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

Via Teleconference

11:02 A.M. EST

MR. ZIENTS:  Good morning.  And thanks for joining us.  Today, Dr. Walensky will provide an update on the state of the pandemic.  Dr. Fauci will present the latest science on vaccine effectiveness.  I’ll provide an overview of how we’re planning for the path ahead.  And Dr. Tom Inglesby joins us to discuss how we’re increasing domestic testing capacity.
 
We’ll start with Dr. Walensky.
 
Dr. Walensky?
 
DR. WALENSKY:  Good morning.  Thank you, Jeff.  I’d like to start by walking you through today’s data.  The current seven-day daily average of cases is about 147,000 cases per day, a decrease of about 40 percent over the previous week.
 
The seven-day average of hospital admissions is about 9,500 per day, a decrease of about 28 percent over the previous week.
 
And, the seven-day average of daily deaths are about 2,200 per day, which is a decrease of about 9 percent over the previous week.
 
Omicron cases are declining, and we are all cautiously optimistic about the trajectory we are on.  Things are moving in the right direction, but we want to remain vigilant to do all we can so that this trajectory continues.
 
As we see the Omicron wave continue to wane, we know that you may have questions regarding what prevention strategies are really necessary for this moment, especially as people are so eager to remove them.
 
At CDC, we provide public health guidance to help communities make decisions based on the risk at the local level — community-level guidance that offers the public information they need to stay safe and protect others.
 
As I said last week, we are looking at all of our guidance based not only on where we are right now in the pandemic, but also on the tools we now have at our disposal — such as vaccines, boosters, tests, and treatments — and our latest understanding of the disease.
 
As we consider future metrics, which will be updated soon, we recognize the importance of not just cases which continue to result in substantial or high community transmission in over 97 percent of our counties in the country, but critically, medically severe disease that leads to hospitalizations.
 
We must consider hospital capacity as an additional important barometer.  Our hospitals need to be able to take care of people with heart attacks and strokes.  Our emergency departments can’t be so overwhelmed that patients with emergent issues have to wait in line.
 
We are assessing the most important factors based on where we are in the pandemic, and we’ll soon put guidance in place that is relevant and encourages prevention measures when they are most needed to protect public health and our hospitals.  We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing, when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen.
 
If and when we update our guidance, we will communicate that clearly, and it will be based on the data and the science.
       
However, it’s also important to remember, regardless of the level of disease burden in your community, there are still very important times to continue to wear your mask.
 
If you are symptomatic or feeling unwell, you should wear a mask.
 
If you are in the 10 days after a COVID diagnosis, you should wear a mask.
 
If you were exposed to someone with COVID-19 and are quarantining, you should wear a mask.
   
I know that everyone is anxious to move beyond this pandemic and some of the ways we have had to change the way we live over the last two years.
 
We all share the same goal: to get to a point where COVID-19 is no longer disrupting our daily lives; a time when it won’t be a constant crisis, rather something we can prevent, protect against, and treat.
 
Moving from this pandemic will be a process led by the science and epidemiologic trends and one that relies on the powerful tools we already have including vaccines, boosters, testing, and treatment.
 
Thank you.  I’ll now turn it over to Dr. Fauci.
 
DR. FAUCI:  Thank you very much, Dr. Walensky.  What I’d like to do over the next couple of minutes is try to address for you a question that is now frequently being asked following the data that has come out from the cohorts who have been followed, following their third shot of an mRNA vaccine, namely their boost.  And the question people ask is: “Will I” — “I” being everyone — “need now a fourth booster shot?”
 
So let me tell you what we know so far.
 
Next slide.
 
What we do know is that data from, now, multiple studies — and I’ll show you an example of a couple of these — of vaccine effectiveness show that, for the immunocompetent people, a single booster shot continues to provide high levels of protection against severe disease caused by Omicron. 
 
This should not be confused with the fact that for many immunocompromised people, already a second booster shot — namely a fourth dose of an mRNA — is recommended because of what we know about their poor response to the initial regimen.
 
And again, as I’ll show, and new CDC data indicate, that booster shots are safe and well tolerated. 
 
So, let’s get to some of the representative data. 
 
Next slide. 
 
This is a slide from the UK looking at vaccine effectiveness against hospitalization with Omicron.  And you’re looking at the diminution of efficacy or effectiveness after dose two.  And the time at the bottom is weeks.  And you’re looking at two separate vaccines: the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna. 
 
And as you can see with hospitalizations, although it goes down from the initial very high 90-plus percent — it goes down to around 78 or 80 percent, nonetheless it’s still at a high level, relatively speaking. 
 
Next slide. 
 
