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Getting boosted is critical to getting a handle on COVID surges, Fauci says


All right. Now the chief medical adviser to President Biden, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is on the line with us.

Doctor, thanks for joining us again.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Thank you - good to be with you.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Omicron is surging. Hospital capacity possibly is threatened. Without going into specifics - unless you want to, Doctor - about the president's speech tomorrow, can you relay the one message the president plans to give to Americans right now?

FAUCI: Well, I think Allison just said it. it's going to be an emphasis on the things that we can do to mitigate against this omicron surge. Boosting individuals who have already been vaccinated is absolutely critical for the reasons that you just mentioned on the piece. Namely, we get a diminution in protection when you have omicron, as opposed to delta, with the vaccines that we've used. But when you boost, you bring it back up to a rather high level, to the point where you can actually block what would be the ultimate effect of omicron. So it is absolutely critical. Of course, the most vulnerable people in society are those who have never been vaccinated. And there's going to be a very strong urge to get people who have not yet been vaccinated - and there are about 50 million of them in this country who are eligible to be vaccinated who have not yet gotten vaccinated - to essentially plead with them to get vaccinated because there will be a big stress on the hospital and health care system as we get further into the winter and the weather keeps people indoors and we have the congregation associated with the holiday season.

MARTÍNEZ: On that, Doctor - on that - the hospitalizations, the stress that possibly could result - what can be done to shore up hospital capacity right now?

FAUCI: Well, part of the president's winter plan is to put out about 60 surge units to be able to help regions of the country that are getting particular stress on the health system, both from the number of cases that need to be hospitalized, particularly in intensive care, as well as for the inevitable illnesses that you're going to be seeing among health care providers, which will make it an even greater stress on the system.

MARTÍNEZ: Doctor, we've heard reports from across the country that indicate that rapid COVID tests are scarce. And some places are also maybe struggling to arrange enough booster appointments. How do we find ourselves in this predicament nearly two years into the pandemic? This sounds like stuff that we were dealing with a while back.

FAUCI: Yeah. Well, if you compare it with what was going on last year, there's no comparison. There are so many, many more tests available. But even with that, the demand now, particularly with omicron coming and particularly in the context of the holiday season - there is an extraordinary demand, which is good because we want people to use the point-of-care testing to be able to guide them in what their activities can and cannot be. The government has put in a few billion dollars to bring the testing capacity up to - anywhere from 200 million to 500 million tests per month will be available. It is true that not every place in the country has easy accessibility. Some do, but we're trying to get it uniform so that anyone anywhere can have access to either free or very inexpensive tests whenever they want them.

MARTÍNEZ: But, Doctor, I know people that - with a runny nose that are rushing out to get tested. And maybe they don't need a test for a runny nose. But how do we know the difference? How do we handle the difference and not maybe take away a test from someone that might need one?

FAUCI: Well, that's a very good question. I mean, obviously, you can tell the difference in the early symptomatology because the early symptomatology of COVID is very much like a common cold - often with sore throat, running noses and things like that. So it is a difficult situation. That's the reason why we're trying to get as many tests possible. Many of them are going to be negative, and that's a good thing. You don't want to see a lot of positive tests. But getting people to relieve the anxiety that they have about what they think might be the early onset of COVID is going to be very important.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, last week, we learned that children under 5 will have to wait some more for a safe and reliable COVID vaccine. What is it that you'd like families with children under 5 to know right now, to have in their heads right now?

FAUCI: Well, until we get vaccines available for children under 5 - and unfortunately, as you mentioned, there will be somewhat of a delay because the tests showed that they really likely need three doses for children, particularly between 2 and 4. And they want to get that correct rather than get it quickly. But the advice for parents and relatives who have children who are less than 5 years old - the best way to protect them is to surround the children with people who are vaccinated and boosted. That's the best way to protect them. Keep them in an environment where the people around them are very unlikely to be infected.

MARTÍNEZ: We're less than a month away from it being two years since the CDC confirmed the first case of coronavirus in the U.S. What do you say, Doctor, to anyone who feels like at best we're running in place and most of the time either caught off guard or playing catch-up with COVID?

FAUCI: Well, this is a very, very formidable virus. There's no doubt about it. I mean, the original ancestral strain itself - and then we've been hit with multiple waves - alpha, beta, delta and now omicron. We are making a lot of progress. We have vaccines now which we didn't have before. And I think that is going to be the solution to get us out of this - together with mitigation, like mask-wearing where appropriate.

FAUCI: President Biden's chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci - Doctor, thanks a lot.

FAUCI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "REFLECTIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.