Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy address questions and concerns surrounding COVID-19:
School is starting. It's already started in a lot of places, Mr. Secretary. The president said, the key to all of this is getting parents and kids who can get vaccinated, vaccinated. That's the key?
MIGUEL CARDONA, U.S. EDUCATION SECRETARY: Yes.
And we're pleased that, across the country, 50 million students are coming back to school. Many of these students haven't been in school for over a year. So, the goal is to do everything we can to make sure that they're going in safely, so that they don't have another interrupted year like last year.
BAIER: You know, we have this chart. It's from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Murthy.
And it's the number of child COVID cases you see on the screen there, really shooting up in recent weeks.
Why is that? Is it Delta-specific? And what can be done about this, if you have got a young kid?
DR. VIVEK MURTHY, U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: Yes.
Well, Bret, this is a really important question. And for -- you and I are both parents. And I have got kids who are under 12. They're not eligible yet to be vaccinated. And when you see numbers like that, I can absolutely understand, for parents, why it would be concerning.
Here's why it's happening. We have this new variant, the Delta variant, which has been causing this summer surge. And it is more contagious than any other variant that we have dealt with when it comes to COVID-19. And that's leading more of our kids to be infected. We have seen the rates of infection among kids under 4 our increase markedly in the last month-and-a-half.
We have seen among teenagers who are eligible to be vaccinated that those who are not vaccinated are 10 times more likely to be hospitalized than those who are vaccinated. So, it's a combination of how contagious Delta is with the fact that we still have a lot of kids who are not yet vaccinated and protected.
BAIER: Which protects you more, if you had COVID already or the vaccine?
It seems like that you had COVID already is not factored in a lot into -- into the equation. Is that fair?
MURTHY: Yes, so, this is a really important question.
So, what we know is that there are two ways that you can get protection. The vaccine is the one that has been studied the most and the most reliable one. We know that, when you get infection, you can get some degree of protection. What we're less clear about is how long that protection lasts.
But here's what the research has told us very clearly. If you get infected, and then you get a dose of vaccine, you boost your antibody levels, your protection up to incredible levels. And so you're even more protected.
If you compare people who are -- who have had previous infection and those who got the vaccine and those who didn't, what you find is that those who are not vaccinated after their infection are more than twice as likely to get a reinfection with COVID, compared to those who got the vaccine.
BAIER: Mr. Secretary, there's a lot of parents this week who are just walking on eggshells, because they're waiting for this notification of the first case in the school.
And a lot of them have concerns about what happens if their kid comes in contact. Here is one mother, Heather from New York, talking about what happens, the contingency.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My one concern is, there's no remote option. So, if they do get -- test positive because they -- or they have to quarantine because they have been exposed, they don't really have a 10-day at-home option at all, except maybe some pamphlets or packets.
And I'm worried they're going to fall behind for those 10 days. Even if they're not positive, they have to stay home. So that's my really only big concern is filling in the gaps.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BAIER: The remote option and how schools deal with that.
CARDONA: Right. Right.
What we're finding this year is, this hybrid model that we used last year is not being used throughout the country, which is good. We have all students in. And what we're finding is, when mitigation strategies are being used, we're not seeing major quarantines.
So, what districts are doing is preparing for students to be in the classroom, but also ensuring that, if they do have to quarantine, there are materials available.
I know that, across the country, districts planned on having in person learning. And they're prepared to keep students in the classroom as much as possible to make sure that they get access to in person learning.
BAIER: Have there been studies about the mental -- how wearing the masks and how this has all affected kids, as far as -- did they lose a year in education this past year?
CARDONA: There was a lot of missed instruction.
But I think also, Bret, what I have heard from students in my visits to different states and from my own two children, they missed their friends. They missed being with their teacher. So that social interaction, that access to extracurricular activities, they have missed that.
So, what we're finding is that they want to be in the classrooms. And for many students, including my own children, they don't like wearing the masks, but they know that, if that's their ticket to having in person learning, they're going to do it.
