when you are, we can mitigate this virus and stop this spread together.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Great. Thank you, Dr. Birx. And as you can see, with particularity on a state-by-state basis, we are — want the American people to know that we have — we have eyes on your local hospital. We know about admissions. We know about the availability of ICU beds. And we know about supplies.
And from very early on, at the President’s direction, we stood up the greatest national mobilization since World War Two. And I want the American people to know that that continues to this moment.
And General David Sanford, who has been with us every step of the way, is going to brief you on the status of our supply chain and the reserves that we have in our ongoing efforts to make sure that our hospitals and healthcare facilities have the resources and the support to meet this moment.
BRIGADIER GENERAL SANFORD: Mr. Vice President, thank you, sir. Dr. Birx, thank you, ma’am. So we are in a much better place and continue to improve upon that capability. You’ll see from the slides behind me that we have — continue to grow our National Stockpile but also our FEMA stocks to meet the requirements laid out by our states and by our populations. We continue to expand upon these to bridge the vaccine delivery to continue to protect our American population.
Since the late summer, we have grown our personal protective equipment capabilities 10 to 15 times over what they were pre-COVID and continue to grow capability to meet the surge requirements that we may expect from the current caseload.
As you can see behind me, around the third column or fourth column, we have four months of surge capability based on current case diagnosis just for N95 masks. And we continue to grow that capability — more masks being added every month.
The Strategic National Stockpile and our FEMA stocks are ready to be the backstop when our states require assistance. And that’s all built upon a foundation of a strong, domestic medical industrial base — something where we’ve been able to expand upon or build, in some cases almost from scratch, using our Defense Production Act and other CARES Act authorities to provide the capabilities for our American people not just now, but into the future and for future crisis or medical events going down.
You can go to next slide, please.
This is not done alone. We continue to work with our states on a recurring basis. Our FEMA administrator is constantly engaged with the governors or their staffs. We reached out to both our regional administrators, to the state medical — or health department officials, and both to the emergency management officials in the state to find out what their needs are to help overcome their challenges and to grow the states’ stockpiles, as that relates to our Federal Emergency Management mandate of local execution, state management, and federal support.
As you saw in the previous slide and as you’ll see on this color-coded map, between our states and the federal government, we stand in a much better position than we were just a month ago, and certainly more than four or five months ago, to meet the surging PPE demands of our nation.
And this is not something that we’re sitting and continuing just to watch; it is something that we’re continuing to grow upon and to continuously analyze so that we can stay ahead of the increases and make sure that we’re either procuring and we have PPE on the way to meet the surge in cases.
I’ll turn it over to Dr. Fauci and General Perna.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Great. Well done. Well done.
With that, I’m going to invite Dr. Tony Fauci to come up and share his thoughts on the development of a vaccine, which is giving such great hope. But I trust that the panels that you just showed us encourage the American people to know that we’re going to continue to work around the clock to make sure your local hospital has the resources and the supplies that you need to meet this moment.
But I think we all know that we ultimately put this pandemic in the past the day that we have a safe and effective vaccine. And we’ve been making historic progress through Operation Warp Speed, with our private partners, and Dr. Tony Fauci and NIH have been absolutely integral to that.
So I’ve asked Dr. Fauci to update you on the status of vaccine development. And then — and then we will have General Gus Perna, who is coordinating the distribution plan for Operation Warp Speed, working with every state and territory in America to be ready on day one to distribute vaccines as soon as they’re available, to give you a brief outline on that plan.
So, Dr. Fauci.
DR. FAUCI: Thank you very much, Mr. Vice President. As I was sitting there, I was recalling that, about seven or eight months ago, I stood at this exact spot at a time when there was really an extraordinary surge in cases in the northeastern part of the country, in New York City. And I said that, if the virus was left to its own devices, it would cause a considerable degree of devastation because that’s what pandemic viruses do. It’s a very powerful force, and you’ve heard about that and what we need to do about it from Dr. Birx.
However, I also said, if some of you can remember, that there’s an opposing force to that, and that opposing force is us: you and I being able to do certain things, like mitigation with public health measures, again, which was just mentioned by Dr. Birx.
But there’s another opposing force to that, and that’s a vaccine. And historically, if you look at highly efficacious and effective vaccines through the years, they’ve crushed formidable outbreaks like smallpox, like polio, like measles. So in the next couple of minutes, let me tell you about what we have now and what’s going to happen in the next few months.
