Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 22. (NIH)

Fauci: To crush COVID-19, U.S. must vaccinate ‘overwhelming majority’

The nation’s top infectious disease expert says vaccines might be available for the general public in April, estimates a 70-85% vaccination rate to achieve herd immunity and emphasizes the importance of Black and brown Americans getting vaccinated.

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The COVID-19 pandemic “is the worst the world has seen in 102 years,” Anthony Fauci, M.D., the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said Friday. And with the pandemic disproportionately affecting Black and brown Americans, it is imperative, he said, to address skepticism in African American communities regarding vaccine effectiveness and safety to turn the tide of a disease that has now claimed the lives of nearly 2 million people worldwide and more than 365,000 in the United States.

Speaking virtually to a group that included Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, M.D., VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., a panel of public health and infectious disease experts, and members of the African American faith community, Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, underscored the “extraordinary” racial and ethnic disparities of the pandemic, and the need for Black and brown leaders to help assure their communities of the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

“If we want to crush this outbreak, we need to get the overwhelming majority of the United States population to get vaccinated, including — and I might say even specifically — Black and brown people, because of the risk of infection and serious consequences,” Fauci said. “[Leaders of] Black churches and places of faith in Black and brown [communities], since you are trusted, when you get up there and say that it’s important to get vaccinated, that means an awful lot.”

Facts & Faith Fridays with Anthony Fauci

Fauci said vaccines might be available for the general public in April. Meanwhile, discussion at the event — held less than a month after vaccinations began in the United States and as the U.S. sets new highs for COVID-19 deaths, new cases and hospitalizations seemingly on a daily basis — focused on the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, dispelling vaccine myths and providing the latest facts on vaccinations and the pandemic.

Fauci fielded questions about the effectiveness of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against the new strain of the virus emerging from the United Kingdom — scientists in the U.K. have determined the vaccines “are still very effective against the mutant strain,” he said — and whether people truly need to get a second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines (both require an initial dose and a booster shot weeks later). Fauci called the second dose “absolutely critical.”

He also discussed, with sobering data, the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color in the U.S. For every 100,000 Americans, 564 Black or African Americans are being hospitalized for COVID-19, compared to 184 people who are white. For every 100,000 people in the U.S., 132 Black or African Americans are dying from the disease, compared to 81 who are white.

“It’s an extraordinary difference — an extraordinary disparity,” he said.

Facts & Faith Fridays with Anthony Fauci full event. Remarks from: Janice Underwood: 13:32 | Gov. Ralph Northam: 19:12 | Michael Rao: 27:48 | Robert Winn: 32:28 | Anthony Fauci: 39:30

As of Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said about 5.9 million people have received a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Fauci received his first dose of the Moderna vaccine at the National Institutes of Health in December. 

Ultimately, he said, the timeline for the return of normal life is dependent on how effectively vaccines are rolled out to the public. And it’s also “dependent on us,” he said. 

“If we roll out vaccines and we’re successful in convincing the overwhelming majority of people to get vaccinated — and I would estimate 70% to 85% — logistically that would likely take us sometime toward the end of the summer,” he said. “If — and it’s a big ‘if’ that you have to underline — if we get that overwhelming majority vaccinated, I think we can start approaching a reasonable degree of normality toward the mid-fall of 2021.” 

Friday’s event also featured remarks from Northam, Rao and Robert Winn, M.D., director of VCU Massey Cancer Center. It was co-sponsored by the governor’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the Office of Health Equity at the Virginia Department of Health, VCU Massey Cancer Center and faith leaders from Massey Cancer Center’s “Facts & Faith Fridays” group. The latter began in March 2020 as a weekly call with Winn and African American clergy in Virginia to address the disproportional impact the pandemic has had on the Black community. Watch the full event on the Massey Cancer Center website.