The US is "turning the corner" on its current Covid-19 surge but vaccination remains key to ensuring cases continue trending downward ahead of the holiday season, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday.
The US is averaging around 107,000 new infections every day, according to Johns Hopkins University -- down from more than 150,000 just last month. Rates of hospitalizations and deaths have also been on the decline.
But Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC's "This Week" that over nearly 20 months of the pandemic, Covid surges have subsided only to come back again.
"The way to keep it down, to make that turnaround continue to go down, is to ... get people vaccinated. When you have 70 million people in the country who are eligible to be vaccinated who are not yet vaccinated, that's the danger zone right there," Fauci said.
With winter fast approaching, experts have warned of the double threat Covid-19 and the flu could have on an already strained health care system. But Fauci told CBS's "Face the Nation" it is too early to tell whether the holiday season will be a safe time for Americans to gather.
"We've just got to concentrate on continuing to get those numbers down, and not try to jump ahead by weeks or months and say what we're going to do at a particular time," he said. "Let's focus like a laser on continuing to get those cases down, and we can do it by people getting vaccinated."
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently updated its guidance on holiday celebrations, urging people to get vaccinated before the holidays and wear a mask indoors in public in areas of substantial transmission.
"Attending gatherings to celebrate events and holidays increases your risk of getting and spreading Covid-19. The safest way to celebrate is virtually, with people who live with you, or outside and at least 6 feet apart from others," it said.
The CDC guidance also recommends people delay travel until they are fully vaccinated.
Nearly 56% of the total US population, or 65.4% of those ages 12 and up who are eligible, are fully vaccinated, according to data published Sunday by the CDC.
However, 15 states have yet to fully vaccinate more than half of their residents, according to CDC data: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Mandates requiring employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19 have spurred some workers to get vaccinated in recent weeks, but others who have declined vaccination are being suspended or losing their jobs.
In New York City, a vaccine mandate for educators went into effect Friday afternoon, and New York City Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter told CNN she did not expect the mandate to result in a teacher shortage Monday, noting 93% of the city's teachers are vaccinated.
"We have more subs that are vaccinated than unvaccinated, teachers and our superintendents have been working with our principals to develop plans to ensure our students get the education and continue to get the education they deserve in person," Porter said.
Porter pushed back on claims from some teachers who say they are being unfairly forced to vaccinate instead of being given a chance to test out.
"We are responsible for over a million students and we have elementary school students who are not eligible for vaccination and so we have to do everything in our power to wrap a bubble of protection around our children and keep them safe," Porter said.
On CBS Sunday, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, warned against the politicization of vaccines in the US.
Gottlieb said vaccination has always been viewed as a collective decision rather than just individual choice. "That's why we have a childhood immunization schedule, because your behavior -- with respect to your choice around vaccination -- affects your community," he said.
Gottlieb said there could be consequences of vaccination becoming a political issue.
"I worry that, going forward, we're going to see vaccination rates decline as this becomes more of a political football, and we see people -- literally, governors running against vaccines and vaccine mandates -- in the next presidential cycle. That's going to the be deleterious to the public health, generally, if that's what comes out of this episode we're in," he said.
The US surpassed 700,000 deaths from Covid-19 Friday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University and the country is still averaging nearly 1,900 deaths a day.
President Joe Biden marked the grim toll in a statement Saturday, and noted the impact of vaccination, saying, "Hundreds of thousands of families have been spared the unbearable loss that too many Americans have already endured during this pandemic."
As the country reflected on the death toll, Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics announced they had created an antiviral pill that can reduce Covid-19 hospitalization and death by 50%, according to their data.
Merck said it would seek emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its molnupiravir medication "as soon as possible." If permitted, it would become the first oral medicine that fights Covid-19.
The news was hailed by health experts who also cautioned it shouldn't be a replacement for vaccinations.
"It is never OK to get infected," Fauci told CNN's Dana Bash Sunday.
"It decreased the risk -- this pill did -- of hospitalizations and death by 50%. You know the way to decrease the risk by 100%? Don't get infected in the first place," he said.
As for those relying on previous infection to protect them from getting Covid-19 again, a new study published Friday in the journal The Lancet Microbe, suggests that protection may be short-lived.
"Reinfection can reasonably happen in three months or less," Jeffrey Townsend, a professor of biostatistics at the Yale School of Public Health and the study's lead author, said in a news release. "Therefore, those who have been naturally infected should get vaccinated. Previous infection alone can offer very little long-term protection against subsequent infections."
Parents hoping to vaccinate their children received some good news last week, with Pfizer announcing Tuesday it had submitted Covid-19 vaccine data on children ages 5 to 11 to the FDA for initial review.
The company has not yet sought emergency use authorization, but on Friday, the FDA announced its vaccine advisers would meet on October 26 to discuss the data.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is currently approved for people age 16 and older in the US, and has emergency use authorization for people ages 12 to 15.
On Sunday, Fauci warned while a child might have less chance of having a severe outcome from a case of Covid-19, it is not a "benign situation."
"We are seeing now, very clearly, if you go to pediatric hospitals, that although this risk is less than the adult, there are children in hospital who are getting seriously ill," he said on CNN's "State of the Union."
There is also the risk of long Covid, where some survivors, including children, suffer lingering symptoms for months after getting infected, he said.
"You want to protect your child, but you also want to make the child a part of the solution, mainly so that there's not spread of infection, either within your household or to other vulnerable people," Fauci said, adding it is a "very positive, good thing to get their children vaccinated."
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