As you well know, Operation Warp Speed has been supporting directly and indirectly six candidate vaccines, four of which are either in or completed phase three clinical trial. I want to briefly tell you about two of them because you have to be interested in this. It is extraordinarily impressive.
Two of the vaccines, one by Moderna and one by the company Pfizer, have completed trials, and the efficacious — vaccine efficacy point is extraordinary. With regard to Pfizer, it was 95 percent efficacious not only against disease that’s just clinically recognizable disease, but severe disease. There were 10 cases of severe disease: one in the vaccine, nine in the placebo. For the Moderna trial, it was 94.5 percent efficacious. Eleven severe events: zero in the vaccine, 11 in the placebo.
For those of you not acquainted with the field of vaccinology, that is extraordinary. That is almost to the level of what we see with measles, which is 98 percent effective. So that’s what we’re dealing with.
The question is: What about how that is going to be rolled out? I use the word “efficacious”; that means what happens in a clinical trial. The word “effective” means is what the ultimate impact of that vaccine is going to be on society, and the only way you can get an effective program is when people take the vaccine. And we’re going to be talking to you about that.
And I hear a lot now, when we made these announcements this past Monday and then two Mondays ago, about some reticence of people: “Well, did you rush this?” “Was this too fast?” “Is it really safe and is it really efficacious?” The process of the speed did not compromise at all safety, nor did it compromise scientific integrity. It was a reflection of the extraordinary scientific advances in these types of vaccines, which allowed us to do things in months that actually took years before. So I really want to settle that concern that people have about that.
“What about the decision of the data? Who looked at the data? Was that some force that was maybe trying to put something over on you?” No, it was actually an independent body of people who have no allegiance to anyone — not to the administration, not to me, not to the companies — that looked at the data and deemed it to be sound.
Now that data will be examined very carefully by the FDA, who, together with an advisory committee — the Vaccine and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, or VERPAC — are going to look at that before the FDA makes the decision about putting this forth for an emergency use authorization or, ultimately, for a license.
So we need to put to rest any concept that this was rushed in an inappropriate way. This is really solid.
Now, what does that mean for us? We now, as the Vice President said, are telling you that help is on the way, which has two aspects to it. It means that we need to actually double down on the public health measures as we’re waiting for that help to come, which will be soon. We’ll be getting vaccine doses into people at high priority at the end of December. We’re not talking about shutting down the country. We’re not talking about locking down. We’re talking about intensifying the simple public health measures that we all talk about: mask wearing, stay being distanced, avoiding congregate settings, doing things to the extent that we can outdoors versus indoors. If we do that, we’ll be able to hold things off until the vaccine comes.
Now, I’ve used that metaphor that “the cavalry is on the way.” If you’re fighting a battle and the cavalry is on the way, you don’t stop shooting; you keep going until the cavalry gets here, and then you might even want to continue fighting.
And then, finally, one other final thing about it. The very impressive efficacy — 94.5 and 95 percent of a vaccine — should motivate individual to realize that this is something you want to participate in. So we’re going to be talking to you about it likely here, in the future, about why it’s important, as these vaccine doses roll out, why we have to do two things: continue the public health measure and get vaccinated when the vaccine becomes available.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Tony. General?
GENERAL PERNA: Mr. Vice President, thank you very much for this opportunity. So I’ve been asked to highlight our way ahead on distribution of the vaccine as just talked about by Dr. Fauci and, before that, Vice President Pence.
You know, we are here today because our mission was clear, and our mission to Dr. Moncef Slaoui — my co-leader and, really, heavily responsible for our success — we are here today because we focused on developing, manufacturing, and distributing a safe and effective vaccine and therapeutics to the American people. Our purpose is really clear: Save lives. And it has driven us to this end state, and that’s why we’re here today.
A couple of things as we get started in our planning: I will tell you that the planning began almost immediately following our ceremony in the Rose Garden on the 15 May. That Monday, we started talking development manufacturing and distribution. It’s not a thought that we’ve had in the last two weeks. It’s required extensive planning and detailed work by a collaboration of individuals, which I’ll talk about.
A couple of things we decided up front:
One, we were going to be able to deliver the vaccine within 24 hours after EUA. That is distribution to the entire United States of America to include territories and metropolitan cities.
Two, we started with a foundation of expertise. The CDC is the very best at planning and executing distribution of vaccines. We took their core competency, and we aligned it with the capability of planners, project managers, and those who could run campaigns. And, together, this organization has come up with our strategy for distribution.
