CDC Director Warns States Against Rollbacks Of COVID-19 Restrictions : Consider This from NPR In the U.S., the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines is improving every day, but hundreds of millions of people are still vulnerable. And now, with some states relaxing or eliminating public health measures altogether, many people live in places where the virus will be freer to spread unchecked.

KUT reporter Ashley Lopez reports on how business owners and employees are reacting to the rollback of COVID-19 restrictions in Texas.

And Rochelle Walensky, the new director for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, tells NPR this could be a turning point in the pandemic — as more states face crucial decisions about whether to relax public health measures. Here's more from Walensky's interview with NPR's Ari Shapiro.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

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Pandemic Inflection Point: Drop In Cases Stalls, States Loosen Public Health Measures

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Pandemic Inflection Point: Drop In Cases Stalls, States Loosen Public Health Measures

Pandemic Inflection Point: Drop In Cases Stalls, States Loosen Public Health Measures

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/972590098/973811189" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week, as the calendar rolled over to March, we entered month 12 of the global pandemic, a full year. And we might look back on this week as a turning point.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: I remain deeply concerned about a potential shift in the trajectory of the pandemic.

SHAPIRO: That's the new CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky. On Monday, she noted that in the U.S., our steep drop in new coronavirus cases has leveled off at what is still a very high number.

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WALENSKY: We cannot be resigned to 70,000 cases a day, 2,000 daily deaths. Please hear me clearly. Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities.

SHAPIRO: The very next day...

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GREG ABBOTT: It is now time to open Texas 100%.

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SHAPIRO: Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced his state would end its mask mandate and allow businesses to operate without any restrictions. Mississippi did the same, and other states may soon follow.

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ABBOTT: We now have vaccines, vaccines to protect Texans from COVID.

SHAPIRO: Speaking of vaccines, the president had this good news on Tuesday.

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SHAPIRO: We're now on track to have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by the end of May.

SHAPIRO: President Biden said this is partly thanks to a vaccine from Johnson & Johnson that just got emergency authorization from the FDA.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Please. Please. It's not over yet. Great news. But stay vigilant.

SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS - in the U.S., vaccine rollout is improving every day, but hundreds of millions of people are still vulnerable. And some of them live in places where the virus will now be freer to spread unchecked. Coming up, I'll ask CDC Director Rochelle Walensky what that means for the next stage of the pandemic.

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SHAPIRO: From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Thursday, March 4.

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SHAPIRO: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. The coronavirus headlines this week have been about Texas and Mississippi, where Republican governors announced the end of mask mandates and said businesses could open at full capacity without any state-imposed restrictions. Here's what the president said about that on Wednesday.

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BIDEN: And the last thing, the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything's fine. Take off your mask. Forget it. It still matters.

SHAPIRO: Officials in the White House are worried about highly contagious variants spreading before states can vaccinate enough people. In Mississippi, around 20% of the adult population has received one shot. In Texas, it's more like 17%. And those numbers are pretty close to the percentage of people vaccinated nationally. Other places are relaxing public health measures, too.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: More changes are coming for coronavirus restrictions across the States.

SHAPIRO: Massachusetts is lifting restrictions on restaurants. Theaters can open at half capacity.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: And live music and restaurants for most cities and towns except for Boston.

SHAPIRO: Michigan is relaxing measures on restaurants and other indoor businesses.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: Bars and restaurants can open to 50% capacity. That is up from the 25% capacity.

SHAPIRO: And San Francisco is reopening theaters, museums and gyms.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: Retail and indoor malls can reopen in San Francisco at 50% capacity and gyms at 10.

SHAPIRO: But those places are relaxing measures incrementally. Texas is allowing everything to open all at once.

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RON NIRENBERG: Thankfully, here in San Antonio, the vast majority of folks are common sensical, care about one another and are going to continue wearing masks. In fact...

