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Transcript: Dr. Vivek Murthy on "Face the Nation," November 28, 2021

The following is a transcript of an interview with Dr. Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General, that aired on Sunday, December 5, 2021, on "Face the Nation."

MARGARET BRENNAN: We go now to the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. Good morning to you.

U.S. SURGEON GENERAL DR. VIVEK MURTHY: Good morning, it's nice to be with you today.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, thank you for joining us. We wake up and at least 16 states now have this new variant Omicron detected. Many are seemingly to be around the vaccinated, not clear if they all were boosted. Do we know how widespread this infection is in the US?

DR. MURTHY: Well, we're still learning a lot about the American variant, we've detected a couple of dozen cases here in the United States. There are a number of countries around the world which have now found Omicron. But this is actually the pattern that we see with these variants. They start and they're discovered in one place and then they quickly spread around the world. The important thing is, as we work hard to gain answers to the three critical questions about Omicron, about its transmissibility, its severity and its response to our vaccines and therapeutics, it's critical that people know we do have tools that we can use right now to protect ourselves against this variant and against the Delta variant, which is still the predominant variant in the United States. And those include getting vaccinated, getting boosted. Certainly, if you are eligible, that helps raise your level of protection, using masks in public indoor spaces, gathering in well-ventilated places when you do gather. These are all tools we've learned help. And finally, remember testing. We can use that as an additional layer of protection to help reduce the risk when we all gather.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But, you know, the public is exhausted at this point. Are people going into the holiday safe to- to travel? The president did say infections are going to go up. Masks are required while in transit. But what do you tell someone who just bought a ticket to go away for Christmas, should they cancel their plans?

DR. MURTHY: Well, first, I understand that fatigue, you know, we've been at this for 22 months as a country and the prospect of another variant I know can be exhausting and frustrating to many people out there. And I get that, what I want to say though to everyone is that we are not back in Mar 2020. We are not at the beginning of this pandemic, back at square one. We have learned a tremendous amount about how to gather safely. Just take this thing last Thanksgiving, for example. I think about Halloween this year. I took my children trick or treating for Halloween. Many families gathered for Thanksgiving things that they didn't do last year, we can still do that for the holidays but we have to use--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right, and a surge is expected on the back end of that. 

DR. MURTHY: Well, what we do know is that if people use the tools that we have that you can actually gather with much, much less risk. But the concern and the challenge we have right now in the country MARGARET, is that we have millions of people who are still unvaccinated, which poses a risk to their lives, but also poses an increased risk of transmission. But if you do as many families, you get vaccinated and boosted. You use testing judiciously before you gather, you gather in well-ventilated spaces and use masks whenever you can in public indoor spaces, your risk can be quite low and your holidays can be quite fulfilling. That's what so many families experienced this past Thanksgiving.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The doctor who held the surgeon general position right before you, Dr. Jerome Adams, said he liked the plan from the president, but he thought there were omissions. It should have included N95s and K95s for communities. A general call for masks? Not enough. There was nothing in the Biden plan on post entry requirements. So for those who arrive here in terms of follow up testing once they reach U.S. shores, why were those omitted from the plan?

DR. MURTHY: Well, the winter plan that the president announced actually had a number of strong measures that are going to help keep us safe this winter and let us just talk about what some of these are. Number one, the president announced, were much stronger measures to expand our booster campaign. We're going to have millions of reminders sent out to seniors, many more appointments set up by pharmacies and hundreds of family clinics so kids and adults can get vaccinated together. There was also an expansion of testing, 50 million free tests that will be sent out private insurance coverage for tests starting in Jan. And we've got surge response units now 60 plus that will help. These are building on what we've already been doing, which is offering free tests in pharmacies, encouraging and teaching people about masks and how to use them and use them safely. So, you know, we've got a lot of strong measures in place. Is there more we can do? Sure, there will always be more we can do, and we are looking for more that we can do as well. So, you know, we- we are not done with our pandemic response effort.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But on that point, for Americans at home right now, should they just put on their cloth mask or do they need to go buy an N95 because of these new variants and expected uptick?

DR. MURTHY: Well, what we've seen throughout the COVID pandemic is, you know, better quality masks offer you better quality protection. You know, if you wear a cloth mask properly, you know, then you can- you can get a lot of protection. If you upgrade to a K95 or a N95 in certain circumstances, that can give you even more protection. So we've always said that better quality masks can offer you better quality protection. But really, the worst scenario is when you're wearing no mask at all or whether you're wearing it hanging below your nose or below your mouth. And so with- with proper precautions and good masks, yes, you can get a lot of protection. And the CDC has spoken a lot about that and put out very clear guidelines for people about the right utilization of masks.

MARGARET BRENNAN: It sounds like you'd rather they wear those then on the question of masking that you just brought up. Are you advising governors to reinstitute mask mandates? Only six states have them right now.

