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Biden's Coronavirus Response Coordinator Talks About New COVID Plan

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Just yesterday alone, tens of thousands of new cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed, and more than 1,500 people died from the disease. It's all being driven by the highly infectious delta variant of the disease, and it represents a radical turn from where the country was just two months ago.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

So today President Biden delivered an unequivocal message to Americans - get vaccinated. To that end, he announced a variety of new rules, including several mandating vaccination in many workplaces. Here with us now to talk through the administration's strategy is White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients.

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JEFF ZIENTS: Well, thank you for having me, Ailsa.

CHANG: So I want to start with the part of this plan that addresses businesses in the private sector. The rule now is if an employer has at least a hundred employees, they'll be required to ensure that their workers are vaccinated or get tested at least once a week. How exactly will you enforce that?

ZIENTS: Well, Ailsa, I think I want to start with the fact that vaccination requirements work. The president led with vaccination requirements about a month or so ago, starting with the Department of Veterans Affairs, health care workers, the Department of Defense, our military and National Guard. And what we have found in the federal government and we're seeing across the private sector and at universities and colleges and other health care institutions is that vaccination requirements lead to higher vaccination rates - unvaccinated people getting their first and second shots.

CHANG: Right. But how will you enforce vaccination requirements in the private sector in this case?

ZIENTS: So the approach is the Department of Labor has the responsibility to make sure that workers are safe. And workers are in risky environments right now. Workers in over 100-employee firms across the economy are going to be required to either be vaccinated or to be tested at least once a week. And that's part of what the Department of Labor's responsibility. Given that they are in grave danger, they have the responsibility to implement a rule that will protect them in order...

CHANG: I do get their responsibility, but again, how exactly will they enforce that? How will they implement that responsibly?

ZIENTS: OK, in terms of enforcement, OSHA can take enforcement actions that can include substantial fines, up to tens of thousands of dollars per violation.

CHANG: OK. And how much compliance do you expect from the private sector on this?

ZIENTS: You know, I expect (inaudible) compliance. But again, these - this is a rule that will be finalized across the coming weeks. Employees will have a period of time - those who are unvaccinated or who decide to get vaccinated will have a period of time to get vaccinated. And, you know, I believe that as I said earlier, these vaccination requirements lead to much higher rates of vaccination. So employers - many employers have already embraced them, and we expect more and more will do so as they see...

CHANG: But that's the thing, Mr. Zients, because a lot of companies and local governments have already imposed their own vaccine mandates before today's announcement. And the Pfizer vaccine has received full approval. Are you a little bit disappointed that, at least up until now, those particular factors haven't driven up vaccination rates significantly?

ZIENTS: Well, let's step back for a second in that we do have 75% of people 12 and older, all Americans 12 years of age and older, 75% have had at least one shot. And in August, the number of people receiving their first shot was 14 million Americans. That's up from 10 million the prior month. So more and more Americans are getting vaccinated, and these vaccination requirements will accelerate that trend.

CHANG: I want to start to talk about booster shots because I know that part of this plan is to start offering booster shots on September 20. And this week, the WHO director called for a moratorium on boosters for the rest of the year worldwide. Can you respond to criticism out there that states it's unethical for the U.S. to give boosters to people who already have significant vaccine protection when so many people around the world have not even had their first vaccine shot?

ZIENTS: So I think the answer here is we need to do both. We need to protect Americans. And, you know, the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC will determine the timing of booster shots and who gets a booster shot. But there is likely a need. You know, the federal government's top health and medical experts believe that Americans will need a booster. So we need to protect Americans while at the same time helping to vaccinate the world. We've already shared 140 million doses with 90 countries. That's more doses shared with the world than all other countries in the world combined. So that is U.S. leadership. We are executing on a purchase that we made to donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to the hundred countries that need it the most. Those shipments have already begun. And we're not stopping here. We're working to build a robust supply chain to expand manufacturing across the globe. And we'll continue to do more and more to help get people across the globe vaccinated because we're not safe at home until the world is vaccinated. At the same time, we're going to do everything we can to protect the American people.

CHANG: That is White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients.

Thank you very much for joining our show today.

ZIENTS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.