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Marcella Nunez-Smith, top Biden adviser, has "not seen any evidence" of migrants spreading virus at border

Full Interview: Marcella Nunez-Smith on COVID
Full Interview: Marcella Nunez-Smith on COVID equity 14:57

Washington — Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of the White House's COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, said Sunday she has not seen evidence to support claims that undocumented immigrants crossing the southern border into Texas are spreading the coronavirus.

In an interview with "Face the Nation," Nunez-Smith was asked about accusations from Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, that the Biden administration was releasing migrants with COVID-19 into communities.

"I have not seen any evidence to support that at all," she said. "I think that it's very important for us, you know, again, as we talk about our goal to vaccinate an entire nation, that we not divide ourselves in this process."

Abbott, however, said on Twitter that her assertion was "just flat out false," pointing to reported comments by a Texas Democratic congressman about immigrants who have been released testing positive for the virus.

The Biden administration is facing an influx of unaccompanied migrant children and families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in recent weeks, presenting significant humanitarian and logistical challenges for President Biden. 

In February, nearly 9,500 unaccompanied minors, many from Central America, were taken into U.S. border custody, a 21-month high. The Biden administration is struggling to find enough bed space at shelters for the migrant minors overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, creating a massive backlog of children and overcrowding at U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities that were built to detain adult migrants.

On Saturday, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas announced he directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help process and care for unaccompanied migrant children entering U.S. border custody.

While social distancing and other measures were imposed at border facilities to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, one facility in Donna, Texas, is far exceeding its pandemic-era capacity. Nunez-Smith said the Biden administration is focused on ensuring migrant minors in federal custody are protected from health risks.

"It is a high priority for us to make sure that everyone certainly that we are charged with taking care of will be safe," she said.

The growing crisis at the border comes as the Biden administration works to accelerate the pace of coronavirus vaccinations, and Nunez-Smith said it's crucial for everyone in the U.S. to receive their shots.

"Vaccinations are free. We need to make them easy and convenient," she said. "And we need to make sure everyone knows that regardless of documentation, status or anything else, quite frankly, that you are eligible for a vaccination here."

In the U.S., more than 105 million vaccines have been administered, and nearly 37 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The milestone follows efforts by the Biden administration to send vaccine doses directly to retail pharmacies and community health centers to ensure the shots are distributed equitably and swiftly. 

Nunez-Smith said the administration is expanding the number of community health centers supplying the vaccine through its Health Center COVID-19 Vaccine Program and taking steps to increase the number of people who can administer the shots. Mr. Biden also announced last week he is directing states to make all adults eligible for the vaccine by May 1.

"The core of this work is making sure there's more vaccine. And we have pushed on that, you know, making sure that there are more vaccination sites and venues. And we have pushed on that as well and made great progress and also being sure that we have more vaccinators so that doesn't become a rate-limiting step," Nunez-Smith said.

While the Biden administration is seeing confidence in the vaccines grow in groups nationwide, there remains a division along partisan lines in willingness to get the vaccines, with younger Republicans saying they are less likely do so, according to a CBS News poll.

Nunez-Smith said the administration will be launching a national public education campaign to appeal to skeptical constituencies. 

"We are absolutely aware of the need to reach out and reach across. That is a core principle of this administration," she said. "And we want to make sure we are meeting everybody where they are. And to your point, we're getting ready to launch that national public education campaign and we'll work closely with trusted messengers, influencers and others to get to everyone, whether the hesitancy is based in political view or anything else."

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