In a Thursday interview on NBC's TODAY Show, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky addressed questions about COVID-19 from host Savannah Guthrie on what it will take to reach herd immunity in the United States and when the government's masking guidance would be updated for outdoor activity and individuals who are fully vaccinated.
"This value of herd immunity is very much dependent on how transmissible the virus is and, with these variants, that may in fact be a moving target," explained Dr. Walensky without giving a specific percentage. "Here's what I do know: I know the more the population gets vaccinated, the more people we have vaccinated, the less transmission will happen."
She added that, "rather [than] looking toward a singular numerical target, my job now is to make sure that every American knows that this vaccine is available to them, that it is safe, that it is effective, and that they should go and get vaccinated."
Guthrie followed up on Walensky's mention of transmission rates, asking the CDC director whether vaccinated people can transmit COVID-19:
"We know that the vaccine in real world studies is somewhere between 85% - 95% effective and some of the questions are, does that mean you're not getting sick or you're not getting the virus... with screening, we're actually finding that people are not getting the virus at all. So what about those people who are breakthrough, who do get the virus? Increasingly, data suggests that about a third of them, even if they get the virus, are completely asymptomatic and many of them have such low virus that they can't transmit to others. Now we still need more data in this area, but increasingly we're getting more and more data that suggests that even those breakthrough infections may be less symptomatic and less likely to transmit."
It's worth noting that pretending we don't know whether vaccinated individuals spread COVID is just "pure gaslighting," to quote Nate Silver on the topic.
It's pure gaslighting at this point to say we don't know whether vaccinated people spread the virus. Tons of studies—including from the CDC!!!—show that vaccines massively reduce (though probably not entirely eliminate) transmission. https://t.co/vekZpR9gLk— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) April 10, 2021
And as Guy emphasized last week as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) made the case for immunized Americans to "act immune," the breakthrough rate Dr. Walensky mentioned is minuscule:
Science deniers attacking him for this, natch. The COVID breakthrough infection rate is 0.008% according to CDC data. He’s right. https://t.co/Rou2FlUw0A— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) April 16, 2021
"Just to bottom-line it, when might you really have a definitive answer so you can tell people, 'Hey, if you have the vaccine, you don't really need to wear that mask anymore?'" pressed Guthrie.
Again, Dr. Walensky was noncommittal:
"No vaccine is perfect and so ultimately this is going to be a matter of risk. But what I can say is a 95% effective vaccine is extraordinarily effective. If we can have a 95% effective vaccine and we can get our caseloads down then we'll be in really good shape for the country."
"This is a question that we're looking at. One of the things I think that's really important to understand is while there's wonderful news and we're getting more and more people vaccinated every single day, we still had 57,000 cases of COVID yesterday, we still had 733 deaths. And so while we are really trying to scale up vaccination, we have this complex message that we still have hotspots in this country and we will be looking at the outdoor masking question, but it's also in the context of the fact that that we still have people who are dying of COVID."
As Guy notes here, stringent restrictions haven't been proven to improve outcomes when compared to states like Florida, where more freedom has not lead to drastically more cases and deaths. The same has been true in Texas, as Katie explains here.
In one last attempt to get Dr. Walensky to offer some glimmer of hope that could motivate people to get vaccinated, Guthrie noted the importance of making vaccination more appealing by showing Americans there would be a tradeoff of fewer CDC restrictions:
"If people are getting vaccinated—[yet] they still have to wear masks, they're outside in the fresh air and the warm weather—but the CDC is still saying, 'well you should probably wear your mask,' what's the incentive? I mean isn't part of this sort of a reward thing, where, do the right thing and you'll be rewarded? Do you balance that at all when you're making these decisions about the guidance that you give?"
"We absolutely do," claimed Dr. Walensky. "And as we look at this guidance, to revise this guidance, of what you can do when you're vaccinated, that will be easier and easier to do as more and more people get vaccinated."