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State Health Officials Discuss Biden's Strategy To Slow The Delta Variant

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Yesterday, President Biden announced an aggressive plan to mandate vaccines for millions of Americans. It's his latest attempt to combat the current surge of COVID-19 cases in the country fueled by the delta variant. We wanted to hear how the president's plan sounds in some of the hardest-hit parts of the country. Louisiana and Oregon are two states battling their worst coronavirus surges yet. Louisiana state health officer Dr. Joseph Kanter and Oregon public health director Rachael Banks join me now.

Welcome to both of you.

JOSEPH KANTER: Thank you, Scott.

RACHAEL BANKS: Thank you.

DETROW: And let's start with Biden's plans to vaccinate private sector employees, specifically health care workers. Dr. Kanter, I know that vaccinating health care workers is a big priority for you. As of August, a third of employees in Louisiana's largest health system were not fully vaccinated. I'm wondering, first of all, is that still the case? And more broadly, do you think this mandate is the right response at this point?

KANTER: It's a little bit better, the situation here. You know, as we surged with delta, more and more people got vaccinated. We upped our percentage by about 10 percentage points because people knew people who were sick, and it was scary, and it drove behavior. So we're in a better place but far from where we need to be. I do think it's the right call. You know, specifically in the health care setting, we have a lot of transmission amongst health care workers before and after work. This will cut down on that. But more importantly, it provides for safer care for the patients. It's what you or I would want if we had to receive care in a hospital.

DETROW: And in Oregon, you know, Rachael Banks, I'm wondering how you view this. ICU beds are full. Cases are surging. And, you know, specifically, we have seen pushback to vaccination mandates among law enforcement and firefighters. What do you think happens next once these new mandates kick in?

BANKS: Yeah, well, we definitely support the mandates and, in Oregon, have had a health care worker mandate in place as well. And, you know, similarly, I want to echo the comments of my colleague, that that's what you or I would want if we're in the hospital. We've seen our hospitals at the breaking point. We've brought in additional employees to help save them, and we know that vaccines are our safest bet to get out of this pandemic.

DETROW: I'm wondering what you both think about rapid test availability. That's something else that President Biden emphasized yesterday. You know, in Louisiana, Dr. Kanter, given the relatively low vaccination rates in the state, given resistance to and fatigue about masks and other safety protocols there and all over, how big of a difference do you think cheaper and more available rapid tests would be?

KANTER: It's a big difference for us. And, you know, the experience of Hurricane Ida is important, too. Remember; we're still sheltering a lot of people, you know, upwards of 2- or 3,000 people in the state, and in those sheltering environments, you have to test. If you don't test, you're going to have outbreaks. So in a place that has to do these emergency response operations, it's so important to have the rapid test. We have struggled a little bit over the past few weeks with supply shortages. I know that news about Abbott and the BinaxNOW facility. I think we're going to need a more robust supply of rapid tests. Even with increasing vaccination rates, which are needed, testing - particularly rapid testing - is going to be a really important part of the puzzle to make sure that we can stomp out outbreaks quickly before they grow.

DETROW: You know, President Biden came into office saying COVID-19 was a top priority. We certainly saw the public messaging change this summer for the administration. There was almost that declaration of victory. From either of your vantage points, did the administration act like the crisis had passed, in addition to talking about it that way, when they were interacting with state officials? Rachael, I'll start with you.

BANKS: Well, I think we were seeing great progress. We were seeing cases going down, hospitalizations that were manageable. And with this delta surge, we've just really encountered a new enemy that is more contagious, and that has really driven a surge. And so I think where we're at now with the Biden administration's six-point comprehensive plan is exactly what we need for the delta variant that we're battling.

DETROW: Joseph Kanter, from your point of view, was there a lack of urgency at any point this summer, or was it just the dynamic of a new variant taking everyone by surprise?

KANTER: Yeah, I agree with what Rachael said. I think, you know, the policies pre-delta made sense for a pre-delta environment. But delta is different. It hit a few states earlier. Louisiana was amongst those leading-edge states. But the spread was aggressive. We saw some more breakthrough infections, where hospitals got busier than they ever had before. And I think the administration responded appropriately to that. And I think the message for other states that have yet to experience a delta surge is, look what happened down here. This was the worst surge we had, and it was 17, 18 months into the pandemic. I think people need to increase vaccinations. The message to other places is - do what you can to increase vaccinations in your community, and do it now.

DETROW: And real quick, from both of you, starting with Louisiana - is there anything that you need from the federal government you're not getting right now?

KANTER: No, they've been good. They've been very flexible with the funding. They've been responsive, and they've backed us with our needs. We really have appreciated that.

DETROW: Rachael Banks, what about Oregon?

BANKS: You know, I'll say we've had great support. I think one of the things that would be great to consider is - one of the things that the administration did with vaccines early on is support federally qualified health centers. And as we look at monoclonal antibody treatment, it would be great to also see if there's support, in addition to the strike teams for hospitals, for those FQHCs to really get to equity.

DETROW: All right. That's Oregon public health director Rachael Banks, and we also heard from Louisiana state health officer Joseph Kanter.

Thank you to both of you.

KANTER: Thank you.

BANKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.