Ex-Obama health advisor says Covid is far from dying out in U.S., so masks remain necessary

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel told CNBC on Friday he believes it’s important for people to keep wear face coverings, especially in schools, until a larger percentage of the U.S. population has received a Covid vaccine.

In an interview on “Squawk Box,” the former Obama health advisor said he wasn’t advocating for “permanent masks” in society. Rather, he said he remains concerned about those who aren’t eligible yet to get the vaccine: children under the age of 12.

Once more kids are able to get a Covid shot and additional adults are vaccinated, “then you’re going to have the situation where the virus will be dying out because there won’t be any vulnerable people. That’s the place we want to be. We’re far from that place,” said Emanuel, who currently serves as vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania.

“When we’re far from that place, we need to vaccinate people. We need to wear masks. We need to improve the ventilation in school. All that’s doable, and all that can make going to school much safer and make parents at ease,” added Emanuel, who was a health policy advisor for the Obama administration from 2009 to 2011. He also advised President Joe Biden’s transition team on the Covid pandemic.

Roughly 52% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against Covid, while about 61% has had at least one dose, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those eligible for the vaccine — those age 12 and up —nearly 61% are fully immunized and 71.5% have had at least one dose.

Those percentages are not adequate to really rein in the pandemic in the U.S., Emanuel said. To improve coronavirus vaccine uptake, Emanuel suggested the U.S. impose a nationwide mandate. While that seems unlikely to actually happen, Biden administration officials have, in recent days, stepped up pressure on companies to institute employee vaccination requirements now that the Food and Drug Administration fully approved the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“Why do we have this extremely effective intervention and roughly half the population not using it? Some of them are not eligible, but there are plenty of people in the country, as I mentioned among young adolescents, 12- to 15-year-olds, that are eligible but not accessing it,” Emanuel said.

The FDA’s full approval of the Pfizer’s vaccine is for people ages 16 and older. The vaccine was cleared for those ages 12 to 15 in May on an emergency use basis, while trials are underway for children younger than that.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told NBC News earlier this week the company expects to have data on kids ages 5 to 11 in September, which it would then submit to the FDA.

Moderna, which like Pfizer makes a two-dose mRNA vaccine, filed for full FDA approval in June. The biotech firm’s application remains under consideration. Johnson & Johnson has not yet applied for full regulatory clearance for its single-shot Covid vaccine.

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