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AS U.S. COVID-19 Cases Drop, White House Urges Vaccinations

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is some good news to report this morning on the pandemic. Nationwide, new cases have dropped almost 30% over the last two weeks. Mixed results, though, in Michigan, which has had a hard time getting the virus under control. New cases there are also going down, but the contagious variant from India has been identified there. And as President Biden marked his first 100 days, White House officials say it's urgent to keep up the pace of vaccinations.

NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's talk about this new variant from India. It has now appeared in Michigan, as I just said. How much of a concern is this for public health officials?

AUBREY: Well, it adds to the list of variants in the U.S., Rachel. It's another one that's believed to be more contagious. And virologist Angela Rasmussen says she would not be surprised to see it identified in other states beyond Michigan. She says there were already variants with similar mutations in the U.S.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: We need to stay ahead of all the variants, not just the one from India as well as all the other variants that we know are already circulating here. We need to not only keep up vaccination, but we also need to be mindful of the measures that we need to continue to be taking to reduce our exposure risk.

AUBREY: Now, beginning tomorrow, Rachel, the U.S. will restrict travel from India to the U.S. And given the rapid increase in cases in India, Rasmussen says, restricting travel may help keep some coronavirus cases out of the U.S. But since the variant is already here, Rachel, what's most important is getting more people vaccinated as quickly as possible.

MARTIN: All right. So let's talk about that. How is the vaccination effort going?

AUBREY: Well, President Biden has pointed to the success so far. His goal of giving 200 million shots during the first 100 days of his administration was met. Right now, about 56% of adults in the U.S. have received at least one dose; 40% are fully vaccinated. But in recent days, the rate of vaccination has slowed down somewhat. Part of this is hesitancy. Part of it is lack of convenience. Here's White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain speaking on CBS yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS BROADCAST)

RON KLAIN: We've got a lot of work left to do. We do want to make it easier and more convenient for the next group of people to get the shot.

AUBREY: It's really important to accelerate the pace of vaccinations again.

MARTIN: So - I mean, you talk about the hesitancy, which we'll address in a moment, but also the convenience issue is such a big one for people. It's still a real pain in a lot of places to find an appointment. What's being done?

AUBREY: Well, instead of waiting for people to come to vaccination sites, increasingly, vaccinators are going to the people. I spoke to Jaimie Meyer. She's an infectious disease doctor at Yale Medicine. She's been very involved at vaccine clinics there where they also have mobile clinics going directly into communities to make it more convenient. As to hesitancy, she says you have to take time to answer people's questions to make them feel reassured. For instance, with the resumption of the Johnson & Johnson shot last week, some people have been asking things like, should I take an aspirin before getting the J&J shot as kind of a preventive measure against these rare blood clots. She tells them this is not a good idea.

JAIMIE MEYER: To have everyone take an aspirin on a daily basis to prevent an extraordinarily rare event, probably not helpful and, in fact, may be harmful.

AUBREY: Another issue, Rachel - people skipping their second shots of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. What she tells people is that, yes, this first dose will get you lots of protection, but it is unclear how long that immunity will last. So it is important to come back for the second dose.

MARTIN: There is also hesitancy, Allison, as you know, among certain groups of folks. Right? Polls show among...

AUBREY: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Some Republicans are really hesitant, people living in rural areas of the country. What's being done to specifically address their concerns?

AUBREY: Sure. I've spoken to doctors in rural areas and small towns who tell me one thing they hear from some patients is I don't want the government to tell me what to do. Dr. David Field, who's in practice in Bismarck, N.D., he says people tend to trust their primary care doctor, so he has a lot of one-on-one conversations with patients. And he says this does help. But he says there's still a fair amount of hesitancy that remains.

DAVID FIELD: They're not thinking that getting a vaccine is the thing to do. Some of that tends to be some of the independentness (ph) that we have here in North Dakota. And it's almost a cultural thing. And that independentness, unfortunately, gave us the highest rate of infection and the highest death rate in the world for a period of time.

AUBREY: He's referring to a period last fall. Things are much better there now. But, you know, when a state or a region is slow to respond, whether it's with a mask policy or getting people vaccinated, this can work against public health.

MARTIN: I mean, this is - these are themes we have seen over the past year, right? The lack of cohesive policies is just kind of this patchwork of states doing their own thing and then the politicization of all of it.

AUBREY: Absolutely. I mean, one reason so many Americans died or had very serious illness from COVID is due to underlying health problems, so chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease. That made people more vulnerable, and this is well understood, that these diseases present a public health problem. I think what is less recognized is that political division and polarization can also be a public health problem. I think the moment that masking became a fault line in the culture war, we all lost because when people didn't mask, it gave the virus more opportunities to spread. I spoke to Dr. Aaron Carroll of Indiana University about this.

AARON CARROLL: Politics in general is, like, trying to turn us into teams. It's us and them. And so if we can't recognize that sometimes we have to do things for others, even if they cause us an inconvenience, it's very hard to do public health. What we really need to often beat this pandemic is a sense of shared sacrifice. And it's hard to achieve that sense of shared sacrifice when we're constantly being sort of told to hate the other.

AUBREY: You know, it's really something to consider that the political divide that exists doesn't just make it hard to govern, it can be harmful to public health.

MARTIN: How does that politics, Allison, play into the debate about whether to make vaccines mandatory? I'm thinking about universities that have said that it might be mandatory in the fall. Some have just come out and said that explicitly, right?

AUBREY: Yes. Yeah, a growing list. I mean, many colleges and universities have already said they will make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for the full term. And, you know, another decision with graduation season upon us - you know, administrators are having to decide how to handle graduation ceremonies. Indiana University has a policy. If you want to attend the ceremony, which is being held outdoors and open only to students - no guests, yep - you've got to take a test to show negative COVID status or show that you have been fully vaccinated. You know, some people might not like that, but this is what it's going to take to keep everybody safe, even if it makes some people uncomfortable.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thank you so much for your continued reporting on all of this. We appreciate it.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.

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