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Vaccine Approval Front Offers Hope As Coronavirus Cases Surge

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has tested positive for the coronavirus. Giuliani, of course, has been traveling through the country leading the president's effort to overturn the election. Last week, he was at an indoor hearing in Michigan. He did not wear a mask there. He's just one of around 200,000 people in the U.S. who are now testing positive every single day. Public health officials, of course, are very concerned. Here's Dr. Deborah Birx, who serves on the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

DEBORAH BIRX: This is the worst event that this country will face, not just from a public health side.

KING: There she was speaking on NBC's "Meet The Press." And you notice that she uses the future tense - the worst event that this country will face. She's saying that things are going to get worse before they get better.

But there are some signs of hope. NPR's Allison Aubrey has been covering all of this. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right. So the big question first on this Monday morning, what's happening with vaccines?

AUBREY: There's a big meeting coming up this week, December 10. An advisory committee to the FDA will meet in open session to discuss emergency use authorization for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. And if they like what they hear, Noel, it could be authorized right away. I spoke to L.J Tan. He's chief strategy officer with the Immunization Action Coalition. He explains that Pfizer is being proactive. They have distribution hubs here in the U.S.

L J TAN: They've already started shipping vaccines from their manufacturing facilities to those distribution hubs. Now, they cannot ship vaccine to providers until they receive the emergency use authorization. But this is good, normal forward-thinking behavior. They're basically saying, we're going to get ready. So all that's happening right now.

AUBREY: To start out, Pfizer has about 20 million doses or so for the U.S., so supplies will be very limited at first.

KING: Which we have known - but now it's clear who is going to get the vaccine first.

AUBREY: That's right. Health care workers and people in long-term care facilities are top priority. But remember, everybody needs two doses - two shots. And we have about 20 million health care workers in the U.S., so it's going to take some time to get even these very high-priority groups vaccinated. After that, essential workers, people over 65 will likely be the next priority group. So big picture, we could see the first vaccinations later this month. But it will likely be mid-2021 before all Americans can be vaccinated. And in the meantime, Noel, we are definitely in the midst of a frightening surge.

KING: In order for all Americans to be vaccinated, we need enough vaccine. We also need people to be willing to get a vaccine. How is that going?

AUBREY: Yeah. Well, you know, vaccine hesitancy is always a concern. I've spoken to some of Biden's coronavirus advisers who are thinking about how to support vaccine education efforts. What's also very helpful is that the early data are so promising. The Pfizer vaccine is reportedly more than 90% effective. I spoke to Eric Topol about this. He's a cardiologist and a researcher. He has analyzed some of the early results. He says, it seems that the level of immunity people could get from the vaccine could be better, could be stronger than what people are getting after being infected with the virus.

ERIC TOPOL: So what we're seeing in people who are convalescent from COVID is that their levels of the real deal antibody is orders of magnitude less than what you get with the vaccine in people. So it's really quite exciting to see this. And obviously, we need to learn more, but I'm hoping that we will get more people on board.

AUBREY: And vaccine education, just explaining to people how safe and effective the vaccine has been shown to be in clinical trials, this can help.

KING: We know that cases are going up, of course. You said we're in the middle of a surge. There's more to the surge than just cases, right?

AUBREY: Absolutely. The most alarming number is the significant increase in deaths, Noel - about a 50% increase compared to just two weeks ago. And when you look at the number of new cases and the rise in hospitalizations, it's clear the situation is getting worse. In California, we're seeing new advisories and new restrictions. Yet Dr. Deborah Birx says we're not seeing enough restrictions in other states.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

BIRX: Right now across the Sun Belt, we have governors and mayors who have cases equivalent to what they had in the summertime, yet aren't putting in the same policies and mitigations that they put in the summer that they know change the course of this pandemic across the South. So it is frustrating.

AUBREY: Because as the virus circulates so widely, there's real concern about hospital resources just being stretched thin.

KING: Well, at this point, I mean, this morning as we speak, there are more than 100,000 people hospitalized with COVID in this country. When you talk to health care workers, what do they tell you?

AUBREY: You know, some say it's a scary situation, definitely a trying situation. I spoke to Allison Wynes. She's a nurse practitioner at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinic, where they have nearly doubled the number of COVID patients compared to one month ago. She says as soon as a bed opens in the ICU, it's quickly filled. And though they do have more treatments to offer these patients compared to the early days of the pandemic, they're seeing what the rest of the country is seeing in terms of deaths.

ALLISON WYNES: It's a deadly disease, and even the best health care can't save some of these patients. So we're experiencing death at a higher rate than we have pre-COVID, and it's wearing on people.

AUBREY: Remember, COVID patients often spend weeks in the hospital, Noel, often with very limited visits from family and friends due to all the restrictions. So hospitals can be very crowded right now, yet they're very lonely places, too.

KING: So bad news for patients, certainly - bad news, also, I imagine, for the mental health of those health care workers.

AUBREY: Yeah. I spoke to Allison Wynes about this. She says as much as she loves her work caring for patients - this is her job; it's her life's work - it's now just such a grind.

WYNES: There's been no break. There's just - you know, between home and between work, it's always COVID. It's always missing, you know, friends. It's missing holidays. It's just 24/7 COVID for people who work in health care.

AUBREY: And there's really no end in sight, so a vaccine cannot come soon enough. But Noel, it won't be in time to stop this current surge.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thanks for your reporting, as always.

AUBREY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAR VEI'S "THROUGH MY MIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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