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Pace Of Vaccinations Speeds Up, But There Are Other Challenges

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

More than 41 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the U.S. And as the pace of vaccinations accelerates, the number of new infections continues to decline. Meanwhile, though, in South Africa, there's growing concern over the effectiveness of the vaccines against a new strain circulating there, leading to a halt in the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in that country.

We are joined now by NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thanks for being here this morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's start in South Africa. They started administering that AstraZeneca vaccine, and now they are not. What happened?

AUBREY: Well, a new study there - it hasn't been published yet, but it found that the AstraZeneca vaccine may provide only minimal protection. Now, this is against mild to moderate infection caused by the variant circulating there. That's why the country will temporarily halt the rollout of this vaccine.

Now, the data come from a very small number of patients, Rachel, so it's not conclusive. But the results are concerning because this variant has been identified in a bunch of countries.

MARTIN: Right, including in at least two states here in the U.S. Right. So what does...

AUBREY: That's right, yeah.

MARTIN: What does this mean for us?

AUBREY: Well, you know, the AstraZeneca vaccine is not authorized in the U.S. But if the South African strain were to spread here, it could impact the effectiveness of all the vaccines. Now, there is another paper out just this morning in Nature Medicine. It's a lab study showing that the Pfizer vaccine still elicits the kind of immune response that can protect people against the South African strain. Bottom line - the vaccine manufacturers do have the ability to retool the vaccines. Here's former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb on CBS yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS BROADCAST)

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: I do think that the existing vaccines are going to offer reasonable protection against these new variants. And we also may be able to develop in a timely fashion, maybe in four or six months, a consensus strain that bakes in a lot of the different variation that we're seeing to have boosters available for the fall. So I think that there is a reasonable chance that we're going to be able to stay ahead of this virus as it mutates.

AUBREY: So there is some optimism there.

MARTIN: So this is why there's such urgency to get as many people as possible vaccinated quickly. I mean, it was already a priority, but these new strains are making that even more urgent.

AUBREY: Absolutely. And the pace of vaccinations is picking up for certain. More vaccination sites are up and running. About 32 million people have received at least one dose so far. Now, Rachel, there had been talk of changing up the strategy to get the shot into more people faster by holding off on a second dose - you know, give everyone one to stretch the supply. But over the weekend, Dr. Anthony Fauci threw cold water on this idea. He says there is just not enough data to support this strategy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: From a theoretical standpoint, it would be nice to know if you just give one dose how long the durability lasts and what is the level of effect. But what we have right now and what we must go with is the scientific data that we've accumulated, and it's really very solid.

AUBREY: Which is for two doses spaced three to four weeks apart.

MARTIN: But you need supply for that, right? I mean, is there enough vaccine to do that?

AUBREY: Well, you know, about 60 million doses have been delivered so far, and vaccine-makers are expected to produce millions more every week. They say they can and will. There are many channels of distribution now, everything from mega sites at stadiums and hospitals. And this week, about a million doses will go out to more than 6,000 pharmacies.

So, you know, I spoke to Allison Hess at Geisinger about this. They're a health care provider based in Pennsylvania. They're administering more than 2,000 shots a day at their four sites.

ALLISON HESS: We have a lot of people that are vaccine shopping, so they're putting their name on a couple different lists. And that means that they're no-showing at locations where they had appointments. So it requires a lot of shuffling and kind of an end-of-day scramble to make sure that we're not wasting any doses.

AUBREY: And then there were also instances when people make appointments to get there and find out the site is temporarily out of their weekly supply. So you know, there are still plenty of snags matching people with appointments. But overall, the picture is improving.

MARTIN: So we talked about Anthony Fauci reaffirming that the best strategy is for these two shots spaced apart. Let's talk about those, the second shot in particular. Millions of people have now gotten that second dose. What do we know about that experience in terms of side effects?

AUBREY: Yeah. You know, it's variable for people. Generally, there are more side effects with the second dose. And because many people have been told to anticipate this, some people are taking fever-reducing medicines, such as ibuprofen, before they go get the shot. I spoke to Dr. Stanley Martin. He's director of infectious diseases at Geisinger Health.

STANLEY MARTIN: As a general rule, we would not recommend taking any anti-inflammatories or pain relievers prior to coming in for the vaccine. We know that there's, at least in theory, a concern that those kinds of medications could blunt the immune response to the vaccine.

AUBREY: Now, he says it hasn't been studied with the COVID vaccine, so it's more of a theoretical risk. But he says after the shot, if you do get a fever or aches, then it's typically OK to take medicine to treat those symptoms afterwards. He says, if you can, get some extra rest; you may feel knocked out by the shot.

MARTIN: OK - so one more topic I want to touch on in this conversation - schools. The CDC is expected to release more guidance on how schools should reopen. What have researchers learned in recent months?

AUBREY: You know, there's a much clearer picture that has emerged that shows you can limit the spread, have very minimal spread within school settings if kids are kept distanced, kept masked. I spoke to pediatrician Danny Benjamin at Duke University about this. He's been tracking it very closely.

DANNY BENJAMIN: A year ago, we thought children are just going to be super spreaders. What's really been impressive about the last four months is that multiple investigators have independently shown that if you have strong adherence to mitigation measures, you can succeed even if community transmission is high.

AUBREY: As has been the case in some areas where schools have reopened. Now, the CDC director has said vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for schools to open, but Danny Benjamin says there is value in prioritizing them.

BENJAMIN: There is a strong value proposition to put school staff at the front of the line because when I vaccinate school staff, not only have I helped that person and their family, I've also helped the 30 children and their 30 families. So it is a force multiplier.

AUBREY: You know, for both safety, he says, and he says for a return to normalcy. So we are expected to hear more about this issue this week as the CDC prepares new guidance.

MARTIN: NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey always with very helpful guidance and information. Allison, thank you so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARMS AND SLEEPERS' "UNSHIELD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.