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The U.S. surgeon general reflects on daughter's COVID experience


For the last year, Vivek Murthy has been advising Americans on how to weather the pandemic. He is the U.S. surgeon general, so a very public face of the administration's COVID-19 response, and he's given interview after interview, including to us, talking about testing, masking, vaccines. But this past weekend, Murthy wasn't a leading scientific voice on the pandemic. He was another worried parent caring for his 4-year-old daughter, who had just tested positive. She is not vaccinated. There is still no vaccine authorized for children under 5.

Dr. Murthy joins me now. Hey there.

VIVEK MURTHY: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey. I got...

MURTHY: So good to talk to you.

KELLY: And you. I got to start by asking, how's your daughter doing?

MURTHY: Well, thank you for asking. She's doing OK. You know, she's congested. She's having intermittent fevers still, and she's telling us her throat's hurting her a lot. But thankfully, she's breathing OK, and she's still smiling often, which makes us happy as her parents.

KELLY: Good. And you have a 5-year-old, too? The rest of you doing OK?

MURTHY: Yeah. Thanks. We're doing OK. My 5-year-old, thankfully, is fully vaccinated, as are my wife and I. And that actually gives us some reassurance that we have protection and that we'll be able to, you know, stand by and take care of her as she needs it and without getting sick ourselves.

KELLY: Yeah. Now, you wrote about this on Twitter, but for people who may not have seen or read your thread, would you share some of what went through your mind this weekend when you saw that positive test?

MURTHY: Well, you know, I've been certainly thinking about COVID and talking to people about COVID for the better part of two years, even before I was surgeon general. But, you know, when it hits home, it just always feels a bit different. And this weekend, I was working at my desk in my - on Sunday. And my daughter walked into the room, and she just didn't look very well. And my wife thought so as well. She just - something just looked different about her. You can tell when your kids aren't doing well.

So we decided to test her, and the test came back positive immediately. And I just had this sinking feeling, just thinking, oh, my gosh. You know, she's 4 years old, and she's not vaccinated because there's no vaccine available for her age group. And, you know, I just - as a parent, I just - you know, my questions were, is she going to be OK?

And I also thought, you know, could I have done something else to have prevented her from getting sick? You know, we have her wearing a mask in school. We take as many precautions as we can. But, you know, my wife and I did feel some guilt wondering if we maybe did something wrong that may have created more exposure for her. So that's what was going through our head.

KELLY: The part of your Twitter feed that kind of hit me in the gut was, you wrote, in these moments, it doesn't matter if you're a doctor, if you're the surgeon general. We are parents first. I felt that. And the next thing I felt was wondering, do you feel frustration at how hard it is even for you, the surgeon general, to keep very young kids, who still cannot be vaccinated, safe?

MURTHY: Well, you know, certainly, I, in that moment especially but even in the many months prior to that, had wished that we had a vaccine for kids under 5. Thankfully, we've got a vaccine for children 5 and up and for all adults. These under - kids under 5, like my daughter, are the ones who still don't have that protection.

I wish we had that, but I also know that we need to make sure we have good data and that data is thoroughly assessed by the FDA. In their latest look at the data, they felt that it wasn't quite good enough to move forward with an authorization, and they needed more data. You know, so I think the FDA is doing the right thing there...

KELLY: Are you confident that they're moving quickly enough? I mean, there are risks and benefits, as you lay out, but quickly enough with the urgency needed to get this going for kids who are still very young?

MURTHY: Sure. In fact, I do think they're moving as quickly as they possibly can. They, in fact, took this step, which is unusual, of proactively asking the company to look at the data for two shots, even though there's a trial ongoing for three shots, because they wanted to know if there's even a chance that the two shots, you know, had a good result for kids. They wanted to make that vaccine available as soon as possible.

But the data wasn't good enough to meet their threshold, which is why they now need to wait for three doses. So they're being proactive, like you've got to do during a pandemic. But the most important thing is we've got to make sure that vaccine is safe and effective, and they won't compromise on that standard.

KELLY: Has this made you rethink in any way how you were talking to other parents of young children in your role as surgeon general?

MURTHY: Well, I'll tell you, Mary Louise, this emphasizes to me just how important the job of parenting is and how hard it's been during this pandemic. It's not like parenting was a walk in the park prior to the pandemic, but parents have just really had an incredibly difficult time during these last two years. And even though, you know, I'm the one whose daughter got sick on Sunday, there are millions of parents who have gone through this exact experience, have had to navigate these issues, make decisions with limited information.

My hope is, coming out of this, that we can also do more as a society to support parents. You know, I can work from home, for example. My wife has a flexible work situation. But many parents don't. And more broadly, I just hope we can recognize that parenting may not generate a paycheck, but it is incredibly important work. And it's hard for me to think of a job that's more important than raising the next generation.

KELLY: Well, and we send - my heart goes out to you and your family. I'm trying to think of just the challenge of trying to keep a 4-year-old who doesn't feel great isolated. I can't - you can't lock her in a room by herself.

MURTHY: Oh, no.

KELLY: So I send you all best wishes for luck and that she recovers soon.

MURTHY: Well, thank you so much, Mary Louise. Take care.

KELLY: Thank you.

MURTHY: My best to your family as well.

KELLY: Thank you. Vivek Murthy - he's the surgeon general of the United States and, as you heard, father to two young children.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.