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White House Vaccinations Coordinator Dr. Bechara Choucair Speaks With KWGS About Vaccine 'Sprint'

The Biden administration on Wednesday declared June a "national month of action" for COVID vaccination, with a goal of getting 70% of American adults at least partially vaccinated by July 4. As of Tuesday, that number was 64% nationally and 54% in Oklahoma, which has for weeks been consistently placing near the bottom of national rankings. White House vaccinations coordinator Dr. Bechara Choucair spoke with Public Radio Tulsa's Chris Polansky about the vaccine goal.


PUBLIC RADIO TULSA: So I was hoping you could start by talking a little bit about, um, you know, the vaccines have been widely available and accessible for some time now, at least here in Oklahoma. So, of the people who haven't gotten the shot yet, what do you think the breakdown is as far as people who are willing or on-the-fence, versus people who are just, you know, outright opposed to getting the vaccine?

DR. BECHARA CHOUCAIR: Well, look, Chris -- we know that we havee vaccinated so many people in this country, actually almost 170 million people have received at least one dose. At the same time, we know that there are still a lot of people that need to be vaccinated, that want to be vaccinated, and I think of those categories, I think of those folks in two categories: There are people who want to be vaccinated, and a big part of why we're doing the month of action is to make it as easy as possible for these folks to get vaccinated. And then there's another group that still has questions. They have legitimate questions and they need answers to those questions. So we need to make sure that we're giving them the opportunities to have those questions answered. And that's really the focus of a lot of our vaccine confidence efforts across the country, so let's make it as easy as possible for people to get vaccinated; at the same time, let's make sure we're giving people answers so they can make their informed decisions.

PRT: So one thing I've seen and heard from people who are either vaccine hesitant or outright opposed is, you know, they say, "Hey, if you want to get the vaccine that's fine. I'm not getting it. And if it's so effective, why should it matter if I get it?" So what would you say to those folks?

CHOUCAIR: Well, look, what we know is that if you're fully vaccinated you are fairly well protected. You almost have 100% protection from severe disease and deaths from the virus. If you're unvaccinated, you are still at risk. I mean, the fact remains if you're unvaccinated you are still at risk of catching the virus, you are still at risk of needing hospitalizations, and unfortunately you're still at risk of death. We're still having hundreds of deaths a day in the United States. The best way for you to become fully protected is to get vaccinated. That is the best way, and also the best way for us to be able to put this pandemic behind us. 

PRT: So, part of this push from the White House is encouraging public and private sector incentives for getting vaccinated. Some companies are giving away beer or airline tickets, and some states are doing lotteries -- can you talk a little bit about those and if you think they're effective?

CHOUCAIR: Well, we're seeing incentives across the country from all different levels of government, from the business sector, the private sector, and it's great to see the innovations that's happening there, the ingenuity that we're seeing from across the country to make it as easy and create that incentive for people to be able to get vaccinated. We're seeing it with CVS [offering sweepstakes for cash prizes, Super Bowl tickets and cruise tickets], with Kroger [sweepstakes for $1 million cash prize and free groceries], with United [sweepstakes for free flights], with others offering incentives. 

States like Ohio and New York are offering a lottery. California is offering grocery store cards for people to get vaccinated. So there's a lot of innovation there. We want to make sure that people are aware of those, so you can go to vaccines.gov/incentives and you can learn about all kinds of incentives that are available out there.

At the end of the day, Chris, it's truly about getting as many people vaccinated as possible. This is the sprint to the 4th of July. We want to get as many people vaccinated so we can see, so we can continue to see, steeper declines in new cases, in hospitalizations and in deaths.

PRT: Here in Oklahoma, we're one of the states where lawmakers have passed legislation to ban K-12 schools from requiring vaccinations, to prevent state agencies from requiring vaccinations of workers. The governor here says, you know, it's a personal choice, it's totally up to you whether or not you get vaccinated. Obviously there isn't any federal mandate to get vaccinated, but I'm wondering if you have a sense of, is that kind of messaging helpful, hurtful, neither, when it comes to encouraging vaccination.

CHOUCAIR: Well, we are not weighing in on local decisions when it comes to mandates or policy changes on vaccinations, particularly in schools. But the fact remains, Chris, that we know that if you're vaccinated, you're protected. Irrespective of your age, irrespective of your health history, if you're not vaccinated you're going to still be at risk, even if most of the people around you are vaccinated. So that's why we continue to encourage vaccinations, we continue, particularly, for adolescents. We are working very closely with community health centers, with pediatricians, with family doctors to make sure that these conversations are happening with adolescents and their parents. We're putting [out] a public education campaign about the importance of vaccinating adolescents, and we're off to a good start -- we have more than 3 million adolescents in this country who've already been -- who've received the first dose of the vaccine, and we're going to continue that push to get as many people vaccinated as possible.

Schools, Chris, will play a significant role, where you could have a pediatrician partner with a school or a community health center or a hospital to set up vaccination sites on school campuses, and we're seeing many of [those] across the country, and those are great practices to get more people vaccinated.

PRT: So one more Oklahoma-related question: We've been consistently ranking near the bottom of national rankings for various vaccination metrics. Does the White House view the challenge of increasing vaccine uptake different[ly] in a state like Oklahoma than it does a state like, for example, Vermont, where the vast majority of residents are choosing to be vaccinated?

CHOUCAIR: Well, look, the way I think about this is, we know in Oklahoma there's still a lot of people who want to get vaccinated, and we want to do everything we can to get the vaccines as close to them, make it as convenient to them as possible. So we're working with businesses -- are there businesses in Oklahoma that are interested in standing up vaccination sites at the workplace? And if there are, we're happy to partner with them and support them and do some matchmaking there to stand up those vaccination sites at the workplace.

We're partnering with faith-based organizations and community-based organizations that are usually trusted partners in those communities, and if they need partners to help them stand up community vaccination sites and pop-up clinics and mobile clinics, we'll do that. In the rural part of the states, we're working with community health centers that have presence in rural communities to make sure they have access to the vaccine -- not just access to the vaccine, but have the resources for outreach efforts in rural communities, to be able to get to people. The same thing goes for rural hospitals and rural health clinics and businesses that have presence in rural communities.

So we have to be looking at -- at this part of the campaign, Chris, it's truly all about the ground game. It's community-by-community, ZIP code-by-ZIP code, census tract-by-census tract, and you have to customize your strategies that make sense for those communities, whether you're in Oklahoma, where 54% of adults have already received their first dose, or you're in Vermont, where it's 82% of people have received their first dose. So that's the type of on-the-ground strategy setting that needs to happen to get more people vaccinated.

PRT: Okay, my last question: Are you optimistic about the 70% goal the president has set?

CHOUCAIR: Look, the 70% goal is an ambitious target. We're doing everything we can to get there. We know we can get there. There are many states -- actually 13 states have already got to that goal. We're going to do everything we can to get to that goal.

But keep in mind: The closer we get to the 70% goal, the more and more people are getting vaccinated, the steeper the decline in the number of new cases, the steeper the decline in the number of hospitalizations, and the more lives that we're going to save. So we're going to do everything we can to get there.

PRT: Dr. Bechara Choucair is the White House vaccinations coordinator. Thanks so much for taking the time.

CHOUCAIR: All right, thanks Chris.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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