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NIH director says pandemic's toll is now on the shoulders of the unvaccinated


Millions of Americans are on the move this weekend as the country prepares for yet another holiday season marked by the coronavirus pandemic. And this is while cases are going up once again in some parts of the country. So we're going to begin by taking a look at some of the latest information we have on the pandemic, including the latest decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to allow all Americans aged 18 and older to receive COVID vaccine booster shots. For that, we're joined by Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and one of President Biden's key advisers on the pandemic.

Dr. Collins, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

FRANCIS COLLINS: Glad to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: As we just said, all adult Americans are now eligible for a COVID booster shot. How are you hoping this will help, especially as we approach not just the holidays but the colder winter months?

COLLINS: Well, that is obviously something that I hope people will look at carefully. And if you're over 18 and you haven't yet gotten a booster and you're six months away from your initial immunization if you got Pfizer or Moderna, or just two months away if you got J&J, this is a great moment to beef up that immunization so that you're less at risk. And a lot of people are doing that.

I think what happened on Friday was clarification about exactly who is eligible for boosters. And now they're recommended for everybody 18 and up. So there's no more of this, well, is it about me or not? Yeah. It's about (laughter) you if you're an adult.

The other thing, of course, Michel, is those 60 million people who haven't even gotten their first dose, if you've waited to sort of see whether it was necessary, hey, it's necessary. Don't wait any longer.

MARTIN: So with that high number of unvaccinated Americans in mind, what's the bigger strategy here in terms of containing the spread of this virus? I mean, is this a situation where people like yourself who are working in public health are thinking, we're just going to have to learn to live with this long term somehow?

COLLINS: Well, I wish it weren't that way. It's clear that our inability to somehow convince people that this is something they want for themselves, those 60 million people, is preventing (ph) a real challenge in terms of how to end this pandemic. I guess I thought, Michel, you know, a few months ago, when it became so clear that this pandemic was still going on and the terrible, tragic toll it's taking is almost entirely on the shoulders of the unvaccinated people, that that would really cause people who had been waiting and been perhaps fearful about a lot of the misinformation that was out there to say, well, wait a minute. Look what's happening here. And I'm still hopeful that that's maybe possible.

MARTIN: But is that - is hope a strategy, though? I mean, what is the thinking about that particular group?

COLLINS: Well, we continue to try to persuade. But the other thing, of course, Michel, that is now happening is the mandates. And I think that has caused people who were resistant to look at the situation and go, well, OK. What the heck. If it's really going to be required and I don't have to be the person to make the decision and then have to explain it to my otherwise resistant friends, then sure. I think that is going to give us a big jump forward in terms of getting a lot of those who are still not vaccinated onto the list of those who are now better protected.

MARTIN: As we said at the beginning, millions of Americans are going to be traveling this week and in the weeks ahead for the winter holidays. Last winter was the deadliest point in the pandemic for Americans. And so new factors this year - vaccines and boosters, which we've been talking about. But then also, there's this delta variant that has caused, you know, so much sort of pain and suffering. What's your advice to people for this holiday season? What are some of the precautions you think that people should be taking?

COLLINS: Well, first of all, be vaccinated. If you're not vaccinated, I think traveling is a considerable risk. For those who are vaccinated, if you're gathering indoors, make sure you're gathering with other people who are also vaccinated.

But what you said at the beginning, Michel, is true. We also should recognize we're in a better place than we were a year ago. Now it is going to be possible for those who are vaccinated to be able to have family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas. I'm hoping to have mine later this week.

MARTIN: Well, I hope it's a wonderful occasion. You recently announced that you'll be stepping down as NIH director soon. And I just wanted to ask you and along with saying, you know, thank you for this - these years of service, what's still worrying you most about our nation's health, looking at all of the things that you've thought about and addressed in your years in this role?

COLLINS: Well, it's been a complete privilege to have a chance to serve in this role for 12 years. And certainly, looking at the COVID situation, I'm amazed at what science has been able to do to respond to this. But I'm still worried about where we are. And frankly, Michel, the thing that worries me most is the way in which misinformation and, frankly, disinformation has become so prominent in the face of a public health crisis. And it has been manipulated in some situations for political reasons in a fashion that is turning our culture wars into something really serious.

We probably lost 100,000 people to COVID-19 who were unvaccinated because they had information that told them that this wasn't something that would be safe for them. And that's heartbreaking. And it is kind of a breakdown, it seems to me, in our society of the ability to distinguish opinions from truth. And if we've lost that ability, if we can't sort through the evidence and understand what's real and true, then I worry about all kinds of other challenges that lie ahead for us.

MARTIN: So misinformation is the deadliest disease at this point.

COLLINS: It is. And I think those who are intentionally spreading this kind of information that they know to be false for some political or personal reasons, I really think they are the ones that we ought to be trying to track down and figure out, why are you doing this? And isn't there some kind of justice for this kind of action? Isn't this like yelling fire in a crowded theater? Are you really allowed to do that without some consequences?

MARTIN: That was Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Collins, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

COLLINS: Glad to talk to you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.