DR. MURTHY: Well, we've been very clear about, especially given the surge that we saw with Delta, it was- we made clear recommendations that if you are in public indoor spaces, whether you're vaccinated or unvaccinated, that wearing a mask will help reduce risk for you and the people around you. That holds true today. Now the decision about whether to require masks and have mandates in place, those are decisions that are being made by localities and by states, and many of them moved toward having those requirements in place. I think as we look at the winter coming, as we see cases rising, you know, as we have open questions about Omicron, it makes sense to double down on the precautions that we have. So I would just remind people of that guidance from the CDC, regardless of what your locality is doing, requiring masks or not, you have the power to wear masks in indoor settings. You know, when you're outside of your home and doing that can be a strong step to protect you and the people around you.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You're a parent, you're talking about CDC guidance. The CDC still hasn't given the guidance the president ordered, which was test-to-stay as a policy and not forcing kids that have been exposed into a quarantine if someone in their class tests positive. But to continue to test them, which would allow them to stay in school. If your son tests positive, what are you going to do as a responsible parent? We still don't have the CDC guidance.

DR. MURTHY: MARGARET, so let's talk about what the CDC has said for schools, because I do have two small children, they're five and almost four. They are in school and have gotten--

MARGARET BRENNAN: I've read the CDC guidance. It's very, very confusing. What would you do if your child was exposed to someone with COVID tomorrow morning? what does a parent do?

DR. MURTHY: So if your child is- has- tests positive for COVID, the right thing to do is to isolate them. So they don't expose other children--

MARGARET BRENNAN: If someone in their classroom has tested positive for COVID.

DR. MURTHY: If they are- if they are a contact of somebody who tests positive, then I would follow the guidance that the schools currently have. And what many schools are doing, which is appropriate, is to quarantine those children and to use testing, a combination of quarantine and testing, to determine when it's safe. This has happened to my kids in school. We've had positive cases in their classes. They've had to quarantine and then test afterward before they come back. So I absolutely understand what this is like. I know that it can be a real challenge for parents when they find out there is a positive case in their child's class and they have to then bring their children home. That is exactly why the CDC is working hard to study the "test-to-stay" policy because they just want to make sure that the data is clear that this works, that it's effective and they have the right protocol that they can then share with schools so that kids can, in fact, stay in class.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, we'll wait on that from the CDC. There are dozens of countries that now have this Omicron variant. The only region of the world under a U.S. travel ban are eight countries in Africa. That doesn't really seem fair. Why single out South Africa and its neighboring countries?

DR. MURTHY: Well, I'm glad you asked. And so let's talk about this. This was put in place, these restrictions in travel first because there were a growing number, a rapid growing number of cases that were found in South Africa. And the travel restrictions- they don't permanently keep the variant out. We know that.-- 


DR. MURTHY: --What travel restrictions can do is buy you some time. They can buy you some time to do important things. And what are the important things? There are three in particular. One is to--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But I've heard this from the White House, respectfully. But my question though is what we learned at the beginning of this pandemic. China is put under a travel ban. Meanwhile, in the back door, travelers coming in from Europe bringing in COVID. That was one of the facts established when we looked at pandemic preparedness. You only right now have a travel ban on eight countries in South Africa. The rest of the world is still traveling in. Omicron is already here. So if it's a question of fairness, it's either all countries get banned or lift the ban. And you have scientists in South Africa saying this is discriminatory.

DR. MURTHY: Well, again, MARGARET, if you look at this, we're in a very different situation than we were in the beginning of the pandemic when travel restrictions were put in place. And one of the big differences, MARGARET, is that we have travel measures, safety measures that actually are helping reduce the risk. And those include guaranteeing that people who get on international flights are vaccinated and pre-travel testing. Now we use the time to actually strengthen those travel measures. The CDC announced that it's going to be shortening that window to 24 hours. We use that time to vaccinate millions of more Americans. But listen, the bottom line is these are meant to be temporary measures. Nobody wants them to be on for any longer than they need to be. And that's why we are continuously re-evaluating them so that we can get them off as soon as it's appropriate.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Just before I let you go, the World Health Organization has called booster shots, "a scandal that must stop now saying they're unfair, unjust, immoral." How do you justify having that as a centerpiece of your policy?

DR. MURTHY: Well, MARGARET, I think the data actually is very clear on this question, if you look at the science, you see that you get first two shots of your mRNA vaccine, you get one dose of your J&J vaccine, they give you strong protection, but then that protection wanes over time. You know, our job is both to protect people in America and to protect health, also obviously the world from a global pandemic. But the data is very clear that getting a booster shot increases your protection and we've got to do both MARGARET,  both boost people here and make sure that the rest of the world has vaccines, and that's exactly in fact what we're doing. It's why the US has committed more than a billion doses. It's why we're investing in strengthening local infrastructure training health care workers around the world, including in the African subcontinent, supporting mobile units to get vaccines where people are and supporting public education efforts. We will continue to do that, but we've got to do both, MARGARET, protect our population with boosters and make sure the rest of the world can get protected with vaccines as well.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Dr. Murthy, thank you very much for your time. We'll be back in a minute.

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