Third, we took the capacity of the industry, commercial industry, and we brought them into the fold. We wanted to utilize the capability and the capacity that is already established in America, that has a proven track record, that knows how to distribute vaccines, that understands the nuances of ultra-cold chain requirements. We knew if we brought Pfizer, Moderna, McKesson, UPS, FedEx, CVS, Walgreen, and hundreds others together, that we would come up with the best solutions, because innovation towards our end state was our only care. It wasn’t about egos and it wasn’t about credit. It was about how do we solve this complex problem.
It was clear, immediately following our initial meetings with industry, that we had to have full collaboration, to my fourth point, with the jurisdictions and the states. They had to be a big part of our planning sequence.
So, together, OWS, CDC, industry, and the states and jurisdictions came up with the plan that I’m going to talk to you about here shortly. It is the effort that is almost so common that you will recognize it because we do it every year. We do it when we distribute influenza vaccines. We do it when other vaccines are being distributed. The difference is now we’re pushing mass volume of a new vaccine, and so we needed to have a strategy that was collaborated at all levels, with all organizations, in order to execute.
The last thing we needed to do was we had to create a system to see ourselves. We had to be able to see inside of every territory, state, metropolitan city; understand where the vaccine was from fill/finish site to distribution warehouses, down to administration sites, so not only could we maintain the flow of vaccine, but we could account for vaccine that was being administered. That way, we can keep the flow to the American people in a steady drumbeat.
As we go forward — first slide, please — we will distribute the vaccine accordingly. I direct you to the right side of the slide. This is our end state. This is where we want the vaccines to be. We want the vaccines down at the places where the American people are comfortable — at our hospitals, our doctor’s offices; down at CVS, Walgreens; down at the long care — healthcare facilities — places where people are comfortable going. So that’s where we started: end state.
Then we went back to Pfizer and Moderna, we laid out the guidelines that I gave you, and with the collaboration of them and the commercial industry for distribution, we came up with our plan. It’s relatively simple: We take the Pfizer vaccine. They are capable of distributing on their own; they will utilize FedEx and UPS, in order to execute distribution. Simultaneously, we will ship ancillary kits — needles, syringes, alcohol wipes, and the diluent required for the vaccine to meet the vaccine at the end-state facilities that we’re talking about.
For McKesson — or for Moderna vaccine, what we’re going to do is we’re going to meet up the vaccine with the ancillary kits at a distribution warehouse. We’re going to put them together, and then we’re going to distribute through FedEx and UPS, down to our administration sites.
So, in simple terms, we’re taking it from fill/finish, we’re bringing together all the requirements for administering the vaccine, and then we’re sending it down to the distribution sites. Any place that a state wants to administer the vaccine, as long as they’re enrolled — right? — into our process, we can distribute the vaccine. We can distribute the Pfizer vaccine at a minimum of 975 doses, and the Moderna vaccine at a minimum of 100 doses. We can go to one place in the state or we can go to 10,000 places in the state. The capability and the capacity exist because we came together in a whole-of-America approach.
It is this effort that I can look you in the face and say to you: EUA comes; 24 hours later, vaccines will be distributed out to the American people and be ready for administration.
To this end, our mission is as I stated: safe and effective vaccines to the American people, and we need to do it in the most timely manner possible because it is all about lives.
Thank you, Mr. Vice President.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, General. And, General, how many kits have already been started, would you say?
GENERAL PERNA: Mr. Vice President, we already have over a million kits — both the kits that we’ll need for the Pfizer vaccine, as well as the Moderna vaccines. Different —
SECRETARY AZAR: One hundred.
GENERAL PERNA: One hundred. Right. Yes, yeah. Excuse me, 100 million. Thank you.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I knew the answer. I knew the answer.
General Perna, thank you. And as he said, from the time President Trump announced Operation Warp Speed, General Perna and his team have been working literally around the clock to build the distribution plan that you see that’s in effect. And I hope you all heard that. I asked him how many of those kits have already been manufactured for merging with — merging with the Moderna product, and they’ve already assembled 100 million kits that are ready to go. And that’s the supplies that are necessary for administering the vaccine.
I must tell you, having received my latest briefing today over at FEMA, from Operation Warp Speed, I think every American can be proud of the fact that we have a plan in place: that the moment that the FDA concludes that that vaccine is safe and effective, we have a system in place to begin, within 24 hours, shipping that vaccines to hospitals, healthcare facilities, and 24 hours after that, literally injecting that vaccine into Americans.