This is an even larger study — a large cohort study from the CDC, recently put out in the MMWR — their VISION Network.
 
I want you to concentrate at the two-dose vaccine efficacy at four to five months against Omicron.  And again, it goes down to 58 percent. 
 
However, at four to five months, even though it has come down over a period of time — you could see it go from 91 to 88 to 78.  Nonetheless, the level of 78 is still a good protective area.  As I’ll get to soon, I’ll show you what that means looking forward. 
 
But I do want to mention, on the next slide, the safety of this, because we often get asked that.  If you look at the CDC from February 11th, and look at their monitoring systems — the V-Safe and the VAERS — it’s very clear that for people 18 years of age or older who’ve seen the same mRNA vaccine brand for all their vaccinations, they actually experience fewer adverse reactions following the booster dose than they did after the second dose. 
 
And in fact, 92 percent of reports to VAERS, which is all adverse events related or not, are not considered serious.  And headache, fever, and muscle pain were the most frequently reported reactions.  And the V-Safe data found medical care was rarely received after a booster dose. 
 
So, let’s go to the last summary slide. 
 
Next slide. 
 
The dynamics of COVID-19 outbreak, as Dr. Walensky just showed you a moment ago, continue to point in a sharp downward direction. 
 
Vaccination and boosting will be critical in maintaining that downward trajectory, particularly when you’re talking about the red curve of severe disease leading to hospitalization. 
 
And getting back to the first question that I posed in my first slide: The potential future requirement for an additional boost or a fourth shot for mRNA or a third shot for J&J is being very carefully monitored in real time.  And recommendations, if needed, will be updated according to the data as it evolves. 
 
I’ll stop there.  And back to you, Jeff. 
 
MR. ZIENTS:  Thanks, Doctors.  I’ll discuss how we’re thinking about the moment we’re in and are planning for the future of this virus. 
 
We’ve made tremendous progress in our ability to protect ourselves against COVID-19.  Seventy-five percent — three out of every four adults — are fully vaccinated, and two thirds of eligible adults have gotten their booster shot. 
 
For all Americans, both the vaccinated and unvaccinated, we have strong tools, including free at-home tests and free high-quality masks that provide added layers of protection. 
 
And importantly, we have a range of effective treatments and therapeutics, including pills that are up to 90 percent effective at preventing severe illness and hospitalization. 
 
As a result of all this progress and the tools we now have, we’re moving toward a time when COVID isn’t a crisis but is something we can protect against and treat. 
 
The President and our COVID team are actively planning for this future.  As we look forward, we’ll continue to enhance the powerful set of tools that we have at our disposal.  Vaccines, booster shots, tests, and treatments will keep protecting our most vulnerable, including the immunocompromised. 
 
A vaccine for our youngest kids is on the horizon.  And as always, we’ll prepare for the potential of any new variant to ensure we’re ready to respond immediately and protect people. 
 
Throughout this planning process, our team has been working with experts both inside and outside of government, local public health leaders, governors, business leaders, and partners across our health agencies to benefit from their expertise and ideas.
 
We’ll have more to say on this in the coming weeks.
 
And while we’re not where we all want to be yet, we’re encouraged by the dramatic declines we’re seeing in cases and hospitalizations nationwide.
 
The President’s COVID plan is clearly working, and we believe the American people will be well-served by our deliberate and thorough approach to planning for the future.
 
With that, let me turn it to Dr. Tom Inglesby, Senior Advisor to the White House COVID Response, to give an update on our work to increase and sustain testing capacity.
 
Dr. Inglesby?
 
     DR. INGLESBY:  Thanks, Jeff.  And great to be with you.
 
Let me start by stepping back.  Last January, when President Biden took office, there were no at-home rapid COVID tests available on the U.S. market.
 
This January, we had hundreds of millions of at-home tests available to Americans.  The President was able to commit to purchasing 1 billion new at-home tests to distribute to Americans for free.  And in addition, we had expanded capacity for lab-based tests to more than 2 million tests per day.
 
This is major progress.  And there’s no question the significant overall national testing capacity that we now have is a direct result of administration’s actions.
 
We recognized the role that rapid tests would play in the fight against COVID, and we pursued all means to scale them up dramatically.
 
We used the Defense Production Act, invested $3 billion to expand and accelerate manufacturing, and created a new, faster pathway for manufacturers to seek FDA authorization.  We’ve secured raw materials, expanded the industrial base, and built inventory to support lab-based testing.
 
To expand access, we invested in free tests in schools, pharmacies, community centers, long-term care facilities, and made rapid tests free through all private insurers.
 
But we know that as Omicron cases decline, demand for tests will wane as well.  That’s why we’re taking an important new step.
 
