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Dr. Anthony Fauci reflects on U.S. reaching almost 500,000 coronavirus deaths

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden's chief medical adviser and the country's top expert on infectious diseases joins "CBS This Morning" to discuss nearly reaching 500,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. He also spoke about the recent decline in new COVID-19 cases, vaccine distribution and why he says Americans may still need to wear masks in 2022.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ANTHONY MASON: Nice to see some good news there.

GAYLE KING: Yes.

ANTHONY MASON: It sure is.

GAYLE KING: Crave that.

TONY DOKOUPIL: Yeah.

ANTHONY MASON: Unity, yeah, we could use it. And hopefully more on the way. Amid the grief and loss, there is also a reason to feel hopeful about our efforts to beat this pandemic. The number of people hospitalized for the virus is decreasing in the US. New hospitalizations are down 62% nationwide from last month.

We're joined now by Dr. Anthony Fauci. He is President Biden's chief medical advisor and the country's top expert on infectious diseases. Dr. Fauci, good morning. Thanks so much for being with us.

I want to start by talking about this heartbreaking milestone. I think way back when-- less than a year ago, actually, when the pandemic began, the worst-case projection was about 240,000 deaths. We're now more than double that in less than a year. At any point during this, has that number particularly-- has the enormity of that number really struck you?

ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, you know, it's horrible. When we said, as you say correctly, back in the late winter and early spring of 2020, when we gave the modeling number of 240,000, people thought that we were being hyperbolic about that and somewhat alarmist. And clearly, that was not the case.

This is a horrible landmark that we've now reached. And even though the numbers are coming down, as you've shown on the deflection of cases and hospitalizations, we really can't declare victory quite yet because we have vaccines that clearly are the light at the end of the tunnel, but we know that there are variants out there. One of the variants, the one from the UK, is taken care of quite well by the vaccine. The other one from South Africa is a bit more problematic.

The one from the UK we know transmits more efficiently even though the vaccine can do well against it. So what does that tell us? That tells us instead of saying, look at that curve, it's coming down so nicely, we're out of the woods, it tells us what we need to do for sure is continue the public health measures--

ANTHONY MASON: Yeah.

ANTHONY FAUCI: --of mask wearing at all the things we talk about all the time as well as getting people vaccinated as quickly and efficiently as possible.

ANTHONY MASON: There's some concerns that those variants could lead to another significant spike. Do you see that happening?

ANTHONY FAUCI: That is certainly possible, and that's the point I'm trying to make. If we just let our guard down and act like, well, it's coming down so nicely with that deflection all the way down, that we can now relax our efforts. If we do that, we're in continual danger of having another surge. I don't think it's inevitable that we will have a surge, but we need to be prepared. And the way we can be prepared is doing the things I just mentioned a moment ago.

GAYLE KING: You recently said, Dr. Fauci, over the weekend, that we could be wearing masks till 2022. People started groaning at that. But I think we need to get the news straight--

ANTHONY FAUCI: Yeah.

GAYLE KING: --and I always feel that you do that for us. What do you mean exactly by that? What does getting back to normal look like for you? And do you think it is 2022?

ANTHONY FAUCI: Gayle, the point I was trying to make is that people ask you to make a projection when there are so many variables in there that are unpredictable. So when I said we might be, I didn't say we absolutely--

GAYLE KING: Yeah.

ANTHONY FAUCI: --are gonna be wearing them. I'm saying it is quite conceivable that if we actually go into the fall and the winter and there is still a degree of virus in the community, despite the fact that many people have been vaccinated, we certainly will likely-- very likely-- be much better off then than we are now. But it is conceivable that there will be enough virus in the community that, in order to be extra safe, we may have to be wearing masks under certain circumstances.

That's the only point that I was making. I was not trying to scare people. I'm saying we've got to be prepared that variables are there and we could get another surge. As I was just mentioning with Anthony, we could have another surge right now.

I don't think we will. I hope we won't. But we've got to be prepared for it. That's what I meant by don't just give up on public health measures because we're going in the right direction.

GAYLE KING: Well, you certainly have a front-row seat to all of this. You, more than anybody, know how bad this is. You're always on top of it. But I'm wondering what sort of gets you through? And I'm not looking for, oh, woe-is-me story from Dr. Fauci because I know that's not your nature. But how do you get through this? Have there been times that you've just said, this is a lot, I had no idea it was going to get this bad?

ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, you know, when you're dealing with pandemic outbreaks and Infectious diseases like a respiratory-borne illness that has such an extraordinary capacity to transmit from person to person, you should never, ever underestimate it. I mean, you could make projections like we do all the time based on the current knowledge. But things change and things shift.

So the way I get through it--

ANTHONY MASON: Yeah.

ANTHONY FAUCI: --is by just staying focused like a laser beam on what the task is and how you get through it.

ANTHONY MASON: Doctor--

ANTHONY FAUCI: You know, don't celebrate and don't just give up. Just keep going.

ANTHONY MASON: Dr. Fauci, is there ever a moment where you even have the time to get emotional about this?

ANTHONY FAUCI: No, Anthony, I don't. I mean, and that's the point.

TONY DOKOUPIL: No.

ANTHONY FAUCI: It isn't that I'm a very cold person.

ANTHONY MASON: Yeah.

ANTHONY FAUCI: But you can't let emotions drive what you do.

TONY DOKOUPIL: No.

ANTHONY FAUCI: I mean, you have a task. This is a very-- this is historic in nature, what we're facing. People decades and decades from now will be talking about what we all--

ANTHONY MASON: Yeah.

ANTHONY FAUCI: --went through this past year. There's no time for emotion. You absolutely need to be empathetic. I mean--

ANTHONY MASON: Yeah.

ANTHONY FAUCI: --the thing you showed there with all of those people, real people, behind each of those deaths--

ANTHONY MASON: Yeah.

GAYLE KING: Yes.

ANTHONY FAUCI: --you can't let that go by. You can be empathetic, but you don't want to get crippled by an emotional response. You've got to be just focusing on what's important to do.

GAYLE KING: Yeah, all those numbers are people, and that's why you can't say enough, wear your mask.

ANTHONY MASON: Right, and we appreciate all that you do, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

GAYLE KING: Yes.

ANTHONY MASON: Thank you so much for being with us this morning.