And we’ll also be continuing to develop the prioritization working with states about their plans. And maybe Bob Redfield of CDC will reflect on that as well in a moment. CDC will create a recommendation for priorities of who’s to be immunized. But if history is a teacher, we know that we’ll focus on those most vulnerable; we’ll focus on our healthcare workers and first responders at the early going.
But it’s — it’s truly inspiring to me to see the incredible work that Operation Warp Speed has done. And, General Perna, I want to thank you for your dedication.
With that, as I said, we’ve continued from the very beginning to operate an approach at the federal level that is federally supported, state managed, locally executed. And we’ll continue to respect decisions that state governments are making in efforts to slow the spread.
But — but to be very clear, as President Trump has been very clear: that we do not support another national lockdown and do not believe it is necessary. I think Dr. Fauci actually reflected again on we’re not calling for a national lockdown, and we won’t.
But beyond that, there have been some actions taken in jurisdictions around the country with regard to closing schools, and I wanted the American people to know that it is — it is the position of this task force, of this administration, and of the CDC that we do not need to close our schools.
I want to invite Dr. Redfield to come forward to speak about that, but I want to emphasize what he’s reminded our task force of many times: that, actually, at no point in this pandemic has the CDC ever recommended closing schools. And the more we’ve learned about this virus, the more it’s simply affirmed that we think our kids belong in the classroom. We’re absolutely committed to continue to provide resources so our kids, our teachers, our administrators can safely — safely get back to school.
But with that, let me introduce Dr. Redfield and, with him, Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz at HHS, who is an extraordinary leader. She’s going to speak about the unintended consequences of shutting our kids out of the classroom around America. And then I’ll have the Secretary have some closing remarks.
DR. REDFIELD: Thank you, Mr. Vice President. I think it’s important first for me to emphasize what you’ve heard already, is that we’re not defenseless against this virus. Masks works. Social distancing works. Hand washing works. Being smart about crowds, particularly indoor, works. The strategic use, as Dr. Birx said, of testing to identify the silent epidemic, to identify the asymptomatic infection so that they can be pulled out of the transmission cycle, works.
Another point that I want to make is that we need to follow the data. We should be making data-driven decisions when we talk about what we’re doing for institutions or what we’re doing for commercial closures.
For example, as was mentioned, last spring, CDC did not recommend school closures, nor did we recommend their closures today. I will say, back in the spring, there was limited data; today, there’s extensive data that we have — we’ve gathered over the last two to three months — to confirm that K-through- 12 schools can operate with face-to-face learning, and they can do it safely and they can do it responsibly.
The infections that we’ve identified in schools, when they’ve been evaluated, were not acquired in schools. They were actually acquired in the community and in the household.
Today, as Dr. Birx said, our big threat for transmission is not the public square; it’s small family gatherings — family gatherings where people become more comfortable; they remove their face mask and they get together. And it’s a silent epidemic that begins to transmit.
But it’s not intra-school transmission. The truth is, for kids K through 12, one of the safest places they can be, from our perspective, is to remain in school. And it’s really important that — following the data, making sure we don’t make emotional decisions about what to close and what not to close. And I’m here to say clearly: The data strongly supports that K-through-12 schools, as well as institutes of higher learning, really are not where we’re having our challenges. And it would be counterproductive, from my point of view — from a public health point of view — just in containing the epidemic, if there was an emotional response to say, “Let’s close the schools.”
Finally, you know, I wanted to echo what has been said by the Vice President and Dr. Fauci, is: We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, where we are to now. And this is why now more than ever — as was said by Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci and myself, now more than ever, we’re asking all Americans, all Americans to redouble their efforts to be vigilant, to embrace masks, social distancing, hand washing, our advice about crowds, and really to support using the data to make decisions in their communities, particularly as relates to K-through-12s and institutes of higher learning. These clearly — the data support that it’s really important, from a public health perspective — both from the pandemic, as well as what you’ll hear about in a minute — that these schools stay open.
Finally, I just want to end on a clear message of confidence: That I’m confident that we’re going to emerge successful and bring this pandemic to an end. I don’t have any doubt in that.
But today we need — we need all of us to go all in. Go all in with face coverings, social distancing, hand washing, smartness about crowds, doing our part to help identify the silent epidemic. And I have confidence that at the end of the day, we’re going to get a very achievable goal, which is to get this pandemic under control.
