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Surgeon General Murthy says the U.S. has more tools now to fight COVID

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

We're now joined by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. Good morning. Thanks for joining us.

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, good morning. It's good to be with you, Scott.

DETROW: You know, I'll start this conversation the same way I started with Rob. This was the administration that was going to manage COVID, and it now seems likely the year is going to end with more COVID than ever before. I mean, I know a new, wildly different variant is something the federal government cannot control, but why are so many Americans scrambling for tests, scrambling for boosters, scrambling for masks?

MURTHY: Well, Scott, this is - these are important questions. And let's just step back and think about where we are for a moment. We certainly are the beginning of an omicron wave, which is - and we should anticipate in the weeks ahead that we will see a sharp spike in cases, as we have seen in other countries. What's happening with COVID is something that we typically don't see with this time frame with pandemics and really haven't seen in a hundred years, which is the rapid development of new variants which have different features. This one happens to be incredibly transmissible, far more transmissible than anything else we've seen based on the data we have.

DETROW: Yeah.

MURTHY: But one of the key things I want people to understand is that we are actually in a much better place than we were a year ago, even though it may not seem like that when you look just at the numbers. The reason I say that is because we have more tools in our toolbox, including our vaccines and boosters, which significantly reduce the chances that you will end up in the hospital or lose your life. Those are the most important outcomes that we care about.

And finally, with testing, which you mentioned, we certainly are aware there needs to be more testing in our country. Now, in the last few months, the president and the administration have made significant investments that quadruple the supply of tests. They've used the Defense Production Act, billions of dollars to that end. But more has to be done, which is why today when the president speaks, he'll be speaking about a series of new federal testing sites that we'll be setting up so people can go get free testing and masks. They'll be also procuring 500 million additional rapid at-home tests...

DETROW: But these...

MURTHY: ...That will be available for free...

DETROW: Sure.

MURTHY: ...To people. And they can request them to be delivered to their home.

DETROW: But this is something - you know, it's been known for about a month that this was probably a wildly contagious variant. President Biden was issuing warnings right after Thanksgiving. Why are these steps only being rolled out today? I mean, to paraphrase what one of those experts just said, this policy feels, to him, highly reactive.

MURTHY: Well, I would take a different view of this. Because if you actually look at the last several months, there have been significant efforts to ramp up testing. In December, even before omicron was on the scene, we were projected to quadruple the number of tests that were available in the United States just over the last few months. That was pre-omicron. So I would say that the efforts to increase testing, increase access to vaccines and boosters have all been accelerating over recent months, even before omicron arrived. Now, with omicron's situation, we've got to do even more, which is what you're going to hear the president talk about today.

DETROW: Let's talk about one of the most serious problems looming - hospitals. In many parts of the country, they're already overwhelmed. You know, some are almost at capacity. Given how many vaccinated people seem to be getting sick, even if it's mild, there are real possibilities big chunks of hospital staffs could get sick at the same time. What is the government doing about this?

MURTHY: Well, so I share the concern about hospitals. Look, I have many colleagues - medical colleagues - working in the hospital systems across our country. I talk to them all the time. And I'm very worried about the situation with burnout among nurses, doctors, about hospital capacity. And more hospitals have really been hit hard during this - not just during omicron, but really in the months that preceded it. What we've got to do, and what the president's going to talk about today, are, No. 1, we've got to expand capacity. So we are already working to expand beds in California, Maryland and Louisiana. The president is actually calling upon FEMA to construct even more space - physical space in hospitals.

But let's talk about personnel for a minute, because what I'm most worried about are health care workers themselves. And so we are actually going to be mobilizing a thousand members of our military to deploy federal doctors, nurses and medical personnel to support hospital systems across the country. We've already had hundreds of people out in the field and have deployed thousands over the last several months to support hospitals, but we're accelerating that effort even more.

DETROW: Is a thousand a hard number, or if a lot of hospitals are suddenly struggling at once, could that number increase?

MURTHY: Oh, the thousand is the number of medical personnel from the Department of Defense, but we actually have additional medical personnel - hundreds from the Department of Health and Human Services and other parts of government that will help support that effort.

DETROW: You're the surgeon general. That is a position that's probably most famous for its warnings and recommendations. Should Americans still travel for the holidays?

MURTHY: So I think, you know, it's very important that people see their loved ones, you know, especially after two long years of this pandemic. But what's important is that we are vigilant and careful about the precautions that we've taken. Those precautions are more important now than ever. So if you're, for example, gathering with people for the holidays, it's very important that you and the people you're gathering with are vaccinated and ideally boosted as well. It's also important that you use other measures because those - vaccines are just one set of measures. We know that masking while in public indoor spaces can help reduce the risk of transmission, that using those rapid tests before you gather can help as well. And gathering in well-ventilated spaces - whether it's outdoors, if that's feasible, or indoors with the windows open and fans going - can also help to reduce your risk. So it's more important than ever that we take these precautions. But this is a time where it is critical that we're vigilant and that you prioritize the activities that are most important to you.

DETROW: I want to ask about those precautions. And this is not a flip question. This is a sincere question. Many people I know all over the country are vaccinated, boosted. They've worn masks inside all along. They just feel like, you know what? This seems spiraling out of control. It seems like it's going to be mild. I'm just resigned to the fact I'm probably going to get COVID in the next two weeks. What do you say to that mindset?

MURTHY: Well, first, I would say I understand. A lot of people are feeling fatigued and just exasperated about the fact that they are - we're still two years into this pandemic and we're still seeing cases. And that's the nature of the foe we're dealing with - COVID-19. But here's what I would say. With omicron, it turns out that even though this is a rapidly spreading variant, the experience of people who are vaccinated and boosted will be different from those who are unvaccinated. You will hear of people who get cases of COVID-19 even if they're vaccinated, but those will likely be mild cases or even asymptomatic cases. There's a much higher risk of people developing serious illness and ending up in the hospital, losing their life if they are not vaccinated. So I certainly understand the fatigue, but I want people to know the efforts that they have made over the last year to reduce their risk, to get vaccinated, to take precautions - those have helped not only their health but have helped protect people around them, and that has certainly made a difference in our country's experience of this pandemic.

DETROW: That's the surgeon general of the United States, Vivek Murthy. General Murthy, thanks for talking to us and good luck.

MURTHY: Thanks so much. Take care, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAMPIQUE'S "EARTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.