BAIER: Want to go back to the top and concerns about the vaccines, especially for kids.
We have two mothers here, Kaia and Destiny. They have young kids, and they're concerned about the vaccine and what it means for little kids. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My daughter will be 1 next Friday. And I'm curious to know how the vaccination will be safe for the young kids.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I feel like, with kids, they are not fully developed yet to be able to take all these different vaccines.
If the mask is helpful, why do we need to take the vaccine?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MURTHY: Well, first I just want to say to Kaia and Destiny, these are good questions to ask. We should all be looking out for the health and well-being of our kids.
The good news is that we have a lot of experience giving vaccines to kids, right? I mean, we have seen that vaccines have been really effective at protecting our kids from measles, from mumps, from rubella, from pertussis, and other illnesses.
But before a vaccine is made available for kids like Kaia's and Destiny's and kids like mine, who are under 12, the FDA needs to look at the data from the clinical trials, and really make sure that not only are they effective, but that they're safe. And that is the only condition under which the FDA would say, now it's OK for your child to have the vaccine.
That's why that approval is so important, that authorization. That's really the gold standard for safety.
And, Bret, if I could say one other thing, I'm thinking about the questions that are being asked tonight, the concerns about remote learning, concerns about the mental health impacts on our children. This is why it is so important that we take the safety precautions needed to prevent the spread of infection in our schools and keep our kids in schools.
The good news is, we know how to do that. It's a combination of good ventilation, masks, frequent testing, keeping kids home when they're sick, as opposed to letting them come to school. But my worry is that we're not doing this in enough parts of our country.
If we do that, though, we can keep our kids in school and keep them safe.
BAIER: You know, there's a lot of parents who just have a lot of concerns about the safety. They want to know how to keep their kids safe.
We will go forward to Joseph from Flourtown, Pennsylvania. And he has a very specific question about COVID as it deals with how he dealt with chicken pox in the past. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wanted to know whether or not it made sense to allow our children to be exposed to COVID, because the possibility of them dying because of it is so minimal that perhaps we can expose them to COVID and give them a natural immunity.
When somebody got chicken pox, we would take the kids over to the house to be exposed to chicken pox, so as to get it. And I'm just kind of curious about whether or not that would make sense.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BAIER: Dr. Murthy?
MURTHY: Well, so it's a reasonable question to ask.
And here's what we know. Even though kids do better than older adults when it comes to the outcomes of COVID-19, COVID is not harmless in our children. Over this past year-and-a-half, we have lost hundreds of children to COVID-19. We have had thousands hospitalized.
We have one of our highest levels of COVID hospitalizations among kids right now. And we also know that long COVID, which is that syndrome where kids can experience shortness of breath and fatigue and other symptoms for months after their infection, that that affects a not-insignificant number of children.
So the safest thing for us to do is to weigh risks and benefits here. And when we do that, we see that getting vaccinated is actually a much lower-risk and higher-benefit proposition than allowing our kids to get COVID and run the risk of having complications.
BAIER: And, just quickly, the complications from the vaccine have been minimal. You have talked about that.
But there have been some, some heart issues. What other things?
MURTHY: Yes, great question.
So, what they have seen is, in -- with the mRNA vaccines in particular -- this is the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine -- that there are rare side effects of what is called myocarditis, which is an inflammation of the heart muscle.
Now, that might sound worrisome, but the good news is, these cases are typically mild, and they usually resolve, often without much treatment at all. So, the bottom line is that our kids do fine.
But what's interesting, Bret, is, when you look at kids who get COVID, their risk of having myocarditis is markedly higher than the risk of kids who get the vaccine. Plus, they have got a whole long list of other complications from the virus.
BAIER: And we're talking about the virus here.
Do we have to worry about this Mu variant?
MURTHY: So the Mu variant is something that we're keeping track of.
