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Former Acting CDC Director on why it's 'really important' to pay attention to COVID-19 variants

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Dr. Richard Besser, Former Acting CDC Director, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation President & CEO, joins Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers and Alexis Christoforous to discuss the latest on the coronavirus pandemic.

Video Transcript

Let's turn now to the latest in the coronavirus pandemic. Now the CDC is projecting a surge of coronavirus cases through May. Now we're joined by Dr. Richard Besser. He's the former acting CDC director and the president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Doctor, thanks so much for joining us today. I want to ask you about that projection from the CDC that there's going to be a surge at least through May. Why when we're seeing so many adults getting vaccinated right now are the CDC making that type of projection?

DR. RICHARD BESSER: Well, you know this is a model. And what they plug into the model is the relaxation of a-- of a lot of the public health controls. The spread of these variants that are more contagious easier to go person to person, and the rate of vaccination. And so when I see a model, I don't say it's a crystal ball. I say what can we do to change that to have an impact, so that we're not seeing a surge we're seeing numbers going down. And to do that, what we need is for people to follow the recommendations of Public Health. All right. And when it's time-- and for all adults that time is now. Roll up your sleeves and get vaccinated. If we do that, I'm not convinced that we will be seeing surges, because we are seeing numbers going down in just about every state.

- Doctor if what the CDC is projecting is true as they look into their crystal ball, should states like or should cities rather like New York City reopen July 1? Mayor de Blasio here saying that he really wants to open the city in a big way the beginning of July 1st so that it could be back in full swing, you know by 4 of July, is that perhaps just too soon?

DR. RICHARD BESSER: Well, you know a lot depends on keeping track of all-- of the curves and the rates and what's happening in each community. You know while a pandemic is a disease transmission that's taken-- that's occurring all over the globe, it's not occurring at the same rate or pace in each place. So Michigan we'd all been following because the numbers were going up and now they're coming down. And just about every state, as I mentioned, is coming down right now. If a state were to see that changes and that the rate of transmission increases, then you reconsider. Because the tools that you have to control this are vaccines and behavior of the population and both of those are things that you can try and have an impact on.

- Doctor, as I was just mentioning we're seeing more and more adults getting vaccinated right now. President Biden said he wants 70% of all American adults to at least have one shot by July 4. But we're seeing a little bit of hesitancy coming from younger folks, millennials who of course, as we've seen throughout this pandemic have gone to bars and clubs and hung out with their friends. Could they be behind another surge or another wave if we do end up seeing one?

DR. RICHARD BESSER: Yeah, you know I'm here in New Jersey and we've already achieved that 70% figure for adults 65 and older. But with each group of people going down in the age range you see lower rates of vaccination. Some because vaccines were just open to them more recently. But when you think about coverage, if across the nation where you have 70% coverage, but in some groups either by age or geography or other factors we're seeing much higher rates of not being vaccinated, we will continue to see transmission. And one of the reasons I'm excited about the potential for vaccines in children, is because vaccinating children will not only protect them but it will help reduce transmission across the country.

- Yeah. I want to talk about the children because in their earnings call yesterday Pfizer said they're going to be looking to the FDA in September for emergency authorization to administer their vaccine to children ages 2 to 11. How important is it to get that population vaccinated and can they actually help us attain that herd immunity we keep talking about?

DR. RICHARD BESSER: Yeah, you know I've stopped talking about herd immunity. I think a concept a that's-- that's easier to grasp and more important is a recognition that, you know every person who gets vaccinated helps decrease the spread of COVID around our country, all right, and helps protect themselves and their family and their local community. So that's critically important.

You know as a pediatrician and a parent, I will be looking very closely at the data around vaccination in children. I think it is a great tool to have. When you-- when you look at this past year and the impact on children, it's been dramatic. And the impact of COVID goes way beyond the number of people who are infected and hospitalized and die. It's the impact from children who have lost family members. The impact on children who haven't been able to go to school. And when you look at that impact it hasn't been spread evenly.

Black and Brown children in American have been hit especially hard. Both in terms of their ability to go to school and learn in person and their-- the loss in terms of family members and direct impact of infection. So if they're vaccines for children I think it will provide more opportunity for all children to learn in person. But again you want to make sure that the vaccines are safe, that effective, and they've been thoroughly reviewed.

- Doctor I want to ask you about the variants. How concerned should we remain especially now as Alexis was mentioning things are opening up and people are traveling more and more-- I was at the airport the other day I saw flights coming and going to Rome and to other parts of Italy. How concerned even with these vaccines, should we be that the variants might be a problem for us in the United States even further on down the road?

DR. RICHARD BESSER: Well, Christine I think that variants are really important for us to pay attention to. I'm less concerned by people who are fully vaccinated resuming aspects of their life, than I am that people who decide not to get vaccinated are going to continue to allow for transmission in our communities. And every time a virus multiplies and spreads there's the opportunity for it to mutate. That's what-- that's what viruses do. And if we have a mutation that means our vaccines are no longer effective, we're back to square one. So another reason why it's so important that every age range gets vaccinated, that every group gets vaccinated, is to reduce the chances that we're going to see variants that we all become susceptible to.

- Doctor, I'm hoping that you can shed a little light on a debate that's going on right now among people who have been vaccinated. Some people have adverse reactions. By adverse, you know could be a headache or body aches. It's tough to get out of bed the next 24 to 48 hours after the shot. And others say they just really basically had a sore arm. Depending on your reaction to the vaccine does it mean that it took hold better in one person versus another?

DR. RICHARD BESSER: Not necessarily. You know I had a very mild reaction for some vaccines that had a greater reaction. And when I've had that greater reaction I've always said to myself, well, maybe that just means my immune system's kicking in better and I'll have better protection. But there's nothing to indicate that someone who has a mild reaction or no reaction to the vaccine is not as protected as somebody else. But if it gives you peace of mind when you're feeling a little crummy after that vaccination, that's OK too.

- I just want to ask and, you know just as a general reminder because I think there's so much confusion still and even misinformation about what life can look like at least on a more personal level after you've received that vaccine both doses and have become fully vaccinated. So just as a reminder for everyone at home, what can your life look like once you've become vaccinated? Can you kind of go back to living life as normal? Can you only go back to living life as normal with other people that have also been fully vaccinated? What can and can't you do?

DR. RICHARD BESSER: Yeah, you know the CDC continues to change their recommendations, expand the things that people can do. We got together as a family last weekend for the first time. My 91-year-old parents, my brothers and their wives, it was incredible. Just being able to get together with people who you love without a mask, indoors, give each other hugs, that is an amazing feeling. The mental relief from being fully vaccinated knowing you're protected. My wife is getting her second dose right now as we speak and we look forward in two weeks to be able-- to being able to go out together outdoors without masks on and doing those things we enjoy doing.

When you look at the CDC website they still recommend that for most indoor activities in public settings that people wear masks, but over time as the curves continue to go down and the rates of transmission go down, I expect that they'll be easing of a lot of those guidelines. You know the guidelines that you see there were put in place when we were still seeing 60,000, 70,000 cases of COVID every day. And those numbers are going down markedly. Is below 50,000 now and if these trends continue, I expect we're going to be allowed to do a lot more than we currently can.

- All right. Do a lot more. I know everyone is very excited to hear that. Dr. Richard Besser Robert Wood Johnson Foundation president and CEO. Thanks so much for joining us.