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Former U.S. Surgeon General talks Fauci’s pandemic comments, COVID vaccines for kids, mask mandates

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Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the potential end to the pandemic, COVID-19 application submissions, and the availability of quality masks.

Video Transcript

RACHELLE AKUFFO: The US is out of the pandemic phase, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, but he cautioned that there is still a global crisis, and that we're not going to eradicate this virus. For the latest, let's turn to Yahoo Finance's health reporter Anjalee Khemlani, who's joined by Dr. Jerome Adams, former US Surgeon General.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Thanks, Rachelle. And thank you to Dr. Jerome Adams for joining us today, former US Surgeon General. Dr. Adams, I definitely have to start out with that comment from Dr. Fauci saying that we're out of the pandemic phase, but also, at the same time, declining to join at the White House Correspondents Dinner and pulling out there over concerns of the rising cases. Your thoughts on that?

JEROME ADAMS: Well, it's important for people to understand that there are real and concrete epidemiological definitions of a pandemic. We had a big debate two years ago about when we would declare a public health emergency, a pandemic. What Dr. Fauci is saying is from a purely scientific standpoint, we are not seeing the type of spread that he would consider to be pandemic levels. We're now seeing lower levels of spread than what we've seen over most of the pandemic, even though BA.2 cases are starting to rise again.

But we're also in a phase where people need to make up their own minds about what risks they're willing to undertake as an individual or as a family. So Dr. Fauci, I think, was trying to lay that out to folks that things are looking better on a population level, but on an individual level, we need to make up our own minds. And he's made up his mind that the White House Correspondents Dinner is not a good place for an 80-year-old man to be.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Well, certainly, we'll have to watch that. We also know that there is another sort of vulnerable population, kids. We're still waiting to hear word on the vaccine for under five-year-old. Meanwhile, we saw the CDC with a report that more than 75% of kids were-- contracted COVID between December and February.

So the concern there really that-- with the FDA saying or indicating, at least, that they might not approve one vaccine over the other and wait for both of them to file and complete their filings with data for Moderna and Pfizer, and then approve of both the kids' vaccines. Your thoughts on that power dynamic? What's going on there?

JEROME ADAMS: Well, there's a lot of speculation here. And I want to help people understand the science behind this. The Moderna vaccine is two doses. The Pfizer vaccine for kids right now is looking at three doses. So that's a challenge for the FDA and the Advisory Committee to try to sort out. They also don't want to approve a vaccine, and then three weeks later, approve a different vaccine and say, actually, we changed our mind. This one's better.

So they're trying to balance that with the real concern that many parents have about a world where their under five-year-olds are out there around people unmasked and unvaccinated. That's a very tough situation for the FDA. I've talked to my folks at the FDA, and they've assured me that as soon as the submissions are in from the companies, they're going to proceed with all due speed and get those evaluated, and then make a decision on the backend as to how they should actually be rolled out. But right now, the challenge is, Moderna nor Pfizer have actually submitted their complete application. So it's not the FDA delaying right now. It's on the companies.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Certainly, and just to clarify on that really quickly, we know that Moderna is slated to file at least by the end of this week and Pfizer next month. But then looking at it from that perspective, you're saying that there could be a situation where one is deemed better than the other so we might just have one option for kids under five?

JEROME ADAMS: Well, that's the challenge, and that's a question we don't know the answer to yet because we haven't seen the data just yet. Also important to understand, that Moderna is saying they're going to submit. But we don't know if they're going to submit their full package or if this is going to be a continuation of a rolling submission of data. So we still don't know that they're going to have complete information. We need to make sure these companies get this information in so that we can have a full review by the FDA and by the VRBPAC, and make sure that, actually, we can make a real scientifically informed recommendation to parents.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Mm-hmm, juxtaposed against that, of course, is the removal of mask or relaxing of mask mandates. And that's, of course, a concern across the country. We're seeing how parents are reacting to that. But also, it comes at a time where we see you kind of countering what the administration has done, maybe a little bit ironically for some people. Tell us about that. Why are you advocating for masks ongoing?

JEROME ADAMS: Well, one of the challenges is, you still have a lot of people who can't protect themselves. Two things going on really quickly. Number one, under five can't wear N95 masks. There aren't good masks out there.

And I want everyone to know that we now recognize that with Omicron, with the new variants, they're so contagious that the most effective masks, really, the only effective mask you're going to wear long-term is going to be either an N95 mask-- and this is one of the ones the government handed out that I got from a local pharmacy-- a KN95 that I got off of Amazon or a KF94 mask. These masks aren't readily available for children so they can't protect themselves, which is why we need adults around them to protect them by either masking or getting vaccinated.

We also know that there are many people, Mr. Melvin, who I tweeted about last week, a gentleman with a double lung transplant who didn't know how or where to get a high quality mask, so I gave him a five-pack of my own KN95 masks. That's the challenge.

You still have many people out there who can't protect themselves, which is why in public settings, many of us public health officials said we need to continue to provide protection for them, one way or the other, either through mandates or by making sure they have the materials to protect themselves. Kids can't get vaccinated. Far too many people out there still don't have access to high quality masks. We need to address these issues if we're going to say everyone's on their own.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Right, but so what this does is really puts us in a position of comparing, really, what you went through when you were surgeon general, which is that there's sort of, like, a patchwork of rules and regulations for people to follow. And there's a lot of individual burden for such a diverse country. It's really hard to get that messaging out there. What would you say sort of is that obstacle, and how do we overcome that, based on your experience?

JEROME ADAMS: Well, that is the challenge, and that's why I'm devoted to health equity. I'm the director of Health Equity Initiative right now at Purdue University. And that means making sure everyone has the resources they need to stay safe.

Not everyone has an N95 mask. Not everyone has access to vaccinations and treatment or doctors who they can get their questions answered by. Not everyone has access to Paxlovid like the vice president does. If we're going to say everybody for themselves under the guise that we have the tools, we need to make sure everybody has those tools. That's what I've been pushing for. That's what I want people to understand.