Thank you, Mr. Vice President.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
DR. MCCANCE-KATZ: Thank you, Mr. Vice President. In my role as Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use, I feel very strongly about the need to protect and promote the mental health of all Americans. As a psychiatrist, I’m continually thinking about the mental health effects of this unprecedented situation and how best to mitigate the impact.
Individuals across our country are living with stress that they have likely never experienced. We must find a way to best alleviate that stress, without ignoring the fact that our nation faces a very real and deadly virus. I often think about this in the context of our country’s children. I lead the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, which is the only federal agency whose primary charge is addressing mental and substance use disorders across the country. Where better to start in addressing this challenge than with our nation’s young people?
Protecting and also fostering the social and emotional wellbeing of children is critical not only to their own development, but also to the development of healthy families, communities, and a healthy and productive society.
The work that schools and school personnel do daily is valuable beyond any words I can deliver. We know that in addition to education, schools provide our children a profound sense of security and stability. The structure and safety of schools are integral to our children’s whole health. The role of the school cannot be overstated.
However, we also cannot overstate the need to address the fear, uncertainty, and safety considerations with returns to school. I understand that parents and teachers may feel great anxiety. That is why we must put into place the safety measures we know work: We must use masks. We must enforce social distancing. We must employ creative and innovative ways to limit the number of children and teachers in the building at any given time. There are tools we have, and we must think through how best to use them to keep our schools open.
We know that over 7.4 million children in this country live with serious emotional disturbances, and over 60 percent receive services from the school system. We know that children with disabilities are losing ground with the closure of schools. We know that millions of children across the country are experiencing child abuse and neglect that goes undetected due to lack of contact with school personnel who serve as mandatory reporters. We must work together to address these issues.
I believe strongly that we need schools to open in communities whose data indicate it’s safe to do so. But we cannot forget the protection of our teachers and school staff. If they don’t feel it’s safe to return to work, it will not help to open schools. We must ensure that teachers, school staff, and parents are engaged in the solutions that we ultimately choose.
Just as I’m suggesting that we engage our teachers, I suggest also that we recognize the very real mental health considerations of what you may have heard called “pandemic fatigue.” The engagement of Americans all over the country in slowing the spread of the virus is a strategy I think we should all consider.
Again, we know masks work, but we know that some Americans aren’t sure and may not be as compliant as we’d like. This is gravely frustrating for local officials. But rather than punishing or sanctioning, what if we employ a different technique? What if we recognize the psychological aspects of the fatigue and try to reinforce positive behavior with rewards, rather than solely sanction what we deemed to be bad behavior.
For example, we know that compliance on college campuses has been a challenge, and individuals in this age group are a potential source of spread. What if colleges implemented a random reward system for mask wearing? This could be as simple as implementing a small gift card being given out to a student wearing a mask. This technique, known as “contingency management,” has had great success in the behavioral healthcare treatment communities. I offer it as a consideration which acknowledges the psychological aspects of our life’s changes.
I want to conclude by saying that the physical effects of coronavirus are very real. And this virus has brought along with it stress, anxiety, and fear that you may have never felt before. COVID-19 has brought devastating loss of life to families across the nation.
In addition to those who have lost lives to the infection itself, there are those of you who have what I call “COVID-related deaths” in your family. These are not deaths by infection, but death by suicide or death by drug overdose during this pandemic. Please know that we have not forgotten you or your loss: Your loss is great. And my job is to do all I can to prevent additional families from experiencing that loss.
To the parents and teachers who are afraid and confused, that fear and anxiety is real and it’s stressful. To the people who are without a job and unsure of your next steps, your stress is real too. The stress of this situation can often feel too great to handle, and we take very seriously the need to ensure that all Americans know that there is help and there is hope. We are doing all we can to ensure that the mental healthcare system in our nation remains open and ready to serve.
As you struggle with these great stressors, especially during the holiday season, please try to stay connected to loved ones. Please reach out to friends and family.
And please know that SAMHSA’s National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available to help at any time at 800-273-8255. That’s 800-273-TALK. Your mental health is critically important, and we want to do all we can to protect it.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Mr. Secretary?
SECRETARY AZAR: Well, thank you, Mr. Vice President. Good to see all of you. The doctors have well covered the serious state of the epidemiological evidence that we have, and they’ve talked about the steps that we can and should be taking, but they’ve also talked about the steps that aren’t evidence-based that we should not be taking right now.
