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COVID-19 is not at the point yet where we can have mass gatherings: Doctor

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Dr. Stella Safo, NYC-based HIV primary care physician, joins Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers and Alexis Christoforous to discuss the latest on the coronavirus pandemic.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: Let's turn now to the coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Fauci saying in an interview that it might be time to relax some of those indoor mask mandates. Take a listen to what he had to say about some of those guidelines.

ANTHONY FAUCI: No, I think so. And I think you're going to probably seeing that as we go along and as more people get vaccinated. The CDC will be, almost in real time, George, updating their recommendations and their guidelines. But yes, we do need to start being more liberal as we get more people vaccinated.

KRISTIN MYERS: Let's chat more about this with Dr. Stella Safo, a New York City-based HIV primary care physician. Doctor, great to have you with us. I want to ask your reaction to what we just heard from Dr. Fauci that some of those guidelines might be changing, especially as more and more Americans are vaccinated. Is this the right move for the broader population. And what about folks like some of your patients who are immunocompromised?

STELLA SAFO: I think it's exactly the right move because one of the things that's been hard for people who are kind of slow to take up the vaccine is that they feel like, well, if I still have to wear a mask, I still can't really travel, I still can't go into big crowds, why am I getting vaccinated? So we have to play this fine game I think in the public health realm of allowing some semblance of normality, kind of that pre-COVID life that we're all so much missing, while also keeping us safe. So I think the safety is always a priority. No one's going to make any recommendations that puts us back into the numbers that we were seeing before in terms of COVID transmission and mortality. But as the numbers go down as more of us are vaccinated, there is the sense that we can start to relax some of the things that we've been doing, like wearing masks indoors.

I will say, though, a lot of my patients, some who have HIV and just ordinary people with just other chronic diseases, have loved this year of not having lots of colds and other illnesses. And so some of those folks want to keep wearing masks. And I think masks are going to be one of those things that we're going to see long term, just because of the way that it has other protective impact, I think, for a lot of populations.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Doctor, I hear what you're saying. And I myself got fully vaccinated recently. And I'm looking forward to being able to go in places indoors without my mask on. I don't think I'm quite ready to do that just yet. But then you see reports coming out of Florida that over spring break, you saw a huge surge in coronavirus cases there, as people got together, congregated, mostly young people, maskless. What sort of-- what is the messaging? Because I see something like that, and it doesn't encourage me to want to take my mask off indoors.

STELLA SAFO: I think you're exactly right. I think that we should not-- and I always say this to my patients-- COVID won't let us be great, right? I think COVID is one of those conditions that has shown us our vulnerabilities. And unfortunately for us, it is that every time we make one step forward, there's a little bit of a push back. And I think the Florida example after spring break really shows us. COVID is not at the point yet in terms of containment where we can just have these mass gatherings if we don't have more people vaccinated.

So right now, only about a third of the US population is fully vaccinated, which means that if you're in a big crowd in the ways that we expect it happened in spring break in Florida, quite a number of people were not vaccinated. And all it takes is a handful of people to have SARS-COV-2. And that's why you're going to see the spread that you see. So I think that there's still caution that has to be really emphasized here. Because we're not at that magic kind of 70%, 80%, 90% vaccination rates that we would need to get to, to be able to feel really confident of having these big gatherings. I think caution for me, at least, is always the place to go.

KRISTIN MYERS: So then, doctor, just to really clarify and confirm, do we have to hit that number, that 70% vaccination rate for all adults before we should or could take our masks off indoors? Is that the number that we need to hit, or at least within your state or within your city, before you can, on some level, feel comfortable or that those guidelines should be relaxed? When can we relax some of those guidelines around mask wearing? Is it on that number, 70%, 80%? Is it when we hit herd immunity?

STELLA SAFO: Yeah, and so, I think that the examples of the Seychelles and Israel are helpful. Those are countries where they have more than 50% of their population, their adult population vaccinated. And they have had maskless mandates, at least in Israel, where folks are getting together. And you can see that the numbers are working out for them. They're not seeing these huge spikes.

I think that your question is a good one, though, because if we have a national goal and there are local areas where we haven't gone to that level of vaccination coverage, then we know that the potential for outbreaks are high. I would start to feel comfortable mandating kind of widespread once we get at least above 50%, and we're just not there yet. Again, locally, some places will be even lower because of some of the politics and some of the state public health guidelines.

And in those places where more people are not vaccinated, what we're seeing in Florida can happen again and again. And so I think that this reinforces this idea that we're all in it together. And if we all vaccinate, we can all be safe. But we have to get the numbers higher than the 34% that we're at now to feel confident to have true spring break in the way that it sounds like happened in Florida.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Doctor, we also got some news from the World Health Organization today. They are saying that they're reclassifying this highly contagious triple variant that we're seeing in India as a variant of concern at the global level and that perhaps the vaccines that we currently have on the market might not be strong enough against these variants. How much of that is a risk to us here in the US? I mean, for many people in their minds, they think, well, India is a world away. We don't have to worry about that. What's your message there?

STELLA SAFO: Unfortunately, this really is a reminder that we are interconnected. Infectious diseases really do kind of travel from country to country. They don't respect borders. All it takes is for someone to get on a plane and to come over here, and we have another pandemic case that begins. So what it has done, though, and what it has meant for us is that it speeds up our desire to get more folks vaccinated. The more of us that are protected, hopefully the less that we'll see even if this new strain gets over here, the less we'll see it transmit.

And it really does force us to have the conversation about whether we're going to need booster shots. Because those booster shots would be kind of made to be able to protect us against the current strains that we're seeing and also hopefully some of these new strains. So it's just a reminder, again, that we're all in this together, certainly in the US, but also as a global community.

KRISTIN MYERS: All right, Dr. Stella Safo, primary care physician based in New York City, thanks so much for joining us today.