Today, we’re issuing a formal Request for Information from the testing industry, aimed at sustaining and expanding domestic manufacturing and testing capacity for this coming year.
 
The information being sought includes proposed solutions to managing market volatility and addressing supply chain challenges, as well as what it will take to scale up manufacturing and bring new technologies and manufacturing processes online.
 
The request also emphasizes equity and the need for manufacturers to ensure at-home tests are easy to use and accessible for all, including for people who are blind or visually impaired and those living with disabilities.
 
The information we receive will help guide our new investments.  And it’s a key part of planning and implementing our longer-term testing strategy and preparing for future testing needs.
 
We’re taking steps now to sustain and expand the domestic testing capacity in this country, and we’ll be ready if we face a new variant or surge in the future.
 
This work will happen alongside efforts to accelerate the work of promising, new testing companies as they seek FDA authorization, along with a new NIH program aimed at bringing the costs of testing down, and along with funding for rapid study of new variants.
 
We’ll also keep acting aggressively to make testing widely available and easy to access, at little or no cost, so they continue — so that they continue to be free at convenient locations like local pharmacies, online retailers, and community health centers.
 
Thanks to the work over the past year and steps we’re taking now, the U.S. testing infrastructure will continue to expand and become stronger.
 
Testing will remain a critical part of our overall COVID response strategy.  We’re making investments now for whatever this virus brings in the time ahead.
 
And with that, I’ll turn it back to you, Jeff.
 
MR. ZIENTS:  Thanks, Doctor.  And with that, let’s open it up for some questions.  Over to you, Kevin.
 
MODERATOR:  Thanks, Jeff.  We have time for a few questions today.  First, let’s go to Sabrina Siddiqui at the Wall Street Journal.
 
Q    Thank you as always for doing the briefing.  As you consult with experts on transitioning to the next phase of COVID, are there specific benchmarks that you’re looking at?  Is it still a transmission or are there — is there a certain rate that you want to hit with respect to hospitalizations and deaths, in order to be able to loosen certain restrictions?
 
And then, this is perhaps a question for Dr. Walensky, but is there any talk of issuing guidance on test-to-stay for a daycare, as in childcare centers?  That’s something some parents have pushed for because, right now, a lot of daycares shut down with simply one positive case or they don’t let children who even present any symptoms — they don’t let them attend even — unless they have a negative PCR.  So, is that something that you’ve looked at — test-to-stay — for daycare and childcare centers?
 
MR. ZIENTS:  Dr. Walensky, do you want to talk about daycare centers, first?
 
DR. WALENSKY:  Yeah.  Sure.  So, our test-to-stay data that we have is largely — the science around it is largely in settings where people are masked, which is why our test-to-stay strategy is now both use masks, but also using two tests a day [week].
 
In our early childcare guidance that was put out though, we do have some flexibility in there, recognizing the challenges associated with children who can’t wear masks and in these settings, and actually do offer some flexibility for returning to those settings in — you know, during certain situations.
 
MR. ZIENTS:  So as to our planning process, you know, I want to be very clear that our highest first priority is fighting Omicron.  
 
As Dr. Walensky said, cases and hospitalizations are coming down but are still at elevated levels.  At the same time, we are preparing for the future.  We’ve been clear that, as a country, we’re making strong progress toward moving to a time when COVID is no longer a crisis.  We are actively reaching out to healthcare — public healthcare experts acro- — inside and outside of government to get their input.  We’re working very closely with state and local leaders, including governors and business leaders. 
 
And as Dr. Walensky said earlier, the CDC is looking at all of its guidance, including mask guidance, in light of declining cases and hospitalization. 
 
So, we are running a very thorough, deliberate process, and we will get this right.
 
Next question, please.
 
MODERATOR:  Let’s go to Tommy Christopher.
 
Q    Hi.  Yes, thank you again for the briefing.  My question is — I know that there’s been a lot of media pressure because some states with Democratic governors have eased mask mandates, but it’s my understanding that a lot of these changes are gradual.  So, could you talk about the timelines for some of these state reg rules, as you understand them, and how they could coincide with the CDC’s deliberations?
 
MR. ZIENTS:  Dr. Walensky?
 
DR. WALENSKY:  Absolutely.  So maybe just to say: Many of these state-based policies have come out in phased approaches that they are talking about, you know, something that might happen in a week or two, masks that might come off in a week or two at the end of February, early March. 
 
And so, of course, our metrics are going to examine, as Jeff said and as I previously said, issues related to cases, certainly issues related to severity of disease and hospital capacity.  And we anticipate that many of these will intersect in terms of timing.
 
