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HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra on the administration's response to the Omicron variant

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

First came California, the first confirmed U.S. case of the coronavirus variant omicron. But then, like a series of dominoes falling, came more cases identified in Colorado, Minnesota, New York, Hawaii. As the variant turns up in more and more spots around the U.S. and as the delta variant that plagued us all this summer and fall continues to spread, the Biden administration is rolling out new measures to fight the virus. We're going to speak next with one of the officials spearheading that effort. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.

Secretary Becerra, welcome.

XAVIER BECERRA: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So 2.2 million vaccine doses were administered on one day this week. I think that's the highest single-day total in nearly seven months. What is your read? Is this omicron putting the fear of God in people?

BECERRA: I think Americans get it. The best way to protect yourself, the best way to protect your family, the best way to enjoy the holidays is to be vaccinated.

KELLY: Is there enough supply to meet the demand? And I am asking, in part, because I am desperately trying to get a booster here in D.C. I am having a lot of trouble. I know a lot of people are having trouble getting an appointment. Why does it seem so uneven?

BECERRA: Mostly what it is is getting everyone scheduled in, but the supply that the president has made available is enough to meet the need, and it's just a matter of making sure everyone can get to it. And so we continue to provide supply. In fact, we just announced that we're sending out more than 10 million vaccines across the world to other countries. So we have enough supply here, and I hope you're able to get yours soon.

KELLY: I hope I'm able to get mine soon, too. So you're saying there is enough supply. This is - what? - a distribution issue or a staffing issue in places where it's hard to get.

BECERRA: Well, you mentioned that we've - we had more Americans get the vaccine yesterday than we have had in many, many months. People are coming in again, and sometimes these different sites only have provided - rationed enough for what they thought they would get. They don't want to waste the vaccine. And once you start opening up those packages, you have to use those vaccine within a certain time.

KELLY: Is there anything the administration can do to help ease those bottlenecks? Because it is hard, you know, listening to officials such as you saying, everybody needs to get boosted, everybody needs to get vaccinated, and I stood in line at my CVS twice in the last week watching people being turned away who were trying to do just that.

BECERRA: Yeah, we are working hard to make sure every locality has the vaccines that they need. And because there are surges that sometimes are unexpected in particular spots, it's sometimes difficult to meet that demand immediately. But we're working with our state and local partners to make sure that everyone who wants a vaccine will get it free of charge.

KELLY: I want to ask about the effectiveness of travel bans, including this new one on flights from southern Africa. Of the cases already identified in the U.S., they include people who had not traveled to southern Africa. And as you know, there's an increasing number of omicron cases in Europe, and we have not shut down flights from there. Why the restrictions on these eight countries?

BECERRA: Well, the president's job is to make sure every American is safe, and so he's doing everything he can. And while we will continue to evaluate what is needed, whether it's domestically or abroad, what we're trying to do is make sure we stay ahead of these variants. And so we will calibrate based on the best science. But what we're going to do is make sure that we protect Americans as early and as often as we can.

KELLY: Is there a risk it will discourage countries from reporting new variants if they then are punished for having been good global citizens doing the science and going public with it?

BECERRA: Oh, I think what South Africa did must be applauded. They not only acted quickly but very transparently. And that's essential for us to have global responses to this pandemic. And so my sense - and having spoken to the health leaders in South Africa about this - is that at the end of the day, those who are transparent, those who act quickly, will be rewarded. And that...

KELLY: I'm not sure South Africa feels like it's been rewarded at this point, though. So my question is, will the next South Africa be as transparent if this is the result?

BECERRA: Well, we do this at our peril to not be transparent and not be swift in our actions because the U.S. is out there to try to help as many countries as possible. We know no American is fully safe until everyone in the world is safe. And so we're going to be out there helping. We are right now working with South Africa to identify this variant, see what vaccines are effective. The more that countries and people come forward, the better off everyone will be.

KELLY: On domestic travel, I want to let you respond to a question that we raised on this program yesterday, which is, if people need to get tested and vaccinated to fly from, say, London to New York for the holidays, why don't you need to do the same thing to fly from New York to LA? This is Dr. Leana Wen from George Washington University.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEANA WEN: If President Biden really wants to do everything to increase vaccine uptake, there are other tools in his toolbox, including to require either testing or vaccination for domestic travel, for interstate train and bus and for plane travel as well.

KELLY: Secretary Becerra, what do you think - vaccinating or testing becoming required for domestic travel?

BECERRA: What we will do, of course, is look at the evidence. We know well what we have in the U.S. because we've been tracking activity in the U.S. for over, you know, some two years. We don't know as well what's going on abroad. And so we're taking more precautions when it comes to air travel from destinations outside of the U.S. because we're not as familiar with everything they've done.

KELLY: So how are you thinking about the pros and cons of that?

BECERRA: Well, first, if we can stay ahead of any variant of COVID, that's good. Second, the more we learn the evidence, the science tells us where we go, that's where we'll go. If it means having the same policy domestically that we do internationally, so be it. But what we want to do is base those actions on the science and in protecting Americans.

KELLY: Absolutely. And is there a certain number, a piece of information you're waiting for as you try to figure out whether this is something that would make sense, a vaccine or testing requirement for domestic travel?

BECERRA: You know, gosh, think of it this way - two weeks ago, we weren't even familiar with the word omicron. Today, we are concerned that it may become the next delta. So things change rapidly, and we have to try to stay ahead. Thank God we have the scientists who have helped us tackle this virus in so many different ways. And thank God Americans are now vaccinating in larger numbers because we know the best way to get ahead of this and win is to vaccinate.

KELLY: So just trying to pin you down on this, it sounds like this is potentially on the table, but you need more information because the situation is changing so fast.

BECERRA: Absolutely. We just have to evaluate and see where the evidence and the science takes us.

KELLY: Well, I wish you the happiest of holidays. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us.

BECERRA: Happy holidays to everyone.

KELLY: That is Xavier Becerra, secretary of health and human services. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.