LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Sixty-three percent of adults in the U.S. have now gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but rates vary pretty significantly from state to state. And there's new data underscoring just how important vaccination is for 12 to 17-year-olds. Also will a booster shot be recommended to maintain protection against the virus? NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to discuss all of this. Good morning, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning. Good to be here.
FADEL: So President Biden set a goal to get 70% of adults vaccinated with at least one shot by July Fourth. Is the country on track to meet this target?
AUBREY: Well, about a dozen states have already reached the goal. In Vermont, nearly 80% of all eligible people for the vaccination have had at least one shot. All the New England states have surpassed the goal, as well as New Mexico, Maryland, California. Now, on the flip side, there are states where rates remain significantly lower, under 50% or near 50%. And they are unlikely to meet the goal, including Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Wyoming. And health officials say these places could be vulnerable. Here's CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.
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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We have pockets of this country that have lower rates of vaccination. I worry that this virus is an opportunist and that where we have low rates of vaccination are where we may see it again. And so really the issue now is to make sure we get to those communities as well.
AUBREY: There's obviously been so much progress. Daily cases of the virus are down to just about 13,000 a day nationwide. Back in January, we had 250,000 a day, so more than a 90% drop. And Dr. Walensky says meeting the 70% goal everywhere would go an extraordinarily long way to ensure community protection.
FADEL: So some good news there. And there's some success in Latino communities in boosting vaccine rates in recent weeks, right? What's working?
AUBREY: That's right. Sure. Well, in the last two weeks, CDC data shows that about 28% of those who got their first vaccine are Latino Hispanic. This demographic group represents 17% of the population. So this is encouraging. I spoke to Leydy Rangel of the UFW Foundation. She says among farm workers, hesitancy really hasn't been as much of an issue as access, and this is improving. Her group has helped organized pop-up vaccination sites at churches, community centers, sometimes in tandem with food distribution sites to make it convenient.
LEYDY RANGEL: I think that the increase of vaccinations amongst Latinos that we're seeing is really stemming from the hard work that organizers and Latinos are doing on the ground and knocking on doors of farmworker families. That really is a big step in the right direction.
AUBREY: She says one focus now is to talk to families about the benefits of vaccinating children 12 and up - a lot of work to do to get rates up among this age group.
FADEL: Speaking of children, we heard throughout the pandemic that kids are not as vulnerable to the virus.
FADEL: But a new analysis from the CDC points to just how serious the illness can actually be in older kids.
AUBREY: That's right. I mean, cases of hospitalizations are pretty rare. But CDC Director Walensky said on Friday she was concerned about a new study that found hospitalization rates after dropping over the winter had increased among 12 to 17-year-olds this spring. She says teens who get vaccinated will not only protect themselves but will also bolster protection in the community. The Pfizer vaccine has been available to kids 12 and up since last month, and Moderna plans to seek FDA authorization this month for 12 to 17-year-olds. I spoke to the president of Moderna, Dr. Stephen Hoge, about the timeline and about its clinical trial underway in even younger children.
STEPHEN HOGE: Our goal is to try and get the vaccine authorized in those populations by the fall. And you got to be a little bit careful there because you want to de-escalate the dose. You want to find the right dose for a 2-year-old or a 5-year-old. And it's probably not the same dose that we give to our teenagers or adults. And that process is ongoing, but we're on track and enrolling very quickly.
AUBREY: Now, ultimately, it's up to the FDA to review the data and authorize the vaccine for use in these age groups.
FADEL: OK. So let's talk about booster shots.
FADEL: Lots of talk about booster shots. Will people need them and when?
AUBREY: Right now, there's a lot of evaluation and research underway to answer these questions. The National Institutes of Health has launched a clinical trial to test whether a booster shot of the Moderna vaccine in people who previously have been vaccinated with any of the three approved vaccines will increase antibodies and lengthen protection against the virus. There will be 12 trial sites in different cities. People will be enrolled about three to five months after their second dose of the vaccine or after the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson. And they'll be followed through one year. I spoke to Dr. Dan Barouch, the director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center about why it's just too soon to determine any specific booster strategy.
DAN BAROUCH: We know that immune responses do decline over time, but what we don't know is just how fast they're going to decline over, say, a one-year period. So at this point in time, I think the jury is still out as to whether we'll need a booster this fall or this winter.
AUBREY: You know, another potential reason for a booster would be to protect against emergent strains that could evade the current vaccines. Right now, there's a clinical trial to test a version of the vaccine Moderna developed specifically to work against the Beta variant. That's the one that was identified first in South Africa. It's also possible to modify the vaccine to target other strains. So, so far, the current vaccines offer good protection against the variants documented in the U.S. so far.
FADEL: So with the vaccine, some of normal life is resuming. People are on the go again.
FADEL: But masking - right. So - but masking remains in place in certain settings, right?
AUBREY: Yeah. So masking is required, for instance, through September 13 at airports and on airplanes. But, frankly, travelers are getting mixed messages. I mean, airlines are serving drinks and snacks. Airport restaurants are open. Clearly, people are taking off masks to eat and drink, so if you plan to travel, be prepared. I traveled last week and I will tell you, airports are busy, middle seats are open. Expect people on either side of you. We'll have to get accustomed to having strangers sitting so close again. In recent days, TSA screeners have screened nearly 1.9 million air travelers a day. By comparison, this time last year, there were about 400,000 people traveling a day. So the U.S. isn't quite back to pre-pandemic volume, but we are getting closer. So if you are venturing out, be patient.
FADEL: We're getting closer. All right. NPR's Allison Aubrey, thank you so much.
AUBREY: Thank you for having me.
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