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COVID deaths are back up to nearly 500 a day

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

As we've all probably heard, President Biden has COVID. At 79, he's said to have a runny nose, cough, sore throat. He's been taking the antiviral drug Paxlovid. And preliminary sequencing shows he's most likely infected with the BA.5 subvariant of omicron. For the very latest on the president and where we are in the pandemic, let's turn to Dr. Ashish Jha. He's the White House COVID-19 response coordinator. Good morning, Dr. Jha.

ASHISH JHA: Good morning. Thanks for having me back.

RASCOE: So how is the president doing?

JHA: He's doing fine. He's doing well. Look, he's a couple of days into this illness. He had a good day Saturday, was feeling well. He's battling a viral syndrome. So obviously still a little achy, still got that sore throat. His voice is a little raspy. But overall, he is feeling better.

RASCOE: So in terms of this stage of the pandemic, what is the significance of President Biden most likely being infected with BA.5, the omicron subvariant?

JHA: Yeah. So there are, I think, two important points from that. One is BA.5 is dominant across America - about 80% of infections. So not surprised that that's the one that the president got infected with. Incredibly contagious, very immune evasive - and that's why it is so critical that people be vaccinated, people be boosted, anyone over 50 have gotten their second booster, as President Biden did. And then I also think it's really critical that everyone in America avail themselves of the same treatment that the president is getting, which is Paxlovid if they're eligible. For people who are at elevated risk - over the age of 50, with chronic diseases - Paxlovid is enormously effective at reducing serious illness.

So, you know, the president's getting world-class care. But the good news is that the president has worked really hard to make sure every American has access to the same things. And now vaccines and treatments are widely available and free.

RASCOE: You know, rightly or wrongly, at this point in the pandemic, testing positive for COVID is starting to feel kind of ordinary for some Americans. And it's happening multiple times. They're catching it multiple times. Is that to be expected, or is that alarming from a public health perspective? Deaths are up to nearly 500 a day.

JHA: Yeah. So I think, Ayesha, that's the key point there is that it's not the cold. People are still getting quite sick from it. But if you look at who's getting sick, who's really ending up in the hospital, who's ending up in the ICU, who's dying - unfortunately, it's people who are either not vaccinated or not up to date on their vaccines, people who are not fully, you know, boosted or double boosted if they're older, people who have not gotten treatments. We have to do our part. We have to continue working hard to make sure that Americans get vaccinated, get their immunity up, get treatments. We also obviously have to do a lot of work to keep infections as low as possible.

Look, it's going to be hard with a variant this contagious to make sure that no one gets infected. But we can keep infections down - encouraging mask wearing, making sure testing is widely available, improving indoor air quality. There's a lot we can do and there's a lot we are doing. We're doing all of those things to try to make sure that infections are not as widespread as they would be otherwise.

RASCOE: I want to ask you about mask wearing because even, you know, where I live, I'm seeing that most people are not wearing masks or a lot of people aren't wearing masks. You do have places thinking about returning to mask mandates. LA County is weighing that. At this point, is there a concern that the public is just not willing to wear masks? Like, the reality of the situation - is public health up to date on what people will actually do?

JHA: Yeah, it's a great question. The way I think about it is our job in public health is to communicate clearly what the science and evidence is. And the evidence is clear - right? - that if you are in a crowded indoor space in an area of high transmission and - as many parts of our country are, wearing a high-quality mask reduces your risk of getting infected, reduces your risk of spreading it to others. And CDC has been encouraging people to do that. I've been encouraging people to do that.

In terms of whether we need mandates and those policies, that really has been something I felt very strongly for the entire pandemic - that decisions on mandates should be made by local public health officials, mayors and governors. Every community is different. Transmission patterns are different. And we need localized decisions on when to put in a mandate or not. But the science on whether mask wearing works or not, that's pretty clear.

RASCOE: I know this doesn't fall under your current COVID duties at the White House, but Dr. Jha, you know, drawing on your long experience in public health, is the U.S. prepared now that the World Health Organization has declared monkeypox a public health emergency of international concern?

JHA: Yeah. So, you know, we did see the WHO make that declaration. I think Dr. Tedros, the director general of WHO, made the right call. We are seeing this virus spread in many places around the world. Obviously, we have had more than 2,000 cases here. But there are - you know, we have really ramped up our response since the beginning, since the outbreak first began - substantially increased our testing capacity, made vaccines widely available and continuing to do more. I mean, we've got to get more vaccines. We got to do more on getting more treatments out to people. So the work of this administration on monkeypox is ongoing, and you'll see it continue to ramp up. But there are parts of the world where it's far more widespread. And it's really important, from a global perspective, that we take a global approach to this.

RASCOE: Dr. Jha is the White House COVID response coordinator. Dr. Jha, thank you so much.

JHA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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