This is -- viruses mutate all the time. The Mu variant is just another version of that. The good news is that we're seeing very little Mu in the country right now. The Delta variant is really the dominant variant, 99 percent of what we're dealing with. That's where we got to keep our focus.
BAIER: Mr. Secretary, a lot of parents think it's just a matter of time before the school lock down again, before they're kicked out.
Here's two mothers, Jasmine (ph) and Stacey (ph), talking about that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm totally worried that there's more lockdowns to come. Actually, I'm not worried about it. I do just anticipate it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If we close schools, are we taking into account the mental health issues of children and their families, both short- and long-term effects?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BAIER: Mr. Secretary, I mean, obviously, we're dealing with a situation where schools are opening, but they're worried.
CARDONA: Yes, they're worried.
And I agree with those parents. I'm one of those parents. I don't want another year of disrupted learning. Our students have suffered enough. They need to be in the classroom. And they need to have uninterrupted learning.
That's why we're very supportive of all the strategies we have, including vaccinations for students that are eligible, including mask-wearing, so students can be around one another in the classroom, so that they can stay in school.
Not only does it have a mental impact on our students, and it lessens their ability to participate in sports or theater, but it also impacts the parents, who now have to stay home when their children are home. So, I think everyone across the country agrees we need to keep our children in school, but we need to do it safely.
BAIER: How much do the teachers unions impact policy for the Biden administration, specifically, but overall for schools here?
BAIER: Obviously, critics on Capitol Hill say they dominate on the inside.
CARDONA: You know, I will tell you, I have been in various states and talked to -- and there's no teacher that I have talked to that said they didn't want to be in the classroom. They just want to be there safely.
If anything, I have seen a lot of efforts from both teachers and principals, superintendent groups supporting safe reopening of schools and really getting on message to say, our kids belong in the classroom and our teachers belong in the classroom.
So it's been really supportive, to be quite frank. And I think that's an example of what we have seen from our educators for the last year-and-a-half. They have bent over backwards. They want to be in the classroom, and that's where they know children learn best.
BAIER: Want to something else about the concerns.
Fertility, that's a question that comes up a lot, whether the vaccine affects fertility.
MURTHY: Yes, and the bottom line is, there's absolutely no evidence that the vaccine has an impact on your fertility, whether you're a man or a woman.
I have certainly seen that circulating on social media, a lot of people who have bought into that, because, sometimes, they don't know that may not be true. Maybe it seems like it's coming from a reputable source. But the science absolutely does not support that. We have seen many people actually get pregnant after they have had the vaccine. We have had many people who have actually gotten the vaccine during pregnancy, and done very well.
BAIER: Want to do more question before we take a little break here.
And that is back to Marsha (ph). She is from Chelsea, Michigan. And she's a farmer and an accountant, quite a combo. But she is concerned specifically about taking the vaccines.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What do the people like me that are allergic to the vaccines do? We're lumped into a category that we're unvaccinated, we're part of the problem, but yet we're allergic to many of the ingredients that are in the vaccines.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BAIER: Especially if there's some kind of mandate that's around -- the president talked about today. She's obviously not a federal worker, but may factor into that.
Well, this is a really important question, because, number one, if you have got a medical condition which prevents you from taking one of the vaccines, like you have an allergy, for example, to one of the components of the vaccine, while that's rare and it's unusual, it's an important condition, and then something you should talk to your doctor about.
Some people who are allergic to the components of one vaccine can get one of the other vaccines. We're fortunate to have three vaccines that are available here in the United States.
But it's also important to note, with the requirements that are put in place, there are medical exemptions that come with it. So, if you do truly have a condition where you cannot receive a vaccine, that will actually allow you to be exempt from a requirement.
BAIER: OK, gentlemen, stand by, if you would.
When we come back with our guests, a really good viewer question about masks.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we're not tested positive, then why do we have to wear a mask?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BAIER: Welcome back to our expanded coronavirus pandemic coverage on "Special Report."
We are talking with tonight the secretary of education and the surgeon general. And we're taking your questions as well.
