White House COVID-19 Task Force member says US battle against virus going well, vaccine trials coming along


WASHINGTON D.C. (WMBD) — Everyone is wondering when this pandemic will end, when a COVID-19 vaccine will be ready for distribution, and when life can get back to normal.

On Thursday, WMBD’s Matt Sheehan interviewed White House Coronavirus Task Force’s Adm. Brett Giroir on all of these topics.

Giroir is an admiral of the U.S. Public Health Service and assistant secretary for health in the Department of Health and Human Services.

The federal government has launched “Operation Warp Speed.”

“Operation Warp Speed (OWS) aims to deliver 300 million doses of a safe, effective vaccine for COVID-19 by January 2021, as part of a broader strategy to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics (collectively known as countermeasures).”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Website

Giroir said multiple trials are ongoing at the moment and said the White House Coronavirus Task Force is optimistic about the results.

“Right now we have four different vaccines in Phase 3 trials. They’ve been through the preliminaries, and this is the final exam where we can examine the data to determine whether they are safe and effective,” Giroir said. “We are very optimistic because we know most people amount a very good immune response and get over the coronavirus, and if a person normally does that, that means there’s a good chance a vaccine will work as well.”

Giroir emphasized the government is not “cutting any corners” when it comes to the safety or effectiveness of the potential vaccine.

“The only corners that we’re cutting, is we’re manufacturing the vaccine right now at-risk. If that vaccine doesn’t work, it’s not safe or effective, we sort of throw it away. If it is safe or effective, we will have millions of doses available for the American public once the FDA makes that determination,” Giroir said.

How is America handling the health pandemic right now? Giroir said things are looking pretty good, but there is some cause for concern.

“Compared to our surge after Memorial Day, which was our big end of July surge that was due to many people getting out on Memorial Day and mixing up. Our cases are down about 40 percent, the number of people in the hospital is down about 54 percent, the number of people in the ICUs is down 65 percent, and the deaths are down about 32 percent,” Adm. Giroir said.

While these statistics are positive, Giroir said the return to college campuses has presented some challenges.

“The problem is, what’s on average for the nation does not happen in every locality. We are seeing many local outbreaks in many areas, many of which are associated with college campuses,” Giroir said. “College students do what college students do, they tend not to mask during those kinds of events and we’re seeing spread among college students.”

“We are seeing, compared to a couple of weeks ago, our number of cases have gone up somewhat, but it’s mostly in the young, and hospitalizations and deaths continue to go down,” Giroir added.

In Central Illinois (Region 2), the COVID-19 positivity rates continue to go down. On the IDPH Resurgence Criteria website, the region has seen “0 Days of Positivity Increases” and only “2 Days of Hospital Admission Increase.”

Two weeks ago, the region’s positivity rate sat at 6.5 percent. The latest data from Monday shows the rate has dropped to 5.4 percent.

Fulton, Henry, McLean, Peoria, Bureau, and Stark Counties have all decreased when it comes to positivity rates. Woodford, Marshall, Livingston, LaSalle, Knox, and Tazewell Counties are seeing a slight increase.

Putnam is seeing a large increase from 6.1 percent on Friday, Sept. 11 to 15.8 percent on Monday, Sept. 21.

Some believed September would be a “second wave” of COVID-19, but Giroir said nothing is inevitable.

“It’s not like we’re going a spike, or we’re going to have another wave. It really depends what you do, the actions you take, the personal responsibility you have,” Giroir said. “Illinois has done a good job in general, wear a mask, when you can, physically distance. I know it’s very hard especially during football season, you’ve got the Bears and everyone else.”

Giroir said the same mitigations are still prevalent even six months into the pandemic.

“Avoid really crowded indoor spaces, because that’s a good place to transmit the virus. Wash your hands, do good hygiene, and if your public health professionals ask you to be tested, whether you’re asymptomatic or not, please go get tested,” he said.

How about a second stimulus package? Will we see a second round of checks? Giroir said if you want to see a second package, write to your local lawmakers.

“I’m not on the legislative side but I can say Secretary Mnuchin and Chief of Staff Meadows have been actively working on another package to support many aspects. We definitely want you to talk to your members of Congress because there are billions of dollars there for states and to support school reopening,” Giroir said. “Clearly, the administration would like to provide relief to the American people. Particularly in those areas where we need to support businesses and get children back in school.”

“A large, wasteful, non-targeted strategy that just throws money at things not COVID related is not gonna help us. We need to put the money in the right place,” he added.

Giroir said the multi-trillion dollar question is, when will the pandemic end?

“The pandemic will end when enough people either get natural immunity or they get immunity from a vaccine,” he said. “That’s why we don’t have measles outbreaks, polio outbreaks unless we drop past that certain level. Right now, about 90 percent of the American people are still likely susceptible to this virus, so we’re nowhere close to this ending.”

“That herd immunity is a combination of either getting the infection yourself, or potentially having some cross-reacting antibodies or T-cells you’ve had from similar infections, plus whatever we do with the vaccine,” he added.

Adm. Giroir believes when the vaccine is widely distributed and people get immunized, it will bring the country to non-pandemic level. But it will take some time.

“Most of the vaccines, not all of them, the trial that started this week is only a single-dose vaccine. But most of the vaccines are two doses. You have one dose, then 21 or 28 days later you have a second dose. Then often you have to wait 2-3 weeks for immunity after that. So we have to vaccinate hundreds of millions of people, they have to get two doses, so it’s not going to be immediate, but you’re going to start seeing effects very early,” he said.

“If we do have a good vaccine, towards the middle of next year, we’ll have hundreds of millions of doses available,” he said.

“You don’t have to immunize everybody in the country to get a lot of effects. I try to make this clear in my testimony, even if you have a few million doses, if you immunized all the workers in nursing homes, remember nursing homes account for 40 percent of the mortality, and it’s not because the nursing home residents are going to block parties at night, it’s because the people in the community come in,” he added.

Giroir said if the vaccine can be administered to nursing home workers, and people with chronic conditions, it could benefit the entire population.

“We know who they are, every insurance company, every Medicaid plan, knows where the really sick patients are with renal disease, sickle cell,” he said. “If you could even immunize those types of people, you could get an enormous benefit. It’s an estimate, but you could probably get 70-80 percent of the benefit just by immunizing 10 percent of the people.”

Giroir said we don’t need a vaccine to fully reopen.

“If we drive the numbers down and use the cautious mitigation techniques that we have, like wearing a mask, like physical distancing, we won’t be back to “normal.” But we can pretty much open most things, aside from those businesses, and unfortunately, that really rely on indoor crowded spaces,” he said. “We can do most of that right now if we get the viral community spread down and do those mitigation techniques. Once we get a widespread vaccine, we really have to see how it works.”

“Don’t think of it like a light switch that’s on and off, think of it as a dimmer switch,” he said. “As we decrease the viral transmission in the community and we increase herd immunity, this will start to fade away and we gradually start to open up again.”

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