MR. ZIENTS:  Next question, please.
 
MODERATOR:  Zeke Miller, AP.
 
Q    Thanks.  Jeff, you mentioned that among the people you’ve — the White House has been talking to — business leaders and other folks who aren’t scientists — does this — does that indicate that this sort of move to the next phase is not just a scientific decision; it’s sort of balanced by sort of economic concerns and other prerogatives, not just health — you know, sort of strictly health and safety on one side?
 
And second, in terms of that timeline, you know, it — what should we expect that rollout should look like?  You know, will it be individual pieces of guidance from CDC if that time and place comes, or a major speech from the President?  And how does the administration view its responsibility to get people who right now maybe want to wear masks and, sort of, convince them that the science will allow them to take it off when that is the CDC guidance?
 
MR. ZIENTS:  Okay.  A lot — a lot there, Zeke.  I want to be clear that everything is driven by science and public health.  Obviously, it’s important to understand the perspectives of different constituencies, including for businesses — how they think through bringing workers back to work, as an example. 
 
But public health, science, medicine is the center of the work here. 
 
In terms of masking, obviously individuals — and I’ll turn to you, Dr. Walensky — under any situation may choose to wear a mask — a high-quality mask — and that — that’s a good thing and a matter of personal choice. 
 
Dr. Walensky?
 
DR. WALENSKY:  Yeah.  And I want to sort of indicate, as I mentioned earlier, there are times where we do want people to continue to wear a mask if they are in the 10 days after they’ve been diagnosed with COVID; they’re feeling better.  But we want to make sure that they have — they know that they should be masking during those last several days when they might continue to be infectious. 
 
So, there are clear times when we want people to continue to wear a mask.  And I think as we have fewer and fewer cases, people will become more comfortable with taking off their mask. But as Jeff noted, we want — we certainly want people to have the flexibility to wear one if they so choose.
 
MR. ZIENTS:  And then in terms of timing, you know, as I said, we’re running a very thorough, inclusive process — the science and the medicine at the center.  We’re moving deliberately. 
 
At the same time, I think we will have more to say on this across the coming weeks. 
 
Next question, please.
 
MODERATOR:  Anne Flaherty, ABC.
 
Q    Hey, thanks for taking my question.  So, just to clarify on one point, and then a question for Jeff.  Dr.  Walensky, you said you did plan to update the guidance soon.  I want to clarify that that is indoor masking, and if you can say that that might come as early as next week. 
 
And then, Jeff, if you could say, has anyone within the administration indicated to the CDC at all that they would like to see revised mask guidance by the end of the month?  Thank you.
 
DR. WALENSKY:  Maybe I’ll start and just say we are looking at an overview of much of our guidance, and masking in all settings will be a part of that.
 
MR. ZIENTS:  And I’ll just say that CDC is clearly in the lead here on both the substance and the timing of masking guidance. 
 
Next question, please.
 
MODERATOR:  Josh Wingrove, Bloomberg. 
 
Q    Hi there.  Thank you.  I’m wondering if Dr. Inglesby can give us an update on the at-home testing program, in particular any metrics around how many orders have been placed, how many tests have been shipped, how many tests you have on hand. 
 
And more broadly, Jeff, I’m wondering if you can speak to Secretary Blinken’s remarks earlier this week regarding the goal — the President’s goal of vaccinating the world.  What more do you think you need, in particular in a supplemental from Congress, for instance, to be able to get more shots into arms globally to hit the President’s 70 percent goal by September or come closer to it?  Thank you. 
 
MR. ZIENTS:  Good.  Okay.  I’ll — let me take a response first to the question about the COVIDTests.gov and the at-home test ordering. 
 
Today is an important day actually, in that we hit a milestone — 50 million shipped orders to households across all states, Tribes and territories.  That’s a total of 200 million individual tests shipped to Americans across the country.  So, 85 percent of the initial orders are now out the door.  And in the next several days, we will complete the shipping of all of the initial orders. 
 
I want to emphasize the Postal Service is doing, really an outstanding job here.  Once the package ships, over 60 percent are delivered within 24 hours and 90 percent within 48 hours.  So they are packing and shipping incredibly quickly and efficiently. 
 
This is an effort that has no precedent.  There’s been incredibly strong demand and incredibly strong execution shipping 200 million tests directly to Americans’ doorsteps.  So, really, a very strong performance across the board. 
 
In terms of continuing to make progress on global vaccinations, you know, we are — America is clearly leading the world.  We’ve committed 1.2 billion doses to the world — free, no strings attached.  We’ve already shipped well over 400 million to 112 different countries.  Each day, millions of doses get shipped. 
 
