WASHINGTON — Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease doctor, said COVID-19 vaccines work extremely well and that a return to the lockdowns of 2020 is unlikely despite reports of recent outbreaks among fully vaccinated people.
“The likelihood of your getting a severe outcome of the infection is very low” when a person is fully inoculated, Fauci said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “It is much more likely that you will be either without symptoms or minimally symptomatic. So the vaccine is doing what you want it to do. It’s protecting people from getting sick.”
But he said the outbreak will get “worse” because of the large number of unvaccinated people in the U.S., estimating that there are 100 million people in the country who are eligible for the shots who are not getting them.
“I don’t think we’re going to see lockdowns,” he said separately on ABC’s “This Week.” “I think we have enough of the percentage of people in the country, not enough to crush the outbreak, but I believe enough to not allow us to get into the situation we were in last winter. But things are going to get worse.”
Fauci spoke after a week marked by uncertainty, alarm and allegations of missteps by the Biden administration over the rapidly accelerating outbreak and the delta variant fueling it.
Infections have increased fivefold from just a month ago, with states like Florida hitting record case numbers for the entire pandemic. Hospitalizations and deaths are also rising nationally but not as high as during previous peaks.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed its earlier position and said fully vaccinated people should go back to wearing masks indoors in places where infections are rising. In May, with hopes high that Americans would embrace vaccinations more fully, the agency heralded a return to normal life by loosening mask recommendations for the fully vaccinated.
The turnaround was not just the increasing spread of cases caused by the delta variant among the unvaccinated. The agency revealed data that raised questions about protection offered by vaccines themselves, though vaccines remain overwhelmingly effective against serious illness and death. Of the 163 million fully vaccinated people in the U.S., 6,239 have been hospitalized and 1,263 have died, the CDC says.
But in an outbreak on Cape Cod in July, about three-quarters of the cases, primarily caused by the delta variant, were among the fully vaccinated. No one died and only seven people were hospitalized.
The outbreak also suggested that inoculated people had similar amounts of virus in their body as unvaccinated people, implying they could spread the disease more easily than previously thought.
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said the push for the use of masks is “mostly” to protect the unvaccinated, especially with the new data pointing to how those inoculated who are infected carry the virus in their noses and throats. About 75% of counties are in areas where there is widespread transmission.
For those vaccinated, the chances of getting infected drop by 3 1/2-fold, and the possibility of seeing symptoms go down by eightfold, he said. And the likelihood of getting sick with the need to be hospitalized fall by 25-fold, he added.
“That is so fantastically good for any vaccine,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We didn’t really have a right to dare they would be this good in the real world. And they are, even against delta.”
Fauci said the new data on how infectious vaccinated people can be was the “fundamental basis” for the CDC’s renewed recommendation of masks. He said it is crucial more people get vaccinated to halt the virus’s spread, despite their misgivings.
“You understand people feeling that they have the individual right to make their own decision, and I respect that,” he said on CBS. “But the issue is, if you’re going to be part of the transmission chain to someone else, it’s not only impacting you. And you’ve got to think about it.”