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Nation & World

Biden's COVID-19 Response Coordinator Discusses The Plan To Stop The Delta Variant

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The guidance keeps evolving on how to protect ourselves against the delta variant of the coronavirus. The CDC is now urging even vaccinated people to wear masks indoors in places with high virus transmission. And today, President Biden announced that federal government workers and contractors will have to get vaccinated or submit to regular testing, social distancing, masks and more.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: You want to know how we put this virus behind us? I'll tell you how. We need to get more people vaccinated.

SHAPIRO: Jeff Zients is the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and he joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JEFF ZIENTS: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: About half of all Americans are fully vaccinated. What's your estimate of the percentage of federal workers and contractors who are fully vaccinated? And how much do you expect this to move the needle?

ZIENTS: Well, you know, obviously, it varies across the country. We have parts of the country that have very high degrees of vaccinations, and those are the areas that generally have lower case rates, and we have parts of the country where the vaccination rates are lower and we have more disease, which is why the president said what he said, which is he's encouraging everyone to get vaccinated, everyone to step up and help get people vaccinated, businesses, governors. You saw the governor of Alabama, Governor Ivey, ask people in her state to get vaccinated. Republicans are asking people to get vaccinated more and more.

So I think in terms of the federal workforce, the president wants to make sure those people return to work. They return to work safely. At the VA, the Veterans Administration, that health system there will require vaccinations so we can protect our veterans, so the vaccines will be mandated there. And across the federal government, people have to attest to being vaccinated. And if they're not vaccinated...

SHAPIRO: You say they have to attest. The president was asked, why not require them to show paperwork? And he kind of dodged that question. Can you answer that for us?

ZIENTS: Well, they will. They...

SHAPIRO: With something this important, why not ask for proof?

ZIENTS: Yeah, they will test. There will be other systems. We know that some businesses, some governments, local governments, may have other forms of vaccine...

SHAPIRO: But can you tell us why the federal government didn't say, in addition to saying you're vaccinated, you need to show us you're vaccinated? Lots of businesses have done that; others can do that. The federal government clearly have decided not to.

ZIENTS: Well, the system we've decided to use in the federal government is attestation, and we believe that will be effective. I want to be clear that, you know, we're going to continue to look across - the president will - across the federal government. There may be other areas that mandates are required, particularly in health care systems. And he's asked Secretary Austin about the Defense Department to make a recommendation about how and when vaccinations will be required for our military, as these (ph) vaccinations are required.

SHAPIRO: For federal employees, the White House is being careful not to call this a mandate, but the alternative to getting vaccinated seems pretty onerous - weekly testing, masking, social distancing, no work travel. Is the goal here to make the experience for unvaccinated people so difficult that nobody would want to choose that path?

ZIENTS: Well, I think the overall goal is to get as many people vaccinated 'cause that's how we're going to be safe and effective as a country in getting back to returning more and more to normal and beating this pandemic. So safety is driving the protocols. And at the same time, it will be a lot easier to come back to work if you are indeed vaccinated. If you're not vaccinated, as you said, you need to test regularly, mask up independent of where you are, and you will not be able to do much business travel at all, and can - you also need to social distance. So it makes so much sense for people to get vaccinated as they return to work and, in general, overall. That's how we're going to beat this pandemic.

SHAPIRO: To move beyond workplaces, let's talk about schools. Fewer than 40% of 12- to 15-year-olds have gotten their first doses, and school is starting in many places just a month from now. Do you understand why rates are so much lower with this group? And what can be done about it?

ZIENTS: Well, you know, the vaccine was approved later for that group. It was just a couple of months ago. The good news is the 12- to 17-year-old population, the vaccinations are accelerating, which is good news. Some more and more adolescents are getting vaccinated. The CDC has made it clear that students should return to school this fall. Schools should be open for full-time learning. And the American Rescue Plan provided resources for schools to open safely. And masking is required for all students at school in order to have that extra layer of protection.

SHAPIRO: Just in our last 30 seconds or so, I want to ask - Israel's government today recommended booster shots for the Pfizer vaccine for citizens who are 60 or older. Could you see the U.S. following suit?

ZIENTS: So the FDA and CDC are studying all the data and looking at the clinical trials. And at this point, they're clear that no Americans need a booster shot. If and when we do need boosters in this country, we are ready. We have the supply, and we'll be able to administer the shots in a fast and efficient way.

SHAPIRO: All right, that's Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator. Thank you for joining us today.

ZIENTS: Thank you. Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.