If You're Vaccinated, You Can Visit The US From Abroad In November : The NPR Politics Podcast The Biden administration announced that the U.S. will admit vaccinated foreign travelers beginning November 8th. Also: the latest on vaccination boosters and availability for kids.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, national political corrsepondent Mara Liasson, and science editor and correspondent Rob Stein.

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If You're Vaccinated, You Can Visit The US From Abroad In November

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OLIVIA: Hi. This is Olivia (ph). After two months of being a general assignment reporter at my internship, tomorrow is my very first day of covering my own beat. This podcast was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

2:06 p.m. on Monday, the 18 of October.

OLIVIA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I'll still be doing the important work of covering local news. All right. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Congratulations.

KEITH: Local news matters now, maybe more than ever.

LIASSON: That's for sure.

KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: And we are going to talk about COVID today. So we've got Rob Stein with us from NPR's science and health team. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Tam.

KEITH: So this is a long windup coming, but there is a lot happening. The White House has announced that foreign travelers who had been banned from the U.S. for more than a year are going to be able to start coming back to the U.S. next month with proof of vaccination. Federal officials have told governors to start preparing to vaccinate kids as young as 5, and there are boosters coming online. Plus COVID case numbers seem to be in a downward trend, at least for about the last month or so. So in broad brushstrokes, it does seem, but please verify, that after an unexpectedly awful summer, things maybe are moving back in the right direction.

STEIN: Yeah. Yeah, Tam. Absolutely. I mean, you know, the deadly delta surge is continuing to wane, thankfully. All the numbers continue to go in the right direction. Infections, hospitalizations and deaths have been falling pretty steadily for weeks now. But, you know, the country isn't out of the woods yet, far from it. More than 80,000 people are still catching the virus every day. More than 1,200 are still dying every day. Hospitals are still struggling around the country.

KEITH: Yeah, I mean, I think that if in June you had told me that there would be 80,000 cases a day in October, I would have been super depressed.

STEIN: Yeah, I know. It's awful.

KEITH: But now it's like we're saying there's a silver lining.

STEIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But, you know, we are heading into the colder seasons, and the winter holidays are coming. So, you know, people are kind of holding their breath, worrying that there could yet be another surge. And, in fact, infections are already on the rise in some places, especially, you know, a bunch of northern states. So, you know, we've got to keep an eye on things.

KEITH: Let's start with boosters. I think that is going to be the news of this week. What is the latest?

STEIN: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, tens of millions of people have been eligible for Pfizer boosters for weeks now. But any day now, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to authorize Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters. The Moderna boosters will be for the same people eligible for the Pfizer boosters, those age 65 and older and those at risk because of other health problems, their jobs, their living situations, who got the second shot at least eight months ago. And the J&J boosters will be for anyone age 18 and older who got what was supposed to be a one-shot vaccine at least two months ago.

Now, you know, I should point out that all this has taken a lot longer and is still much narrower than the White House had initially announced. Back in August, you might remember, the administration announced boosters would be available by September 20 to everyone who was fully vaccinated. So here we are in the middle of October, and we're finally getting boosters to, you know, lots of people, but there's been a lot of criticism of the administration for making the whole booster situation a lot more confusing than it had to be by getting ahead of the process in some ways.

KEITH: I want to talk to you about mandates, which is a word that brings us right back to the politics around vaccines. President Biden announced that there would be vaccine mandates for government workers and contractors. Those go into effect December 8. We're expecting a mandate for health care workers to come out by the end of this month. And obviously, already there are private businesses that have been doing this. There's been a lot of noise, a lot of controversy, but mandates - they're working, right?

STEIN: Yeah. Yeah, they - yeah. They seem to be working. I mean, you know, when you basically require people to get vaccinated, a lot of people will get vaccinated. I mean, take a look at a lot of these businesses like United Airlines, for example. It has been very effective. So, you know, there's been a lot of talk about, you know, wondering why the administration hasn't gone even further and done things like, you know, mandate vaccination for domestic travel. You know, you need a shot to get on a plane. With the holidays coming up, that could be a big incentive to get a lot more people vaccinated. So, you know, people are wondering what's taking so long for that kind of mandate?

LIASSON: Well, what took so long for the first one? I mean, there's no doubt that in the beginning, the White House was very leery of mandates. At one point, the president said he wouldn't do them because he thought that it would cause a political backlash. Well, it did, but something much bigger was at stake, which is he has to get the pandemic under control for public health reasons. Getting people vaccinated is the only way to get the pandemic under control. But also politically, I mean, getting COVID under control was President Biden's No. 1 campaign promise, and it was the promise that voters seemed to care about the most. So he took a risk. He made some new requirements - get vaccinated or get tested weekly. And like Rob says, it's actually working.

KEITH: Yeah, it seems like this White House is sort of slowly ratcheting up the requirements. And in a way, we were sort of surprised when they announced the mandates for employers and federal workers. You know, they are not ruling out requiring vaccines for flying on airplanes domestically. They're not ruling it in, but they're saying that, you know, they're leaving all of their options open. I don't see how they could get such a mandate in place by Christmas, though. That seems like that would be very soon and very controversial.

