Biden officials tell House panel: Greatest risk is COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

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Dr. Anthony Fauci and top health officials told Americans to get vaccinated with available shots after a pause in the Johnson & Johnson version, saying Thursday the nation is at a “critical turning point” in the COVID-19 pandemic and can outrace fast-moving variants through immunization.

“That is the solution. If we do that successfully, then we will turn that corner,” Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a House subcommittee analyzing the coronavirus response.

Federal and state officials are adjusting the COVID-19 rollout after advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended extending the J&J pause for at least a week. They want to fully understand rare blood clots that were reported in six out of roughly 7 million recipients of the one-shot vaccine.

A new YouGov poll found 52% of people considered the J&J vaccine safe before the pause — a share that dropped to 37% after federal and state officials halted its use. Respondents who dubbed the vaccine “unsafe” rose from 26% to 39%.

Federal officials are trying to maintain faith in the vaccination campaign while they chart a path forward, citing the lack of red flags around messenger-RNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

“Nothing should detract from the fact that Americans need to get vaccinated. We have vaccines available today that meet our high standards for safety and effectiveness,” said David Kessler, the chief science officer for the federal COVID-19 response, told lawmakers.
Later, he said wariness of vaccines is at the top of his threat list: “I think the greatest risk right now is the risk of vaccine hesitancy.”

Federal officials say they can maintain a pace of more than 3 million shots per day. But the J&J pause robs the U.S. of an efficient tool for vaccinating homebound persons and others who find it hard to get a second shot.

“Transient populations like migrant farmworkers, seafood workers, people experiencing homelessness. The White House was encouraging use of J&J for those being released from hospitals or those treated in hospital emergency rooms,” Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers, told The Washington Times.

The suspension will reverberate around the world, as developing countries struggle to get their rollouts off the ground while richer countries enjoy alternative shots that haven’t raised red flags.

Republicans on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis said President Biden’s policies at the southern border are holding back the U.S. effort to wrangle the virus.

Rep. Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican, showed pictures of crowded facilities holding children from the border surge, saying it was clear that “social distancing” didn’t apply there.

He also cited reports of migrants being released and flying on planes without getting a COVID-19 test, even as Americans who fly home from other countries are required to present a negative test.

“They’re violating the very guidance that you tell Americans to follow,” Mr. Scalise said of border-minders.

“It’s a very difficult situation,” Dr. Fauci said.

Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, had a testy exchange with Dr. Fauci over the lack of clear goalposts for a return to normalcy.

“What number do we get our liberties back?”  Mr. Jordan said.

Dr. Fauci said it was difficult to name a specific figure, sparking a back-and-forth among committee members and cross-talk as Mr. Jordan’s time expired.

“You need to respect the chair and shut your mouth,” Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, told Mr. Jordan.

Speaking to the next lawmaker, Dr. Fauci said he would be more comfortable if daily case counts were “less than 10,000 per day,” compared to the current average of more than 60,000.

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