SHAPIRO: That's the mayor of San Antonio, Ron Nirenberg. He told NPR this week that many businesses and school districts in his city won't abandon public health measures, even though the state says they can.

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NIRENBERG: So lifting up the measures that we have available to us to stop the spread, to limit the transmission of the virus right now is just incredibly foolish and an unfortunate mistake that's going to cost many lives in our communities.

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SHAPIRO: That brings us to another complication emerging in Texas. Officials in the state point out that while public health mandates will be erased, public health recommendations still exist. And that essentially passes the buck to individual people and businesses to adopt those recommendations or not. Here's Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin.

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ASHLEY LOPEZ: Emily Hoover says this decision is going to make running her business harder. Hoover is the owner of a women's store in Austin called Feathers Boutique Vintage. She started requiring masks in her store even before the state had its own order, which she says wasn't popular at first.

EMILY HOOVER: I had a really hard time as a business getting people to comply and a lot of people calling me, messaging me, telling me that, you know, I needed to get rid of it or that they wouldn't shop with me as long as I had a mask mandate.

LOPEZ: Last summer, she says, things got easier when Governor Greg Abbott issued a statewide order requiring people to wear masks in public spaces. But this week, Abbott announced he's rescinding the order effective next week.

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ABBOTT: People and businesses don't need the state telling them how to operate.

LOPEZ: Abbott says businesses can still decide on their own if they want to limit capacity or require masks. Angelina Alanis has waitressed at a local Mexican restaurant that's had indoor dining for a while now. She says even with a limited capacity, it has felt pretty unsafe.

ANGELINA ALANIS: It's already pretty crowded in there to the point where people feel, like, uncomfortable walking up to the to-go window to get their to-gos (ph) because there will be, like, a crowd of people not wearing masks around the door waiting to get sat. So just going back up to 100% seems kind of overwhelming.

LOPEZ: But Alanis says if the restaurant she works at decides to open up capacity, she and her co-workers will probably just have to risk it.

ALANIS: It's kind of like, what choice do we have? Like, if our restaurant is open and seating, like, that's our job, so we have to, like, be willing to wait on people that are inside and sitting down.

LOPEZ: Even restaurant owners feel like they're being put in a bind and left to fend for themselves. Michael Fojtasek is the owner of Olamaie, an upscale Southern restaurant in Austin. He says state officials are lifting restrictions without providing a path for workers to get vaccinated earlier.

MICHAEL FOJTASEK: We need help with messaging so that we can protect ourselves instead of fighting the general public and trying to convince them that we - that our lives are valuable and that they should wear a mask to protect us. ***

LOPEZ: Another worry - large venues will now have little to stop them from hosting large gatherings. Santiago Dietche manages a local DJ and event band company called Dart Collective. He says Texas is already a destination for larger events because restrictions have always been limited.

SANTIAGO DIETCHE: It's all but obvious that there are going to be more people come flocking in to Texas.

LOPEZ: In Austin, local officials say they're trying to figure out how they can keep some rules in place. Andy Brown, the county executive, says it's hard to tell what that will look like right now.

ANDY BROWN: I'm working with our county attorney to see what our options are. But, you know, I think that we're going to do everything possible to still require masks in any way possible under that order and under the law.

LOPEZ: But enforcement is off the table. In his announcement yesterday, Governor Abbott said local officials will still not be allowed to jail anyone for not following local COVID rules, including not wearing a mask, even if a business requires it.

SHAPIRO: Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin.

By the way, there are Republican-led states that have gone the opposite direction this week and doubled down on mask requirements, like Alabama Governor Kay Ivey extended her state's mask order that was set to expire. And on Thursday, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice said this on CNN.

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JIM JUSTICE: These masks can save a lot of lives. And so at the end of the day, I don't know what the the rush is. And if we don't watch out, we can make some mistakes.

UNIDENTIFIED ANCHOR: Appreciate your candor there.

