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Former Biden Advisor Analyzes U.S. Pandemic Response In New Book

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There are parties again and concerts. The bleachers at the ballpark are full. America is moving past the pandemic that's still very much a pandemic. Not even half of the country is fully vaccinated, and the vaccine rollout has stalled. This as the delta variant, the most contagious form of the virus so far, is on the march.

We're joined now by Andy Slavitt, recently a senior adviser to President Biden's COVID response team, and he's author of the new book "Preventable: The Inside Story Of How Leadership Failures, Politics, And Selfishness Doomed The U.S. Coronavirus Response." Good morning.

ANDY SLAVITT: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How worried are you at the landscape you are seeing right now? A partially vaccinated population, a worrying new variant - are we going to be further divided between the vaccine haves and the have-nots in the way this country has been divided by so much else in this pandemic?

SLAVITT: I think that's a good way to put it. We have - if you've been vaccinated, you are really in a place where you should be grabbing the parts of your life that you lost over the last year. But if you haven't been, the delta variant is basically this same bug on steroids because it is twice as easy to get. So if you're not vaccinated, this is another reason to go talk to your doctor, go talk to your pharmacist and get vaccinated.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your book details the failures of the Trump administration and describes a comparatively effective nationwide vaccination campaign by the Biden administration - 300 million shots in 150 days. But Biden's stated goal was to get at least one shot into 70% of the adult population by July 4, and as of this morning, it's 65%. What is your explanation for why Biden is likely to fall short?

SLAVITT: Well, I don't think we should be worried about 67% versus 70% versus 73%. If we want to be worried about something, we should be worried about Arkansas at 50% and Vermont at 90%. It's really the disparity that you called out in your first question that should raise alarm bells because if you're vaccinated or you're living in a community that's largely vaccinated, you're in relatively good shape. But we have parts of this country, as you know, that have much lower levels, and those are the places that I'm worried about.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what should be done about that?

SLAVITT: Well, we just can't quit. I mean, we - you know, we know it's going to take longer. We know some people are going to take longer to come around, and we need to respect people's decision-making process. We need to respect their concerns. Unfortunately, everybody's going to need to decide for themselves, and they're going to need to have one-on-one conversations with someone they trust and look at the data. I think when the FDA does final approval of the drug, of the vaccines, I think we're going to - that's going to get a whole nother side of people to get off the fence.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, in your book, you say that Americans often value individual freedom over the public good. As we saw in this pandemic, many people did do as they were told by public health officials, but a huge number did not. And I can't see that changing, can you? I mean, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis just said yesterday in a rally, ultimately, Florida chose freedom over Faucism (ph).

SLAVITT: Well, look; it's a great line. And we can politicize the pandemic all we want, but we do that at our peril. You know, I think the - as the book outlines - and I have a - it takes - goes through one-on-one conversations verbatim that I had with Deborah Birx and with Jared Kushner and others on the president's team at the time. Politics was getting in the way of us doing what we needed to do, and I don't think a different president would have solved this problem. But, you know, we do need to call ourselves together at times like this. We do need to try to put aside our differences. If we can't do it against a pandemic bug, then we would have to ask ourselves, what can we do it for?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But was there maybe a wider problem? I mean, yes, 600,000 Americans dead - it's a colossal, unfathomable number. But in addition to that tragedy, was there also a lot of needless suffering? I'm thinking about school kids and parents who are wondering if schools really needed to be closed so widely. I mean, should they have been?

SLAVITT: No question - and we can and should go back and question every one of these decisions and mark the ones that we oversteered on and mark the ones that we understeered on. And there were costs all over the board. Largely, though, there - we have to ask ourselves - some of this is a cost of not dealing directly with the virus, and those were spillover effects. But there's no doubt that there is a reasonable argument to be made on the other side.

The book tries to say that we have to basically be able to address this honestly and candidly with real dialogue and debate. And we have to not be so quick to judge the scientists in hindsight who were helping us make decisions at the time. There's a real cynicism involved in saying, well, that scientist was wrong because it's a way of saying, you can't trust any experts. Therefore, why don't you just listen to me, whoever I am?

So I don't think our expectation should be perfection. I think our expection (ph) should be goodwill, empathy, good decision-making, people who use data and people who are honest with us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write in the afterword to "Preventable" that the United States, far and away the leader in deaths from COVID, was now far and away the leader in vaccinations. But at the beginning of the book, you did criticize Americans for buying their way out of problems. My last question is - and briefly - did we buy our way out of this pandemic with vaccines without really changing anything fundamental?

SLAVITT: Yeah. And I'm not sure I would I would quite say it's criticism, but what I think we have to acknowledge is, as a wealthy nation, we often find ourselves immune from the world's problems. And that prevents us from dealing with them. And I think in the sense that if our technological things don't work, whether we don't contain the virus with tests or we don't have a vaccine, we have to recognize that we have another line of defense. And that other line of defense is ourselves and our ability to, as imperfect as it is, to try to manage through the situation.

And I look at other countries that have more experience with pandemics, that have had other bugs, and they are quicker to do some of the things that protect one another. And I hope that if we go through this again, we will do that. And I also hope that we'll also recognize some of the distortions in our society, like all the kids we saw who didn't have lunch in school.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Andy Slavitt. His book, "Preventable," is out now. Thank you very much.

SLAVITT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.