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Nation & World

Glass Two-Thirds Empty Or One-Third Full? Biden Adviser Speaks On COVID-19 Messaging

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

About 14% of people in the U.S. have had at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are all dropping. Still, the government is emphasizing how far there is to go. There's a debate over whether messaging right now should focus on hope or caution. Dr. Celine Gounder was on the Biden transition team's coronavirus advisory board. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CELINE GOUNDER: It's great to be here.

SHAPIRO: Let me play you a clip from the new director of the CDC, Rochelle Walensky. At a CNN town hall last month, she was asked whether 100 million vaccine doses would restore a sense of normalcy, and here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: I don't think we're going to feel it then. I think we're still going to have - after we vaccinate 100 million Americans, we're going to have 200 million more that we're going to need to vaccinate.

SHAPIRO: So, Dr. Gounder, start by telling us the thinking that goes into that kind of glass-two-thirds-empty messaging.

GOUNDER: Well, many of us are concerned about the emergence of these new mutant variants. I do think it's important to be very clear that the vaccines remain effective against the new variants, including the variants out of South Africa and Brazil. But there is a trend towards diminished efficacy, which really means - it's a signal to us as scientists and public health researchers and the pharmaceutical companies that we do need to stay ahead of the virus and be developing second-generation vaccines for use down the line.

SHAPIRO: So reason for caution, but on the other hand, lay out the argument for a different kind of messaging. Why do some people believe public health officials should emphasize the progress that's been made instead of the distance yet to go?

GOUNDER: Well, look. We have multiple highly safe and effective vaccines available. I mean, these are about as effective as vaccines get. And that's really a testament to the medical and scientific community and the work that they've been doing over the past year. And I think for people - you know, when you ask them, why are you getting vaccinated or not, the main reasons people are getting vaccinated are to protect themselves, to protect their families and because they do want life to go back to normal. And so that needs to be part of our message as well.

SHAPIRO: I've seen people on social media say, if I'm going to have to wear a mask even after I've been vaccinated and the vaccine may not be fully effective against some of the new variants, then what's the point of getting vaccinated at all? Do you think there's a risk that downplaying the progress the country is making could lead to more vaccine hesitancy?

GOUNDER: Yeah, I mean, I think it's, again, important to emphasize this is going to save you from hospitalization and death. We don't vaccinate to prevent the sniffles; we vaccinate to prevent hospitalization and death. And these vaccines are all highly effective, including with respect to the new variants, in terms of that kind of prevention.

I do think, you know, if you're among those who are lucky to be vaccinated early on, like I have been myself, I do think it's important to remember that you were lucky you were among the first. And we do need to be a little bit patient just for a few more of us to be vaccinated - the highest-risk, the elderly, people who have chronic medical conditions that put them at higher risk. But once the vast majority of those super-high-risk groups are vaccinated, then we're in a much better position to relax on many of our mitigation measures.

SHAPIRO: Is there an argument that public health measures aside, after a year of dramatic restrictions, people just need to hear some good news...

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: ...And it's worth emphasizing the good news for that reason?

GOUNDER: No, absolutely. And look. Like, if you've been vaccinated, can you hang out with other people who have been vaccinated and do so safely without a mask? Absolutely. If you've all been vaccinated, that you can do safely. I think where it becomes a little stickier is for those who have been vaccinated, they still do need to be careful when they're around people who have not yet been. And just remember, look. You got lucky. You got vaccinated first. Just, you know, show a little bit of caring and respect for those who are still waiting in line.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Celine Gounder is an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and Bellevue Hospital, and she hosts the "Epidemic" podcast. Always good to talk to you. Thanks.

GOUNDER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.