Before we get there, we talked a little bit about the possibility of someone in school, Mr. Secretary, coming in contact with somebody. And then they have got to go quarantine for 10 days. That's a lot of missed school, and a lot of parents saying, what happens then?
CARDONA: That's a significant disruption.
And we want to limit that. And we have the experience. We have done this before. This is our second year reopening schools. And we know that a combination of strategies that includes testing protocols, that includes making sure that we're doing contact tracing to limit the number of students that come in contact, and make sure that, when students are not feeling well, they stay home, so that we can keep the children in school.
So, we have the strategies. It's just about making sure that we're using them.
BAIER: And the mental health issues you talked about before.
We talked a lot about what students lost academically or what they missed academically, but I think, when talking to students, teachers and parents, that emotional piece, that sense of community that schools provide, students miss that. They miss being around their peers. They miss engaging with teachers in person.
So I'm glad that they're back. And we have to do everything to keep them in the classroom.
BAIER: It is different, though, when you have to wear masks. I mean, it just is.
And it's harder for these kids. Some of them really hate it. And these parents are not happy about it either.
Here's Carey (ph) and Don with questions.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: Are there any studies that show the effectiveness of a mask for children in schools? And when I say a mask, I mean the typical type of mask that a kid would wear, a cloth mask, one of these cheap surgical masks. Are they really effective?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hello.
I would like to know, what is the science behind wearing masks to prevent the virus from spreading? Because everything that I have ever seen in researching it is that the masks don't really do that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BAIER: Dr. Murthy?
MURTHY: So, here's what people should know about masks.
There's no single intervention that completely prevents the spread of COVID-19. But masks do work to reduce the likelihood of spread. And the time when they work best is when everyone is wearing masks, so the person who is worried about getting infected and the person who may be infected.
In our schools, that is true as well. We, in fact, saw a recent study from the CDC that showed that, when a teacher was actually infected and not wearing a mask, that that teacher, in fact, infected half of the class.
And so what we see actually when we look across the country right now is that, when masks are being worn, the incidence of spread of COVID-19 is less. So, masks do work. But there are differences in masks. Some masks are better than others.
And whenever you -- the higher quality that mask, the better the fit, the more effective it's going to be for your child.
CARDONA: I just want to put an exclamation point on that, if I could.
What we're seeing across the country in real time is, in places where the mitigation strategies are not taken as seriously, there's more school disruption and there are higher numbers of students in emergency rooms. So they do work.
BAIER: OK, well, here's Carla. She's a grandmother. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Kids get fidgety when they're in school. They're not going to keep it on their face all day. They're going to pull it down.
It's just some normalcy. Even I see some adults that does that. So I can't even blame it on the kids.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BAIER: I mean, kids are kids. They are going to pull it down. They're going to pull it off.
Is it still...
MURTHY: Yes. You can't blame Carla. Carla is right. Like, not everybody wears a mask properly all the time. It's not the easiest thing to do.
But here's what was interesting about this. Number one, kids are remarkably resilient. I have been really struck by how many kids in school have been able to wear masks and just get used to it. I have seen that in my own children as well.
But here's the other really important point. We focus a lot on masks. Masks are just one of several layers of precaution that we need to take in our school. And the layers are important. And the more of them we do, the safer our kids are. Those layers include the masking, but also regular testing, using the funds from the American Rescue Plan to improve ventilation in our schools.
These are all part of the package that we need to put in place. And like Secretary Cardona was saying, we are now clearly seeing that, where those measures are put in place, kids do better, schools do better, there are fewer disruptions in the class.
Where they're not being taken, either because they're being blocked by local or state officials or for other reasons, our kids don't do as well. And our number one goal should be to keep our kids safe however we can.
BAIER: I don't -- you -- I don't think you have weighed in on this.
But -- and it's not your focus now. But do you believe that COVID began with a lab leak? If the U.S. government comes out with this report, the intel report, and it's inconclusive, should we as a country and Capitol Hill in particular continue going down this road to investigate it?
