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Transcript: White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha on "Face the Nation," July 24, 2022

White House COVID chief: Biden feeling "much, much better"
White House COVID chief confirms Biden has BA.5 subvariant, feeling "much, much better" 07:18

The following is a transcript of an interview with Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, that aired Sunday, July 24, 2022, on "Face the Nation."

MARGARET BRENNAN: Good morning, and welcome to Face The Nation. We have a lot of news to get through this morning, but we want to begin on the medical beat with the latest on President Biden's condition and the fight to contain both COVID and monkeypox. We're joined now by White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha. Dr. Jha, welcome to Face The Nation.

DR. ASHISH JHA: Good Morning, Margaret. Thanks for having me here. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, the White House physician has said that it's the BA.5 variant that likely infected the president. That's the dominant variant across the country right now. It's highly transmissible. How is the president's health? And, do you know where he got it?

DR. JHA: Yeah, so it is the BA.5 variant, which is, as you said, is about 80% of infections. But thank goodness, our vaccines and therapeutics work well against it, which is why I think the President's doing well. I checked in with his team late last night. He was feeling well. He had a good day yesterday. He's got a viral syndrome, an upper respiratory infection, that is, and he's doing just fine. So we haven't gotten any updates this morning, but through last night, he was feeling much, much better. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: There is so little known about long COVID, but given the president's age, do you expect that the White House will continue to make disclosures if he has long-term symptoms from this infection?

DR. JHA: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we think it's really important for the American people to know how well the president's doing, which is why we have been so transparent, giving updates several times a day, having people hear from me directly, hear directly from his physician. And obviously, if he has persistent symptoms, obviously, if any of them interfere with his ability to carry out his duties, we will- we will disclose that early and often with the American people. But I suspect this is going to be a course of COVID that we've seen in many Americans who have been fully vaccinated, double boosted, getting treated with those tools in hand. You know, the President has been doing well, and we're gonna expect that he's going to continue to do so. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: About six out of 10 Americans, according to CDC live in areas of high transmission right now that includes major cities like New York, Phoenix, Miami. There are no indoor mask mandates there. Does that concern you?

DR. JHA: Yeah, so here's what we know about masks, Margaret, and has been a lot of source of confusion on this. Masks work, right? They clearly slow down transmission. So in areas of high transmission, I think it's very prudent for people to be wearing masks indoors, especially if they're in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces. That's what the CDC recommends. And I think that's a very important and effective way of reducing transmission, protecting yourself as well. You know, whether, in terms of mandates, and that's something that we've always felt strongly should be done by local officials, mayors, governors, local health officials, and we're seeing different officials take different tactics. And I think that's actually appropriate given that we have a very diverse country with different set of transmission patterns and and, you know, and willingness to kind of engage in-in wearing masks.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right, but they seem to be disregarding the CDC recommendation, which is why I'm noting it there. But you said on Friday, the virus is going to be with us forever. The White House says the President is continuing to work despite his diagnosis, is that advisable for most Americans? If this is with us forever, do we all just work through it?

DR. JHA: Well, look, I-what I would say as a physician is you should certainly take it easy if you get any kind of viral infection. Right? And you should, you should do what feels appropriate. If you feel sick, you should absolutely take time off. I think it's absolutely critical that when people get infected, they isolate, as the president is doing. But how much activity you do while you're isolating really does vary from person to person based on how they feel. I always lean towards people getting more rest, I think it's an easier way for people to recover. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: I also want to ask you about this other health challenge with monkeypox. The World Health Organization yesterday declared it a "public health emergency of international concern." That's the highest level of alert. The Biden administration, specifically HHS, has stopped short of doing that. Should you declare it a pandemic? Should you declare it a public health emergency?

DR. JHA: Yeah, so pandemics are declared by the World Health Organization, and I actually applaud the- the World Health Organization for declaring that public health emergency of international concern. We are seeing outbreaks that are out of control in many, many parts of the world. It's very important that we get our arms around this- this thing.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But is it an emergency here?

DR. JHA: Well, in the- in the US right now, we're looking at public health emergency as a- as something that HHS might deliver but I mean, might invoke but, you know, it really depends on what does that allow us to do. Right now we have over 2000 cases, but we have ramped up vaccinations, ramped up treatments, ramped up testing, and we're going to continue to look at all sort of policy options. Right now, we think we can get our arms around this thing, but obviously, if we need further tools, we will invoke them as we need them. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: You said back in May that same phrase that you think we can get our arms around this, you said monkeypox is a virus that we understand. Are you saying today, just like then, you think monkeypox can be contained?

DR. JHA: I do think monkeypox can be contained. Absolutely. The way we contain monkeypox is we have a very simple, straightforward strategy on this right, which is: make testing widely available. We have done that. And now testing is far more frequent and common– 


DR. JHA: —get vaccines out. Yeah, but we have right now the capacity to do 90,000 tests a week, I'm sorry, 80,000 tests a week. That's an extraordinary number. And we're going to continue looking at figuring out how to make that even easier for doctors to do. You know, just a few weeks ago, Margaret, we had about 10,000 doses of vaccines out. Now, we have more than 300,000. We're going to be releasing hundreds of thousands of more vaccines in the next days and weeks. So there is a very substantial ramping up of response that is happening right now.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But I asked you about containment because you could have shifted allocation earlier surged it differently, sooner switching from at-risk individuals to areas where there are active high case counts and an outbreak. The CDC director said just a few days ago, her agency has no data on who has been vaccinated. She said there's one key important similarity with COVID and with monkeypox, and that is the CDC's inability to see data in real-time. So this seems to be still an issue for our health agencies to act quickly to contain an outbreak. This is a problem.