The emphasis is on continuing to supply those 1.2 billion doses, and at the same time to help countries get shots in arms.  And that’s an effort that USAID and the State Department are taking the lead on, along with CDC, to help build confidence in other countries, to create better access, to set up mobile clinics.  And that becomes the effort going forward that becomes most important — is taking vaccines and turning them into vaccinations. 
 
Next question, please. 
 
MODERATOR:  Let’s go to Joyce Frieden at MedPage Today.
 
Q    Hi.  Yeah, thanks for taking my question.  I guess this is for Mr. Inglesby.  I’m curious about your efforts in expanding at-home testing.  I think people are still seeing that if they want to buy a test, the prices are pretty high.  Is anything being done in terms of trying to get the prices down? 
 
DR. INGLESBY:  Sure, yeah.  And so, I think, as you know, on January 15th, the administration required private insurers to cover the full cost of over-the-counter tests.  So that’s 150 million Americans covered by private insurance can now go to a pharmacy or to an online retailer and get over-the-counter tests fully covered. 

     About 50 to 60 million people are now in insurers — covered by insurers where you can do that directly at the cash register with your insurance card.  And we’re working with insurers to encourage them to create those point-of-sale options.  Medicaid covers these tests.  Medicare will cover these tests by spring. 

     So we’re moving in the direction where these tests should be completely covered for Americans, and they are now for many Americans.
 
     MR. ZIENTS:  I’d add to Tom’s statement that, you know, we’ve also — in addition to the 200 million we’ve already shipped free to Americans’ doorsteps, we’ve secured a billion in total, so there’s another 800 million tests that are either contracted for or are in the process of being contracted for that’ll be available free to the American people. 

     And there are also 20,000 free testing sites across the U.S. where people can get tested for free at local pharmacies and other convenient locations, including community health centers.

     So, plenty of options on free testing across the country. 

     Next question, please.
 
     MODERATOR:  A couple of more questions.  Let’s go to Jaqueline Howard at CNN.
 
     Q    Thank you for taking my question.  Dr. Inglesby, you mentioned here on CNN this morning that the government will be making high-quality masks available for kids and that process is underway.  Can you share more details on how is that going to work and when might families get to have these masks in hand?  Thank you.
 
     MR. ZIENTS:  Tom, go ahead.  Dr. Inglesby — sorry.  (Laughs.)
 
     DR. INGLESBY:  So, as you know, that already 230 million masks have been delivered to pharmacies and community health centers as part of the administration’s effort to deliver high-quality masks around the country.  And that process will continue. 

     We are now in the process of planning for the distribution of masks for children.  And we’ll have more to say about that in the days ahead.  But there’s a commitment to do that. 

     And there’s a process underway, certainly, for all adults to get masks now for free at pharmacies and community health clinics across the country.
 
     MR. ZIENTS:  Next question, please. 
 
MODERATOR:  Last question.  Let’s go to Meg Tirrell at CNBC.

     Q    Well, thanks.  Just thinking about a potential transition to thinking about gauging a pandemic by its effects on hospitals and severe disease, how should people take into account the risk of long COVID as they’re considering whether to keep masks on, as we hear it could be affecting, you know, 10 to 30 percent of people who get COVID, no matter the severity of their case?

     MR. ZIENTS:  Dr. Fauci?
 
     DR. FAUCI:  Well, certainly long COVID is something that we take very seriously.  We know we’re studying it really quite intensively now over the last year. 

     We know that you don’t necessarily have to be hospitalized to get long COVID, that it ranges from people who are mildly to moderately symptomatic to individuals who are actually requiring hospitalization. 

     There are a number of factors that seem to be associated in recent studies with long COVID, ranging from things like Type 2 diabetes to viral load to reactivation of CMV — of EBV, excuse me, as well as things like autoantibodies. 

     We don’t really understand very much, but we’re learning, literally, on a week-by-week, month-by-month basis.  But in direct answer to your question, Meg, you certainly want to protect against all infection; we’d like to do that.  We certainly want to protect against symptomatic infection; we’d like to do that.  And we don’t take lightly long COVID. 

     So that has to be put into the equation of what our ultimate goals are.  But, clearly, the thing that is the most important is keeping people out of the hospitals for most of the reasons that I think Dr. Walensky explained very, very clearly that not only relate to the person with COVID-19 but the impact that it has on the rest of society outside of the context of COVID. 

     Thanks.
 
     MR. ZIENTS:  Well, thank you, everybody.  We look forward to the next briefing.

11:32 A.M. EST

To view the COVID Press Briefing slides, visit: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/COVID-Press-Briefing-2.16.22-pdf.pdf