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Gottlieb says infections among young people are fueling new virus hot spots

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Washington — Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb on Sunday said that a rise in coronavirus infections among young people is driving new outbreaks in some states, but he does not believe there will be a “true” fourth wave of the pandemic.

“What we’re seeing is pockets of infection around the country, particularly in younger people who haven’t been vaccinated and also in school-aged children,” Gottlieb said in an interview on “Face the Nation,” noting the rise in cases among school-aged kids in Michigan, Minnesota and Massachusetts. 

“You’re seeing outbreaks in schools and infections in social cohorts that haven’t been exposed to the virus before, maybe were doing a better job sheltering, now they’re out and about getting exposed to the virus and they’re getting infected,” he continued. “The infection is changing its contours in terms of who’s being stricken by it right now.”

With coronavirus cases rising in 27 states and the District of Columbia, public health officials are urging Americans to remain vigilant in following mitigation measures. But as the rate of vaccinations continues to accelerate — 4 million doses were administered Friday alone — and roughly 130 million Americans having already contracted COVID-19, Gottlieb said the level of immunity in the U.S. should head off a fourth wave of the pandemic.

As of Saturday, more than 104 million Americans have received at least one dose of their coronavirus vaccine, while 59.8 million Americans are fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“You have somewhere around 200 million Americans that have some level of immunity in them already,” he said. “I think there’s enough immunity in the population that you’re not going to see a true fourth wave of infection.”

While more young people are becoming infected with COVID-19, Gottlieb said he does not believe schools should close their doors to in-person learning, but instead should be made safer to combat the spread of the virus.

“I think we need to stick to strict mitigation in the schools, the schools that use masks, schools that can implement some kind of distancing, as one epidemiologist referred to it this week, go the ‘full Harry Potter’ and try to keep students within defined social cohorts so that they’re not intermingling in large groups,” he said. “If you’re taking those measures in schools, I think the schools can be made more safe, and I think the benefits of being in school outweigh the risks. But we need to be cognizant of the fact that schools are a risk factor, children are vulnerable to the infection and that schools can become focal points for community spread if we’re not careful.”

Coronavirus vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are authorized for adults ages 18 and older, while Pfizer’s vaccine is approved for people as young as 16. But Pfizer and Moderna have been testing their vaccines in children 12 and older and are beginning clinical trials of their shots in young children. 

Pfizer announced last week in a study of 2,260 U.S. volunteers between 12 and 15 years old, its vaccine was found to be safe and demonstrated 100% efficacy. Gottlieb is a member of Pfizer’s board of directors.

Vaccinating children will be crucial for getting schools reopened and helping the U.S. reach herd immunity, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, said Friday he believes there could be enough information to be able to safely vaccinate children of any age by the end of the year.

Gottlieb said he believes the FDA could authorize Pfizer’s vaccine for emergency use for children between the ages of 12 and 15 in time to have it available before the start of the school year, but warned it could be longer before children younger than 12 are approved to get their shots.

“I do think we’re going to be in a position to vaccinate 12 and above before the fall,” he said. “I think younger than that could take more time because you’re going to want to test a lot of different doses to try to find the lowest possible dose that still is providing a robust immune response to kids.”

Even though public health officials are warning Americans not to buck guidelines with the rise in coronavirus infections, families are continuing to travel for the spring break holiday, and the Transportation Security Administration has reported a spike in airport screenings.

Gottlieb encouraged health officials to issue guidance the public will largely follow but said it’s important for them to urge caution. 

“You don’t want to be so out of step with the aspirations and where the public is and what the public is going to ultimately engage in that the guidance just gets ignored. You have to issue the guidance in the context of what the public’s willing to do,” he said. 

Still, Gottlieb stressed that the U.S. remains in a “high-prevalence environment” with new coronavirus variants circulating.

“We don’t want to be in a position where we extend the epidemic because we weren’t prudent about the steps that we were taking right now,” he said. “That said, people are sensing that there’s less risk overall. As people get vaccinated, they feel themselves that they’re at less risk and they are, based on the vaccination. And so they’re willing to start engaging in the things that they put off for a full year. So we need to recognize that and I think issue the guidance in a way that people can conform to it against, you know, their aspirations, which is that they want to see family again. They want to start socializing. They want to start traveling a little bit.”

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