The following is a transcript of an interview with White House COVID-19 response coordinator
Jeffrey Zients airing Sunday, July 4, 2021, on “Face the Nation.”
ED O’KEEFE: Our thanks to Mark Strassmann reporting from Atlanta. We turn now to the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, Jeff Zients. Good morning and happy Fourth. Jeff, thank you for being with us. You know, we’ve come a long way since–
WH COVID-19 RESPONSE COORDINATOR JEFF ZIENTS: Good morning, ED. And happy Fourth.
ED O’KEEFE: Yes. And we’ve come a long way since the last July 4th. And, you know, a lot of it is a testament to science, but should we really be declaring independence right now from the pandemic?
ZIENTS: Well, ED, let’s step back for a minute here. We’ve made a lot of progress, I think more progress, it’s fair to say, than anyone had expected with two out of three Americans now with at least one shot of vaccine and importantly, close to 90% of those 65 years and older with one shot and close to 80% fully vaccinated. That’s particularly important because we started the vaccination campaign focused on the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, people 65 and older accounted for about 80% of COVID deaths. So with so many people now vaccinated, tens of millions of Americans can now return to life- more- to more normal life, you know, getting together with friends and family, going to restaurants, attending sporting events. Now, to be clear, that’s not true for unvaccinated people. Unvaccinated people are not protected. So we have a lot more work to do across the summer months to reach unvaccinated people, make it easy for people to get their shot and their second shot and to answer people’s questions. And key to answering questions are physicians and other healthcare professionals. So increasingly, we have vaccines in doctors’ offices. So we’re going to do everything we can to continue vaccinating millions and millions of Americans each week because if they’re not protected- if you’re not vaccinated- you’re not protected until you are fully vaccinated and until you are fully vaccinated, you need to mask up and follow the public health standards. But the great news is so many Americans are now fully vaccinated and can return to life as normal, and that is worthy of celebration.
ED O’KEEFE: Well, what specifically are you- are you going to do to get those unvaccinated Americans to actually get a shot? According to the CDC 35% of those eligible for the vaccine, more than a third of people 12 and over haven’t received even a single dose. What has to be done specifically to get those people to get a shot?
ZIENTS: Well, the good news is across the last several months, we’ve seen an increase in vaccine confidence, more and more people wanting to get a shot. So that’s good news. Now we need to make sure that we meet people where they are, make it really easy to get a shot, meet people at sporting events, at places of worship, deploy mobile units to reach people in their neighborhoods. We also have to be available at a local level to answer people’s questions about the vaccine, about safety and efficacy. We have three very effective and safe vaccines. People turn to their doctors and to their health care providers with these types of questions. So we have vaccines now available increasingly in doctors’ offices and with health care providers. So we are ready to answer people’s questions and give them their first shot.
ED O’KEEFE: Well–
ZIENTS: We’re going to continue to do this in a fair and equitable way so that we reach all Americans, and we vaccinate as many Americans as possible across the summer months.
ED O’KEEFE: One of the more troubling aspects of this is now the partisanship of getting vacc- vaccinated. A new Washington Post poll out this morning reinforces that. Eighty six percent of Democrats have received at least one shot of the vaccine, compared to 45% of Republicans. But 38% of Republicans, one third of the GOP overall, say they will most definitely not get shots against the virus. How do you take the politics out of this?
ZIENTS: Well, I think President Biden has been very, very clear from day one, this is about public health. This is not about politics. And we need to continue to reach people where they are and answer their questions and have trusted messengers at a local level. The good news is, as people see their friends and family and neighbors get vaccinated, more and more people get vaccinated. Also, think about close to 90% of seniors now with at least one shot. That’s so important, as I said, because that is the most vulnerable population. And at the same time, clearly at 90%, there are people from all parts of America of political parties and beliefs. So we need to make sure that we continue to build on the progress we’ve made to build vaccine confidence, to make it even easier for people to get vaccinated. To be clear, if you are vaccinated, you are protected against severe disease. If you’re not, you are not protected and you need to start your vaccination routine as soon as possible.
ED O’KEEFE: At the same time that you’re urging local officials and athletes and doctors to take up this issue and to promote vaccinations across the country, the federal government is now preparing to send in surge response teams to these states that are having outbreaks, especially of the Delta variants, especially the states out West and in the South. Talk to us a little bit about what those surge response teams are, what they’re going to do, and does that potentially either affect or help getting people vaccinated if the federal government is sending in officials?
ZIENTS: Well, we’re working with governors and state and local officials, particularly in those areas where we see increases in cases, and those are generally areas where they have lower vaccination rates. So the federal government stands ready with a whole-of-government effort to work with local officials to increase vaccinations, to provide increased testing and also therapeutics to ensure that people don’t get sick who have contracted the disease. So we’re going to work with our state and local partners, particularly in those areas of the country with lower vaccination rates to make sure we’re doing everything we can to stop the spread of the disease.
ED O’KEEFE: But is this the kind of thing where you’re going to go and plant your flag in a Wal-Mart parking lot and say, we’re here? Or are you showing up at the State Emergency Management Response Office and asking and assisting state officials with figuring this out?
JEFF ZIENTS: Oh, from day one president- under President Biden’s leadership, we’ve been partnering with governors and state officials. As I said earlier, this is not a political issue. This is public health fighting this pandemic. We’ve had a great partnership with governors across the country and with their state and local public health officials. And these surge teams will work hand in hand with local partners.
ED O’KEEFE: Real quick, if I’m somebody who’s been vaccinated- if there’s someone watching this program who’s been vaccinated and curious, do they need to get a booster shot this fall with their flu vaccine?
ZIENTS: That- that is a question that’s being studied in clinical studies. We will look, the Biden administration will look to the scientists and to the doctors on advice on boosters. That has not been determined yet. What I can tell you, if boosters are needed, we are ready, as we have been throughout this fight with the pandemic. We have contingency plans. We have supply. So if the decision is made that boosters are needed, we are ready. But that decision has not been made by the science- scientists or the doctors.
ED O’KEEFE: And you don’t have any sense of when it will be made?
ZIENTS: It will be based on clinical trials that are ongoing, and as soon as the doctors and scientists determine they have the data they need, they’ll make that decision.
ED O’KEEFE: In your previous government service, you were the chief performance officer for the Obama administration. It was your job to think about reinventing and reorganizing parts of the federal government. You’ve been at this job now for about six months or so. You must have some thoughts on how the federal public health response could be reorganized going forward to avoid some kind of a pandemic in the future. Have you given any thought to that or any sense of when the administration might consider reorganizing?
ZIENTS: Well my- my primary reaction is this has been an extraordinary whole-of-government effort led by President Biden in partnership with governors that has made extraordinary progress in a short period of time with two thirds of adult Americans already having received their first shot. So I think this shows the American people that the federal government can work on the most difficult problems and make extraordinary gains. We have made investments during this period through the American Rescue Plan in building up state and local public health officials, which is critical not only to fighting this pandemic, but preparing for other public health issues in the future. We’re also investing in genomic sequencing, which will allow us to spot disease earlier. It’s helping us to identify potential variants. So there’s some investments that need to be made. But I think what my main observation is, is when you pull together a whole-of-government response with all the areas of expertise like the CDC, FEMA, active-duty troops, you can make a huge difference in a short period of time. On a terrible crisis that this country has faced, we’ve made huge progress because of this whole of government effort, President Biden’s leadership and our partnership with state and local officials.
ED O’KEEFE: Jeffrey Zients is the White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator. We thank you for spending part of Independence Day with us. FACE THE NATION will be back in one minute. Stay with us.