During a Senate hearing Tuesday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky urged parents to vaccinate their children now that federal officials have authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech shots for children as young as 12.
The Food and Drug Administration cleared the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for emergency use in children as young as 12 on Monday, expanding access to the vaccine before next school year. Walensky said she knew some parents wanted to wait and see how the administration of shots to children goes, but she urged children to ask for the vaccine if their parents were hesitant.
“I would encourage all parents to get their children vaccinated. I know many parents are enthusiastic and have been texting me,” Walensky told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “Some parents want to be first, but I’m also encouraging children to ask for the vaccine. I have a 16-year-old myself, and I can tell you he wanted to get the vaccine. He wants his life back. These kids want to go back to school.”
Health officials also said that they were prepared to ship up to 60 million doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca’s vaccine overseas, but that the Food and Drug Administration was reviewing issues with Emergent BioSolutions’ Baltimore plant, which produced coronavirus vaccines for Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. Peter Marks, who leads the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said his agency was working to clear the doses as quickly as possible.
“The FDA feels it’s imperative that before vaccine can be shipped to any other partner, it has to meet the quality standards that it would meet for any American, as well,” Marks said.
Also on Tuesday, the Biden administration announced that ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft plan to offer free rides to coronavirus vaccination sites under a program expected to launch soon.
People will be able to use the companies’ apps to choose a vaccination location and follow simple directions to redeem their ride, the White House said in a statement. The partnership is scheduled to begin in the next two weeks and last through July 4.
“By helping Americans get a free ride to a vaccination site, Lyft and Uber are eliminating a potential barrier and driving America closer to the President’s goal of getting 70% of the U.S. adult population with at least one shot by July 4th,” the White House said.
While demand for Uber and Lyft trips has plummeted during the pandemic, the companies said rides have picked up in recent weeks, leading to a shortage of drivers. The vaccination effort could reintroduce passengers to the services they shied away from at the height of the crisis.
Los Angeles County health officials predicted Monday that the county could achieve herd immunity from the coronavirus by mid- to late July, a striking prediction after a winter in which the region’s hospitals rationed oxygen treatments amid high infection rates.
Health officials have increasingly expressed concern that vaccine hesitancy will keep the United States from achieving herd immunity, the level of protection at which the coronavirus would be much easier to contain.
Linda Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s public-health director, told reporters that the county has been vaccinating about 400,000 people per week and needs to administer 1.5 million to 2 million more shots before 80% of residents age 16 and older are inoculated. While scientists do not know exactly what percentage of people needs to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity, Ferrer said she estimates that about 80%.
If the current rate of vaccination holds, she said Los Angeles County — the most populous in the country — will arrive at herd immunity in the summer.
“At the rate we’re going, we expect that we can reach this level somewhere in mid- to late July,” Ferrer said. “And that assumes that we continue to at least have 400,000 people vaccinated each week. That will include both first doses that people need, as well as their second doses.”
Los Angeles County reported an average of 258 new infections Monday, down from a high of more than 15,000 in January, according to The Washington Post’s tracking of data. The average number of COVID-19-related deaths that day was 11; it had peaked earlier at 241.
Elsewhere, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, described the situation in India on Tuesday as “very worrying,” amid soaring infection rates and deaths, especially because many of the numbers are probably undercounts.
India announced a slight decrease Tuesday in new cases from over the weekend, reporting 329,942 infections — by far the most in the world — and 3,876 deaths. While there are signs that the surge may be abating in major metropolitan areas, the new wave appears to be taking hold in more rural areas that are harder to monitor.
On Monday, the WHO designated the variant sweeping through much of India as a more dangerous “variant of concern” that is believed to be more transmissible and possibly more resistant to antibodies.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex expressed hope Monday that the country was emerging from the coronavirus crisis, which has claimed at least 106,000 lives and infected more than 5.8 million people in the European nation.
Speaking to the Parisien newspaper, Castex said the government was striving to reopen and rebuild after months of restrictions, three nationwide lockdowns and several severe waves of infection. He said France’s mass vaccination campaign has played a successful role in helping the country attempt to return to life before the pandemic.
“There is a major difference compared to last summer: We have learned from the past and, above all, we have vaccination,” Castex said. He added that the government is reviewing rules about lifting restrictions and is consulting with health and scientific experts.
A plan announced by French President Emmanuel Macron aims to slowly loosen limitations across the country in four stages. By next week, outdoor drinking and dining will be allowed, and by next month, tourists will be able to enter the country if they show a “health pass,” as will those hoping to attend mass gatherings.
By July, the country is expected to have fully reopened — apart from nightclubs.
While cases and hospitalizations in France have fallen, officials are urging people to remain vigilant and not let their guard down.
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The Washington Post’s Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.