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Vivek Murthy Discusses His New Role On Joe Biden's Coronavirus Task Force


In the course of just three weeks, the number of COVID infections has doubled. Right now, we are close to 200,000 new infections every 24 hours. That's like the entire population of the city of Little Rock or Des Moines getting infected every day. ICUs in North and South Dakota, Michigan are overrun. In fact, there are few places in this country that are not impacted. But the Trump administration has been downplaying the recent surge, which makes the crisis President-elect Joe Biden will likely face in January that much more acute. We're joined now by the co-chair of his COVID task force, Dr. Vivek Murthy, who is a former U.S. surgeon general.


VIVEK MURTHY: Thanks so much, Lulu. It's good to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are getting zero cooperation from the Trump administration right now, according to your colleague on the task force, Dr. Atul Gawande, who spoke with NPR this past week. What is the cost of that in terms of dealing with the pandemic?

MURTHY: Well, it's certainly not ideal. You know, every day matters here. So I'm hopeful that that day will come soon. But we're not letting any time go by without working to do everything we can to ensure that there are implementable plans on January 20.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have spoken about a universal mask mandate, but the governors of Republican states don't want to do that. Can you make them with an executive order?

MURTHY: You know, what we've seen, interestingly, in the data, Lulu, whether you're looking at Kansas or Arizona, is that places that actually have mask mandates do better in terms of lower rates of infection spread. President-elect Biden wants to use federal authority where possible to make sure that mandates are in place. But whether or not, you know, he's going to go to governors and, if necessary, to mayors to urge them to put these mandates in place because - look. What we're seeing also is the worse this pandemic gets, they're more - you know, leaders - elected leaders who are coming around to the fact that as unpalatable as these mandates might be, they are important and they actually work.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask about lockdowns as well. What we're seeing right now is Europe - is doing that, and there is some evidence that it is working. Is some kind of lockdown necessary?

MURTHY: First of all, even the word lockdown itself is a bit of a misnomer. When we locked down, so to speak, in the spring, we didn't say, just stay in your house and don't go anywhere. We still allowed and, in fact, recognized it was important for people to be able to go to the grocery store, to go to hospitals if they needed to. So I think the more important way for us to think about restrictions is not as a switch that we flip up and down, but more as a dial that we increase and decrease as the situation dictates. And...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But shouldn't there be uniformity in that dial - because isn't something more severe called for?

MURTHY: Well, something more uniform is called for. And you're exactly right to point that out because there has been a wide variety of guidelines that have been implemented at state and local levels. And part of the reason for that is we don't have a uniform national alert system that tells communities at what level to start implementing restrictions based on important indicators. If we had that kind of system in place, then we could have a more uniform application of these measures.

We acted, in a sense, with a blunt axe in the spring, and we did that in part because we didn't know a lot about the virus in the spring that we know now. And if we don't utilize that knowledge to be more precise, then not only are we going to fatigue people, which will contribute to them not complying to regulations and to having more spread, but we're also going to disrupt people's schooling, going to disrupt work. And in the end, we're going to do that with very little public health gain.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We learned this past week that some 12 million American health care workers might get a coronavirus vaccine before the end of the year, should all go to plan. But for a vaccine to really be effective, you need to have at least three-quarters of the population take it. Do you think that that is an achievable goal?

MURTHY: I think it's an ambitious but achievable goal. But, Lulu, it's not going to be easy. And it's going to take not only an adequate supply of the vaccine, but it's going to take perhaps one of the most important but challenging elements, too, which is public trust.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And I mean, take the flu vaccine. Only half of Americans have ever taken it. That does not bode well.

MURTHY: The flu vaccine stands out, yes, as a vaccine where we don't have nearly enough people taking it. But there are other vaccines where we do have a large percentage of the population taking it. Take the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, for example, which children get in part because they're required to in order to come to school. But what we've got to do is help people understand that the urgency they're feeling in their lives as they look at these numbers go up - that that urgency can be addressed - actually, by a vaccine that we hope to have available in the next few months. But it's going to be a Herculean effort.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mentioned the rubella, mumps and measles. Do you anticipate making a COVID-19 vaccine a legal requirement?

MURTHY: I wouldn't say that at this point. What I would say instead, though, is my belief personally is that if we are able to make this vaccine available and get people to recognize that it is based on science and not politics - the approval of this vaccine - I do think that we're going to get a lot of people taking it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Dr. Vivek Murthy, former U.S. surgeon general, co-chair of President-elect Biden's COVID task force and author of "Together: The Healing Power Of Human Connection In A Sometimes Lonely World."

Thank you very much.

MURTHY: Thanks so much, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.