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Unpacking The Biden Administration's Coronavirus Strategy

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Twenty-five million - that's how many people have gotten sick here in the United States after contracting the coronavirus - 417,000 people have died, the most in the world by far.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This is a wartime undertaking. Today, I'm signing the executive action to use the Defense Production Act and all other available authorities to direct all federal agencies and private industry to accelerate the making of everything that is needed to protect, test, vaccinate and take care of our people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Biden there talking about how he is putting the federal government in charge of the coronavirus response. That strategy was outlined in a 200-page document released this past week that addresses everything from mounting a testing and vaccination campaign to protecting communities most at risk to restoring trust in the government. Dr. Carlos del Rio is a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Emory University, and he is going to evaluate that plan for us. Good morning.

CARLOS DEL RIO: Good morning. How are you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am well. I understand you were out Friday, giving vaccines. I'd like to understand what you learned from that experience, considering that the rollout has been pretty rocky so far.

DEL RIO: Well, I was actually - this Saturday. I was there yesterday...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

DEL RIO: ...Giving vaccinations. And you learn a lot from doing it. And one thing you learn is that, you know, some people are excited about it. Some people are a little nervous, but I think what they need is to be talked through the process, to be explained what's going on, to be explained the benefits of the vaccine, to explain the risks. And people accept the vaccine. So you have to take time. And what I learned about it the most is, you know, being pretty efficient, I was able to vaccinate between four and five people an hour. So when you're talking about, you know, a million shots per day, which is what the president is saying we need to do - and I still think it's a low bar - you're talking about them having about four to 500 vaccination posts that are working 12 hours a day. And each one of those posts has about 30 to 40, you know, vaccination units like the one I was having. And each one is working, you know, giving four to five shots an hour for 12 hours straight. So it's a major undertaking. It's not simple to do that, and it's going to take a lot of effort. And as the plan says, it requires everybody to be involved.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, one of the things we've seen is just this incredible disparity in who is getting inoculated. In Florida, for example, the wealthiest zip codes are the most vaccinated, but they're not the most vulnerable. What should the Biden administration do to make this more equitable?

DEL RIO: I'm very worried about equity. And, you know, as you say, in this pandemic, we've seen a disproportionate impact and disproportionate death rate among African Americans and Hispanics. And what we're seeing in some cities is we're seeing more vaccinations go to wealthy and to white individuals. I think what we need are two things. Number one, we need data. We need to know exactly who's getting vaccinated. Some places have maps that you can look at. I think we need that. But number two, we need to be sure that we don't sacrifice equity with speed, right? Speed, equity - sometimes, doing, equity requires more time, requires taking a little more time. And that's OK. I'm totally fine going slower to make sure that we vaccinate the wrong - the right people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Let's talk in detail about Biden's plan briefly. There's certainly been a shift in tone from the new administration. They're prioritizing science. The new plan calls for the federal government to use data and metrics, as you are suggesting, for many things, including, for example, when businesses can fully reopen. But when you look at the substance of this outline, which you have, what concerns you?

DEL RIO: Well, I mean, I think - let's start by saying that the first thing is I'm glad we finally have a plan. As you say, we're 25 million infections and over 400,000 deaths. And we finally have a national strategy, something that many of us have been asking for since very early in the pandemic because it's very hard to fight a pandemic like this one without a national strategy. So I'm really - I applaud the administration for having a national strategy. I think, you know, the national strategy is well-constructed. It has seven goals. It has, you know, seven clear outlines that I think, hopefully, will be - we can get reports on a regular basis. To me, what concerns me the most is that goal number seven, which is to restore U.S. leadership globally. And, you know, it really is very U.S.-centric plan. And the reality is, in order for us to be successful beating this pandemic, we need to also think about the global pandemic and making sure that vaccines and other resources get to every country. We're not going to be - nobody will be safe until everyone is safe. I will tell you that right now there are about, you know, 57 million vaccinations that have been - vaccines that have been given globally. The U.S. has given out 37% of those vaccines. So we are creating a huge inequity globally, and we as a global leader need to ensure that vaccines get to every corner of the world. Latin America, for example, is one of the most affected regions, with Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Ecuador having significant impacts. And yet they're not getting enough vaccines. So the U.S. has to have that. And I don't see that on the plan, and that worries me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I just want to briefly, in the few seconds we have left, pick up on something you said initially, which is that you don't feel that this plan might be ambitious enough, specifically when it comes to vaccinations. Tell me why not.

DEL RIO: Well, because I think, you know, again, a million shots a day for 100 days - we're already pretty much doing that. If you look at the data, we're already vaccinating anywhere between 900,000 and a million a day. So it's not ambitious enough. It's just sustaining what's already happening. I would like us to go to, you know, a million and a half, 2 million, 2 1/2 million shots per day. If we do that, we will then have vaccinated 70 to 75% of all Americans by the summer. If we don't do that, it's going to take us a lot longer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Dr. Carlos del Rio, epidemiologist at Emory University. Thank you very much.

DEL RIO: Glad I could talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.