LIASSON: And it remains to be seen whether it'll be needed. We don't know how much of the population is going to be vaccinated before the Christmas travel season. We know from focus groups is people who say that they would rather quit their job than get tested weekly or vaccinated - and don't forget, it's not a vaccine mandate. It's a requirement that you either get tested weekly or get vaccinated, so you have a choice. But a lot of those people tell pollsters they would rather quit their job, and guess what? They end up not quitting their job and getting the vaccine.

KEITH: Mara, one thing you've been watching is the backlash to the mandates, in particular in Texas.

LIASSON: Yeah, there's no doubt that anti-mandates is something that's very popular in the base of the Republican Party. That's why you've seen the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, be very, very aggressive in pushing back against Biden's new requirements, signing an executive order saying there will be no vaccine mandates in Texas for private businesses or public agencies. In Florida, the governor there has also said that school districts will have to pay a fine if they have a mask mandate - so very popular among the Republican base. And it's no surprise both of those Republican governors are thinking about running for president in 2024 in a Republican primary.

But I think the politics of the vaccine started changing. And the majority of adults have been vaccinated, and they are resentful in many ways that a lot of these lockdown measures are in place because so many people refused to get vaccinated. So the White House decided it was time to lean in, and they became the voice for the vaccinated. And it was a very us-against-them kind of strategy, especially for a president who's supposed to be a healer and a bridger of divides. But he decided to side with the majority.

KEITH: All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, more with Mara and Rob.

And we're back. And, Rob, this is not a political story, exactly, but while you're here, I wanted to ask you...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

KEITH: ...About this...

STEIN: (Laughter).

KEITH: Oh, is that - is that the doggo?

LIASSON: That's Buster. He's leaving. He just ran out of the room. I'm sure...

(LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: ...He's going to find something more interesting to do.

KEITH: OK. So, Rob, I wanted to ask you about this new Merck COVID treatment. It has been getting a lot of attention. It's a pill that looks a little like a hot dog. What is it? What does it do?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. The reason people are so excited about this - it is the first pill to treat COVID-19. It's an antiviral drug, and it's a big deal because it would make things way easier and less expensive, possibly, to treat COVID-19 than the existing treatments, especially, you know, in less affluent parts of the world that don't have great health care systems. And it looks, from the data we've seen so far, that it works really well. The company says it can cut the chances of COVID-19 patients ending up in the hospital or dying in half. So that's pretty significant.

KEITH: So this is like Tamiflu. Like, when you get the flu, if you take it within the first 48 hours, you can reduce your symptoms by taking this pill.

STEIN: Yeah, yeah.

KEITH: So it's once people have gotten the disease, they take this pill.

STEIN: Right. And especially if you start to treat people on the early side, you really can significantly reduce the severity of the illness. And, you know, the other treatments there, like remdesivir and the monoclonal antibodies, they require infusions. And that could be, you know, very difficult and costly to do. And this just could be much easier and simpler and effective.

KEITH: Changing course a little bit, but sadly, still connected to COVID - we got some news this morning about Colin Powell. He was secretary of state under George W. Bush, as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation's top military officer. He died from COVID complications at 84 years old. Mara, for folks who don't know about him, what is Powell's legacy?

LIASSON: Powell's legacy was he was the first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs and secretary of state. He was famous for not just breaking barriers, but also for serving Republican and Democratic presidents. He - there was one big blot on his record that will be part of his legacy, which is the presentation he made to the United Nations about the case that he said U.S. intelligence had that Saddam Hussein, the then dictator in Iraq, had weapons of mass destruction, which turned out not to be true.

KEITH: And he expressed regret for that. But obviously...

LIASSON: Yes.

KEITH: ...That...

LIASSON: But that was the intelligence he had. That's right.

KEITH: Yeah, that speech and that faulty intelligence was a big part of making the case for the Iraq War, which...

LIASSON: Absolutely.

KEITH: ...Has hung over the U.S. for decades.

LIASSON: Right. And it's a big COVID story because he was fully vaccinated.

STEIN: Yeah. And unfortunately, Secretary Powell had other health problems before COVID, so he probably had a suppressed immune system. And that's exactly the kind of person who's most vulnerable to severe complications from breakthrough infections.

KEITH: Yeah. Actually, a representative for Powell's family told The New York Times that he had undergone treatment for multiple myeloma. That's a blood cancer that could affect his immune system. So that's a pretty important detail.

STEIN: And also older people - he was 84. You know, but it's important to point out that breakthrough infections overall are still quite uncommon. And when they do occur, mostly they don't cause any symptoms at all or only cause very mild symptoms. You know, out of the more than 218 million people who have been fully vaccinated in this country, the CDC says only about 24,000 have been hospitalized, and only about 7,000 have died from breakthrough infections. Now, you know, any death is a tragedy, but that puts in perspective that this is a very unusual situation, and the overwhelming majority of the people who have ended up in a hospital or died have been older people with other health problems.

KEITH: And it's important to have this conversation because when there is a high-profile case, a high-profile death like someone like Colin Powell, all the flares go up with people raising concerns and saying, ah, well, see, it proves the vaccine doesn't work.

STEIN: Yeah, absolutely. And, in fact, the opposite couldn't be more true. I mean, it's clear. The data are clear. People who are vaccinated are, like, 10, 20 times less likely to get severely ill, end up in a hospital or die. Getting vaccinated is the way to basically protect yourself from COVID. There's no doubt about it.

KEITH: All right. Well, we are going to leave it there for now. Rob Stein, thank you for being with us.

STEIN: My pleasure.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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