Teachers and support staff are not only a critical part of society but also a crucial part of the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic because “we're not going to get back to normal until we get the children back in school,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who joined AFT President Randi Weingarten and NEA President Becky Pringle on Thursday for a live virtual event [LINK: https://youtu.be/5XdeMD7YueY] in which Fauci answered questions from union members.
When Fauci took part in a virtual AFT town hall last summer, he cautioned that safety was paramount to reopening schools. But as Weingarten pointed out back then, “We also had an administration that wouldn't give us the resources, wouldn't give us the guidance and downplayed the disease. Fast forward to right now; we have an administration that believes in science, that knows we need real guidance to reopen schools safely, and that believes in the resources to get us there.”
When asked how staff and students can be protected when it comes to in-person learning, Fauci said President Biden’s goal is to reopen schools in the next 100 days. “That may not happen because there may be mitigating circumstances. But what [the president] really wants to do is everything within his power to help get to that point,” Fauci said, adding that Biden’s rescue plan would provide for whatever resources the schools need to protect students and get teachers vaccinated as quickly as possible.
“We want to get the children back to school for the good of the children and for the good of the parents and in many respects, for the good of the teachers,” said Fauci. “The idea of saying, ‘go do it on your own’ doesn't work. That's why President Biden has been very clear about how he wants the American rescue plan to get through and to be implemented.”
Many members expressed concerned about new strains of the virus and wanted to know how to protect themselves. Fauci acknowledged that the most recent data from the United Kingdom indicates that this new strain appears to be more virulent. “It appears now that the vaccine that we are using in the United States seems to do pretty well. There's no reason to believe that we won't be protected against that [strain].”
The doctor encouraged members to adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s public health guidelines—by wearing a mask; keeping physical distance; avoiding congregate settings, particularly indoors; and hand-washing—to cut down on COVID-19 transmission.
“There are many people who feel if you want to have an extra bit of protection, put two masks on,” said Fauci. “There's nothing wrong with that, but there's no data that indicates that that is going to make a difference.”
When asked what steps can be taken to overcome the impact of COVID-19 in Black, brown and Indigenous communities and ensure equitable distribution of testing and the vaccine, Fauci said the Biden administration is acutely aware of the disparity. “The data are sobering and, in many respects, painful,” when comparing the rate of infection, hospitalization and deaths in these communities, he said. “You can see a tremendous disparity … and we've got to overcome that,” he said. “If this outbreak does anything, it sheds a very bright light on the social determinants of health, which really put Black and brown people at a major disadvantage. When we get control of this disease, the social determinants of health will still be there, so we've got to make a multi-decade commitment,” to addressing these disparities.
When asked if it’s possible to transmit COVID-19 after getting vaccinated, Fauci said yes, it is possible: “It’s conceivable that you could be vaccinated, which would protect you against symptomatic disease, but you can also get infected and not know it because the vaccine is protecting you from getting symptoms … and then you could inadvertently or innocently transmit the infection by not wearing a mask.”
For members worried about long-term side effects from the vaccine, Fauci said the history of vaccines and long-term effects shows that most adverse events occur within 45 days after receiving the dose. “With the emergency use authorization of the vaccine, the FDA waited 60 days from the time after people got their last dose,” to observe the vaccine’s effect. “If you wait 60 days, you've gone beyond that, so the chances of there being a long-term adverse event are vanishingly small,” he said.
The country is in a historically challenging time with a pandemic, Fauci said, but having at least two highly efficacious vaccines and more on the way means, “we have some light at the end of the tunnel.”
Fauci closed the session by thanking AFT and NEA members and pointed out that many people emerge during outbreaks as heroes and heroines. “Certainly, the healthcare providers who are out there risking their lives, risking their safety and working tirelessly to take care of people deserve all the praise and credit of the world,” said Fauci, adding that teachers and the team that take care of our children’s well-being and education are in that category as well. “I think that you all are a bunch of heroes as much as anybody else.”