MURTHY: Well, Bret, I think it's very important that we understand how this all started.
The lab leak theory is one possible theory. And we have got to understand how this happened, so that we can better anticipate future events and prevent pandemics like this from happening in the future.
My belief is that science and facts have to guide us when we are investigating these kinds of issues and trying to prevent future pandemics. And it's the responsibility of every country to be transparent and open, so that we can get a handle on this.
And unless we get that transparency, we get the information, so we can formulate a reasonable conclusion, we shouldn't stop.
BAIER: There are new documents out that have been analyzed saying that the NIH did fund some of this gain-of-function research, but it's not called that.
So, are you positive that the NIH was not funding some of this stuff that altered that virus, maybe not this one, but a virus?
MURTHY: Well, what I can tell you is that folks I have worked with at the NIH over the years, their goal has been singular, which is to ensure that we are doing everything to understand disease, prevent it and make sure people who do get sick get well. That is their fundamental function. That's what their goal is, what they do.
All of us in government now are united in wanting to understand where this pandemic started and how it started. But this is not just a responsibility of the United States. This is -- this must be a global responsibility, something that every country should be pushing for to get the right answers to.
And once we do get answers, and along the way, we have got to work together to make sure we're putting systems in place to identify these kind of viruses when they first crop up, and then contain them quickly, so that we don't see the kind of global pandemic that we're dealing with right now.
BAIER: Well, we appreciate the time here.
Mr. Secretary, I want to end with this.
The president's critics up on Capitol Hill say that he talks tougher about unvaccinated Americans than he does about the Taliban. And there are people in the country who have problems, for one reason or another, about taking the vaccine.
So one of the reasons we wanted to do this expanded was to answer questions and concerns. But you hear that, about how the president talks about it. How should we look at this?
CARDONA: Well, thanks for having me here.
And we're at a point in our country where we need to make sure we're protecting all Americans. And I appreciate the bold actions of the president to make sure we're doing everything in our power to protect Americans.
We have the tools, we have the technology, and we have the urgency. So, for me, this is more about making sure that we're doing everything to protect all citizens and making sure that our students have an opportunity to learn in the classroom and be with their peers.
They have been disrupted enough. They have suffered enough. It's time to move our country forward.
BAIER: Yes, go ahead.
MURTHY: And I would also say that, look, I think so many times back to my conversations with patients as a doctor, sitting in that exam room, sitting in the hospital, trying to make tough decisions with them.
And everyone's life is different. Everyone's got different considerations. Some people may have had a bad experience with the medical health care system that leads them to be suspicious about vaccines. Somebody else may have heard misinformation online.
We have got to approach each person that is an individual, recognizing that everyone's the same. And what has worried me is that, in this debate around not just vaccines, but masks, how we get through the pandemic, it's become angry, it's become polarized. People have turned on each other.
This is a time I think it's so important for us to approach each other with respect, with kindness, with compassion, recognizing we all want the same thing, which is to be safe and to keep our family safe. And if we can help each other, support each other in that process and that search for accurate information, help each other in our decision-making, I think we can do better.
I just spoke yesterday to a man who has been looking for answers for six months on -- about the vaccine, trying to make a decision for himself. And we had a really thoughtful conversation. And, at the end, he made his decision. He's going to actually take the vaccine.
But, either way, we got to have more conversations like that and approach people with respect. That's how we're going to get this done. It's something, frankly, in my private conversations with the president as well he recognizes this. He sort of said we have got to treat people with dignity. We got to treat them with respect, meet them where they are.
And that's one of the reasons why, in the pandemic response that you have seen, we have tried to roll out as many avenues of reaching people as possible, whether that's through local influencers and local doctors, trying to get mobile units to them, so they can get vaccines on their own schedule.
We just got to keep meeting people where they are. That's how we will get through this.
BAIER: That's the reason for this conversation here.