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Surgeon General Murthy details the administration's next move against COVID

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's bring in U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. He joins us again, as he has several times before.

Dr. Murthy, thanks for being back on the show.

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, thanks, Rachel. It's good to be with you, as always.

MARTIN: Let's start with the Supreme Court decisions. How much of a setback is the decision about the vaccine mandate for large companies?

MURTHY: Well, Rachel, you know, as a doctor and a public health professional, it was very disappointing to hear the decision about the workplace vaccine requirement. It's a setback for public health. And these vaccine requirements would have helped make our workplaces safer not just for workers but also for customers. But the good news is that companies can still put in place vaccine requirements on their own, as many have already done. And it's also very important to note that the vaccine requirement for health care workers was upheld. That is a step toward making health care settings safer not only for health care workers but also for patients.

MARTIN: I want to talk about testing. The new president - the president - President Biden has announced new initiatives, rather, in terms of testing. Hundreds of millions of free tests will be available to Americans. You're rolling out a website next week to facilitate that. But why did people in this country have to endure so many weeks of going to the drugstore only to be told, sorry - no tests?

MURTHY: Well, Rachel, it's a good question. And testing is a - has been challenging over the last few weeks, no doubt. There were investments that were made - that the president and the administration made early this year using the Defense Production Act - billions of dollars put forward to enhance and strengthen the manufacturing process and to approve nine tests, actually - new tests that are now available. That helped to quadruple the supply of testings in the fall leading to December. But the omicron variant just generated an extraordinary amount of demand and made it clear that there was much more work to do. And so that's why you heard...

MARTIN: Does that mean that the administration just wasn't prepared for the transmissibility of omicron?

MURTHY: Well, it's why you saw, actually, not just in the United States but in the United Kingdom and in other countries that there was a shortage of tests. And so many countries are looking to catch up now. But that's why you heard the 1 billion tests that will now be available to people. They can order it on the website later this month. It will be sent directly to them. This is in addition, Rachel, to the insurance coverage - private insurance coverage - of tests that will start on Saturday, January 15, and is also in addition to the 20,000 locations around the country where people can get free tests today.

MARTIN: OK, so playing catch up, hoping that all those tests will help abate this - the omicron crisis. I want to ask about COVID hospitalizations. The count is more than 150,000 people. Can you clarify for us how that number is calculated? Are these all people who came to the hospital because they had COVID symptoms and are being treated for COVID? Or did they incidentally get a positive test while they're in the hospital for something else? - 'cause there's been a debate about this.

MURTHY: Yes, it's a very important question, Rachel. And what we're seeing because of how contagious omicron is is that there are - there seem to be a greater portion of patients in hospitals who incidentally have COVID. That means they may have come in for another reason and then on routine testing are found to have COVID. The question is, how great is that proportion? In New York City, they found that in some cases it was up to half of patients who had COVID but were not there for COVID. Whether or not that - the same proportion holds up in other parts of the country is what the CDC is investigating right now.

But the bottom line is, regardless of the reason, the number of people coming in is straining our health care system and overtaxing our health care workers. And that's one of the reasons why President Biden announced that in addition to the 800 federal personnel sent to support hospital systems, we'd be sending another 1,000 more. And that's in addition to the millions of pieces of medical equipment, including protective equipment, that has been sent, and the additional space that we're working to create in hospitals around the country.

MARTIN: That is no doubt going to be good news for the next voice that we hear. I want to play a clip of tape from a doctor named Bradley Dreifuss in Tucson, Ariz. We heard from him in a reported piece by Will Stone earlier this week on this program. And Dreifuss told us that some of his patients are waiting 200 hours to be admitted to the ER.

Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BRADLEY DREIFUSS: Our hospitals are totally full. We're not able to admit patients. We don't even have admitting teams currently. We are not able to get patients where they need to be because our system is literally collapsing.

MARTIN: So that's already happening. What is the timeline for the relief you just outlined?

MURTHY: Well, much of that relief is already moving out, and it has been for the last several weeks. The additional 1,000 individuals will be going out within days. And again, there's a lot of ongoing effort from the administration side to support hospital systems. But the reality is that many systems are strained right now because of the dramatic increase in cases. And so the next few weeks are going to be tough, Rachel. That is a sad reality. We're going to see more cases. There is going to be strain in the hospital systems, but we will get through these few weeks.

It's why it's so important right now that people take every step possible to use their precautions, double down on the precautions that we know work to reduce spread. That means wearing a high-quality mask, especially when you're in high-risk settings. It means avoiding unnecessary risk and gatherings for the next few weeks...

MARTIN: OK.

MURTHY: ...Because we just have to keep cases as low as we can, recognizing that we are going to see a lot...

MARTIN: Yeah.

MURTHY: ...In the days ahead.

MARTIN: U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy - thank you.

MURTHY: Thanks so much, Rachel. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.