SHAPIRO: Watching all this unfold from state to state, Dr. Rochelle Walensky sees an inflection point in the pandemic. She's been director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for just about six weeks. Walensky was previously the chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School. When I talked with her this week, she told me the decisions states make now could send the pandemic in one of two directions.

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WALENSKY: If things open up, if we're not really cautious, we could end up with a post-spring break surge The way we saw a post-Christmas surge. We could see much more disease. We could see much more deaths. And in an alternative vision, I see we really hunker down for a couple of more months, we get so many people vaccinated and we get to a really great place by summer. And what I'm just...

SHAPIRO: She told me that while U.S. cases are way down from the winter surge, that spike was massive. The U.S. had more than 200,000 new cases every day, 100,000 people died in just a month. Now, the number of new daily cases is closer to 70,000, and it's not falling the way it was. That high plateau creates even more pressure to vaccinate as many people as possible. Walensky and I talked about the government's effort to get those shots in arms and about the elimination of public health measures in Texas and Mississippi.

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SHAPIRO: The governors of these states are clearly responding to a sense of exhaustion that they perceive among the people of their state. And I wonder how you think the CDC can connect with that sentiment, show empathy for people who are just tired of masks and distancing, and make sure people don't reject your message that this fight is still a long way from over.

WALENSKY: It's such an important point. We are all exhausted. I can tell you folks in the response at CDC are exhausted. We are all exhausted. And this is not the message that I want to be sending as I first enter into this new position. Here's what I think is the important thing. Six months ago, we didn't see any vision of what the future might look like. But today, after the president announced that by the end of May we will have enough vaccine to vaccinate the entire country, there is a vision that there's a light at the end of the tunnel, that we could vaccinate the entire country, that we really could get to a place where we don't have so much virus circulating. And so today, in my mind, is not the time to relax these things, as exhausted as we all are, because we do really see that real promise of getting to vaccinate everyone.

SHAPIRO: So let's talk about this promise or forecast that President Biden offered this week that by the end of May, there may be enough vaccine supply for every adult in the United States. That's not quite the same as saying that every adult in the U.S. will be vaccinated by the end of May. Do you have a forecast for how long you expect it to be until everyone who wants a dose of the vaccine can get one?

WALENSKY: Until now, one of the things that has really challenged us is the vaccine supply. We have more people who want vaccine than can get it. And we have less vaccine than we need. What the hard work that we're doing right now is to imagine that inflection point, which I don't think is too far away. I envision in a couple of weeks, by the end of this month, early to mid-April, that we're going to be in a place where we have a lot of vaccine. And we're going to want people who may be hesitant to get vaccinated to want the vaccine.

SHAPIRO: That's something that I hadn't heard that just in a couple of weeks to a month, the supply of vaccine might have increased enough that we're not going to be in this scarcity crunch the way we are right now.

WALENSKY: I think the supply is going to increase more and more in the weeks ahead. I think end of March looks better, end of April looks even better than that. So I think really we're talking in the four to eight week range where we're really going to start seeing a real step up of supply.

SHAPIRO: And then I'd like to ask about the CDC itself because, as you know, during the Trump administration, it came under a lot of political pressure. And instead of taking a leading role in fighting the pandemic, the CDC was often sidelined. You told the Journal of the American Medical Association that scientists at the CDC had been diminished and muzzled. So what are you seeing now? How do you go about fixing those problems?

WALENSKY: I'm really glad you asked this question. The great news for me is those people who are so amazing and so dedicated and so mission-oriented and so public health-oriented and tireless are still there. And I'm getting to meet all of them. And they're extraordinary people. They are worried. They are not sleeping because they want all of you to have good health. So it's been really enlightening and invigorating for me to see that the work that they're doing - I think and I hope it's been invigorating for them to know that I appreciate what they're doing as science-driven and that I'm willing and happy to articulate that science both back with them to discuss the science and then to discuss it with the American people.

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SHAPIRO: Dr. Rochelle Walensky is director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There's more from our interview at a link in our episode notes. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.

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