We are much better prepared today than we were months ago. General Sanford talked about our PPE supplies, our ventilator supplies.
The Vice President talked about our expanded testing capacity nationwide reach of over 120 million tests available in the month of November alone, 70 million of them point-of-care tests.
We’ve improved dramatically our quality of care at our hospitals, our ability to treat people who suffer from COVID.
My message to the American people is to hang in there with us. Take the simple steps that the doctors have talked about today because there is light at the end of the tunnel. This isn’t forever.
Thanks to President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, we have got such a brighter future ahead, and I want to see everyone get there.
President Trump called me in and said, “Alex, all the experts are saying it’s going to be, optimistically, 18 months for a vaccine, over a year for therapeutics. You know the drug industry; you know drug development. Could we shorten that? Is there anything we could do?” And I said, “Yes, there is.”
And we crafted the greatest biopharmaceutical research development, manufacturing, distribution, mobilization in partnership with the Defense Department. And with the constant, personal, unwavering support of President Trump, we’re delivering results on that. And this is thanks to the leadership of people like General Perna running Operation Warp Speed, bringing the complete logistics and operations and procurement power of the Defense Department to the table. And it’s thanks to people like Dr. Moncef Slaoui, probably the world’s greatest vaccine developer, who’s dedicated his complete life and talents to this work for the American people. And we’re seeing the results.
They said it couldn’t be done. But 10 months into this novel pathogen hitting our shores, last week we approved Eli Lilly’s monoclonal antibody. We shipped product that very afternoon to patients. And already, over 60,000 courses of therapy have been delivered.
Regeneron’s combination monoclonal antibody is pending at the FDA right now. And as we’ve talked about, over the last two weeks we’ve seen just unprecedented historic news about vaccines — two vaccines, each with 95 percent efficacy, rivaling the 98 percent efficacy of our measles vaccine produced in some of the largest vaccine clinical trials ever conducted in history; over 40,000 patients in each of these clinical trials, demonstrating good safety profiles. This was done in 10 — 10 months. Ten months.
And now Pfizer’s partner, BioNTech, has announced that, tomorrow, they intend to file for emergency use authorization at the FDA. We would expect to see Moderna filing soon also.
We also have this comprehensive distribution plan that General Perna walked through that builds on the public-private partnership between the United States and these incredible private sector partners with a goal to make the distribution of this vaccine as convenient to you as the flu vaccine is, and working in partnership with our states because the states know the situation on the ground. And we work to support them.
And we will ship millions of doses of vaccine within 24 hours of FDA approval.
So my message is: Hope and help are on the way. Operation Warp Speed is already delivering, and it’s going to keep delivering in the days and weeks ahead.
Thank you very much, Mr. Vice President.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well said, Alex.
Let me say, my hope is that Americans looking on and all of you responsible for sharing the news know that this team, working in cooperation with our states and with the cooperation of the American people, has made great progress. And we’re getting there. We’re getting there, America.
And as I said at the outset, let me say I hope it’s more in evidence as you hear from this team about the abundance of supplies that are available today for our hospitals, our ability to track what’s happening at your local hospital to make sure it has the PPE and the equipment and supplies to provide the healthcare that your family may need.
I hope — I hope, as you heard about the extraordinary distribution plans of Operation Warp Speed and the confidence that Dr. Fauci expressed today — and the news that one of those research companies is going to submit an emergency use authorization tomorrow on the very first vaccine — that we are literally — literally, we could well be just a matter of a few short weeks away from a vaccine being available across this country for the most vulnerable among us and for those that are caring for them in our hospitals and our clinics.
I hope everything you’ve heard today gives evidence of what I said at the start: that America has never been more prepared to combat this virus.
But let me be clear as I close: We all have a role to play in the days ahead. And you heard this team say, as we — as we see that finish line, as we see light at the end of the tunnel, as President Trump often says and you should see evidence here: that we are rounding the corner to that day that we have a vaccine for the American people.
We do want to encourage every American to continue to do your part. Wash your hands. Practice social distancing. Wear a mask when social distancing isn’t possible. Do your part to put the health of your family, the health of your neighbors, the health of the people in your community first.
We are all in this together. And as I’ve said many times from this podium over many, many months, I know that with the cooperation of the American people; with our incredible doctors and nurses and first responders; with the extraordinary partnership of federal and state and local health officials; and with God’s help, we will get through this, and we will get through this together.
Thank you all.