DR. JHA: Yeah, so what I would, I'd remind us, is that public health in America has always been led by states. There are some very important and helpful features of that- of that fact. But it is important for states to be sharing data with CDC, we've been working with states across the country. Lots of states have been forthcoming, and- and my expectation is that in the days and weeks ahead, we're going to be able to get more and more data from states and that will help us understand the national picture a bit more, in a bit more detail. But we do have a pretty good feel right now for how widespread monkeypox is, as I said, about 2000 or so cases across the country, and we're working with ongoing kind of continue to work with states to get more data. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: A fellow Democrat Congressman Adam Schiff, who will be on this program today sent a letter to HHS, saying the federal government is falling short of the response that is needed - skyrocketing cases, limited vaccination supply worldwide suggests that the monkeypox virus will continue to spread for years to come, if not indefinitely. Is monkeypox now endemic? Will it continue to spread indefinitely?

DR. JHA: Well, it is endemic in certain parts of the world. It is not-

MARGARET BRENNAN: I'm asking about here. 

DR. JHA: You know, our look, the plan here is very straightforward. We – the plan is to eliminate this virus from the United States. I think we can do that we've got the vaccines, and we've got the diagnostic tests. And we're gonna you're gonna just see more and more action from the administration. What I will remind us is the first case was about two months ago, there has been very substantial ramping up of response in the last two months with more coming with a very specific goal, which is to eliminate the virus from the United States. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: But it does seem the administration was caught flat-footed. You have complaints from the mayor of New York, from Adam Schiff, from the mayor of San Francisco saying they need more, they need more now, and they're not getting it from the federal government. You would acknowledge that there have been some problems here.

DR. JHA: You know, Margaret, what I would acknowledge is that when we started two months ago, we had a limited supply of vaccines. We have obtained more than any other country, probably more than every other country combined. We have acted swiftly. We've gotten 800,000 doses from Denmark over to the United States, just in the last week. We're going to be getting those out in that in the upcoming couple of weeks. So what I would say is this is a virus that we have known for, you know, 60 years, we had the vaccine and diagnostic capabilities to manage it. But, we have substantially ramped up that response, and that is now I think being felt in localities around the country.

MARGARET BRENNAN: There are now two children with it that the CDC knows of at least and the CDC said both of these children are traced back to individuals who come from the men who have sex with men community. What does that mean? How did these kids get infected? How actively is this being spread? And are you still only talking about the gay community because you're only looking there?

DR. JHA: Yeah, so we obviously know that this virus is spreading largely in the- in the gay community, among men who have sex with men. But obviously, there are other people who are at risk as well, people, they interact with people, anybody who has monkeypox can spread it to others. It is through skin-to-skin contact, direct and prolonged contact. We're not surprised that there are- you're gonna see some other individuals get infected as well. We're doing a very broad surveillance. This is why not only have we ramped up testing capacity, we're- we're encouraging physicians working with physician groups to do more broad-scale testing, so we can really make sure that as- if it spills beyond the gay community that we're on top of it, and that we identified early as we did with these two pediatric cases. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. Well, it seems to be spreading. I'm going to ask you about one other issue right now. You've got your plate full, no doubt. But we heard in the state of New York, the first case of polio in nearly a decade was confirmed in an unvaccinated 20-year-old man in Rockland County, New York. He was hospitalized back in June. Are there other cases, and if he was infected back in June, why are we only now hearing about it?

DR. JHA: Yeah, so this is a place where the CDC is working very closely with the Department of Health. It is in an unvaccinated individual. Thankfully, most Americans are vaccinated against polio, most of the world is vaccinated against polio. If obviously- if you're not vaccinated against polio, critically important. You know, Margaret, it's a bigger picture point here, which is, vaccines have done an incredible job of keeping infectious diseases like polio at bay for a long time. And one of the reasons we have to make sure that we continue vaccinating people against these kinds of infectious diseases is to continue to protect people. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. Well, I have a small child, it takes time to get fully vaccinated. Should I be concerned that there are polio cases spreading in New York and in the United States?

DR. JHA: There is a lot of surveillance that we do for polio, there's wastewater surveillance that goes on, we are not seeing outbreaks of polio elsewhere. We are, obviously, this one case has heightened everybody's surveillance. But I am at this point we- you know, obviously CDC and the Department of Health of New York are doing an investigation to try to understand more, but I do not expect polio to become more widespread in the country, again, because so many Americans are vaccinated against this.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Before I let you go, I just want to ask you about an announcement from HHS this week that the agency that oversees the national stockpile, ASPR, or the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. Many Americans may not have heard of it before. But the administration has announced it's being elevated to coordinate the nation's public health response. Is that an acknowledgment that the CDC is not up to the task?

DR. JHA: No, not at all. You know, look, CDC is our public health agency. It obviously has a broad portfolio. CDC is the agency that works with states, as I said public health is often or is led by states in our country. ASPR, this agency that most Americans have not heard of, is a really important component of our broader federal government response. And what you saw through this elevation was the importance of making sure that we have a very strong response arm as well. And ASPR's already been functioning in that way in our country for more than a decade. And it was really just an acknowledgment of that reality and- and ensuring that we continue using that response arm to respond to these outbreaks like monkeypox like COVID. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Dr. Jha, thank you for your time this morning. Face the Nation will be back in a moment. Stay with us.

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