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COVID-19 is the ‘silent pandemic’, this surge is not like last spring: Robert Redfield

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Yahoo Finance’s Julie Hyman, Myles Udland, and Brian Sozzi speak with CDC Director Robert Redfield about the COVID-19 quarantine and vaccine outlook.

Video Transcript


MYLES UDLAND: It is, of course, Thanksgiving Eve here in the United States. This, as the spread of coronavirus continues across the country COVID-related hospitalizations currently at a record high. And we have seen guidance from the CDC and others on how Americans should be thinking about staying safe this holiday season.

Joining us now to discuss is Dr. Robert Redfield. He is the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We're also joined by Yahoo Finance's Anjalee Khemlani.

Dr. Redfield, thanks so much for joining the program today. I'd like to begin by talking about the holiday, the guidance that the CDC has put out, and what you are hoping Americans will do over the coming days to help as best we can stop the spread of COVID right now.

ROBERT REDFIELD: And Myles, it's really important because, as you know, we're in a significant surge right now across the country. And it is just so important that the American public redouble their efforts to be vigilant on the key mitigation steps that we do know work.

For example, masks. We know they work. Not only to protect you from infecting others, but also to protect you from getting infected. Handwashing, social distancing.

Really being smart about crowds. Being really selective about activities indoor. Try to maximize ventilation. Do as much as you can outdoor.

And this is why we advise the American public knowing that this is an important holiday, that we really advise people to reconsider about traveling. Reconsider about trying to limit themselves to small gatherings of individuals that actually live in the same home.

Because right now, the major way this virus is transmitting around our nation is no longer the public square. It really is these household gatherings. And we have many, many, many, many counties now, even in rural areas, that are in what we call the red zone. So we're trying to really escalate our message for individuals to realize we can make a difference.

Kansas recently did a study where there was a mask mandate. And some counties opted out of it, some counties opted in. The counties adopted and had about a 6% decrease in cases per 100,000 in the observation period over approximately, six weeks. The counties that decided to opt out of that mitigation step had over 100% increase in the cases. So each of these mitigation steps that we've recommended really do work.

I know it's difficult. I have a large family. But I think this is a Thanksgiving and this is a religious holiday season that we're going to have in December, where, I think, it's much more prudent to be circumspect about travel, about gathering with individuals for meals that aren't part of your own household. Being vigilant about wearing masks, handwashing. And being vigilant about being smart about how you put yourself at risk in crowds.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Redfield, Anjalee, here. Good to talk to you, again. I know that you've addressed this already in terms of small gatherings and there have been some reports that say that it isn't necessarily so. I wonder if you could explain, are there details involved in your saying that small gatherings do contribute to transmission, such as ventilation or wearing masks, even when multiple people are indoors. Are there steps that can be taken if someone wants to gather?

ROBERT REDFIELD: Yeah, I think you raise some important points. Clearly, wearing masks is important from everyone in the gathering. Clearly, maximizing ventilation is important. Clearly, maximizing social distancing is important.

A number of people who are having these gatherings are opting to have them outside, rather than inside. Even though it's cold, with heaters. My wife and I celebrated her birthday last night in a small outside table, where there was really only one other couple in the outside area and probably separated by 20 feet.

And yeah, we kept our coats on. And yeah, it was cold. But these are the type of things where we're really asking people to do.

And don't let down your guard. And many people do when they're among family members and you're having a celebration meal together. You're taking off your mask. You're socialized in enclosed space.

This is what we're asking people-- if they do, do these gatherings, please wear your mask. Please social distance. Please try to maximize ventilation. Consider doing it outside, if it's at all possible. If not, open the windows and doors to maximize ventilation.

Because the reality is when you look at this surge we're having across the country, it's not like the spring when the surge was in major cities-- New York, Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles. This surge is really throughout the counties.

We have thousands and thousands of counties now. Even in rural states like North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, where they have very low population densities, but they're having very high infection rates. And, again, it is because this virus is moving silently. It's a silent epidemic. Largely individuals 15 to, say, 35 asymptomatic are transmitting this virus.

So I know there are some individuals that try to suggest that maybe small gatherings and household gatherings aren't driving this. I think we're confident that this is where the pandemic is centered now.

There's been much more, I think, effective attention to the public square where people are being much more careful. I do think people have a tendency to be less careful when they're in these small household gatherings in their own home.

So we've really made it clear, when we're talking about having a household gathering, we're really trying to tell you to limit it to the people that actually live in that household. Sleep in that household. And when you're bringing other individuals in then you really need to be vigilant with like what you said. With the masks, social distancing, and increased ventilation. and trying to be smart about the interactions that you do have.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Absolutely. Moving onto we've seen a lot of travel, as well. And I know that the CDC or individuals from the CDC conducted a study about travel-related spread. And it seems like the results of that have led to consideration of a change for the quarantine period, down to seven or 10 days. I wonder if you could elaborate on that and what the thought process behind this change is.

ROBERT REDFIELD: Well, I can tell you, we've always tried to use-- as you know, the CDC is not an opinion organization. We're a science-based data organization. And the data that we do have then defines our recommendations.

And, as you know, the best data that we had was that individuals would isolate or quarantine for 14 days because people that had been exposed could actually become positive for virus somewhere between that. Even if you caught it originally at 10 days, you may miss some individuals.

We've continued to study this aggressively in a variety of different settings. And that data is now being critically reviewed and put together. And based on that data, I anticipate we're going to revise our recommendations. So we're constantly doing more and more research to try to validate our recommendations and see if they can be improved.

And I do anticipate that we will come out with new recommendations that look at a shorter period of quarantine. And even a shorter period of quarantine where you would test out of quarantine.

I don't want to get ahead of the recommendations. I know there's been some talk in the press about it. But I do expect that in the next week or so, that data will be completely analyzed and then recommendations will be made based on that data.

MYLES UDLAND: Doctor, in terms of a vaccine, how severe do you think that side effects will be to a COVID-19 vaccine? And what should the American public expect when they do take this vaccine?

ROBERT REDFIELD: Yeah, I think it's important. I've seen there's a lot of reporting on this recently. Obviously, as the FDA finishes their formal review and issues the EUA, there'll be comprehensive data there related to safety, adverse reactions, and side effects. And that information, obviously, will be transparently presented to the American public. Our advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will put that together, along with the recommendations that come from the FDA.

I anticipate, so far, that this is a relatively safe vaccine. We haven't seen many serious adverse, events as you know. Obviously, there are reactions that we see with many vaccines, between injection site soreness and sometimes some systemic symptoms of feeling like you have a flu-like illness. But I think, let's wait till the analysis is complete. And those data will be presented in a transparent way to the American people.

I will say that, for those people that are risks for a serious outcome or those people that are at risk for being infected and being a silent spreader to somebody else, I think this vaccine is really going to be a game-changer for us in this pandemic. We're hopeful that the American public will embrace it. Obviously, we're going to present the information as clearly and transparently to the American public as we can.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Redfield, finally, if I may, sir. You sound a little weary. And I think we're all a little weary. But you, especially, this advice that the CDC and other health professionals have been giving for so many months now about wearing masks and social distancing is not being taken to heart by all Americans. Or else, we still wouldn't be seeing this spread.

As we look ahead to future pandemics and to whomever your successor at the CDC might be, what advice would you give them? What is the central lesson we have, perhaps, learned throughout the course of this pandemic that we can pass on and apply in the next situation?

ROBERT REDFIELD: Well, it's an important question. I know when I finish my tour of duty, [INAUDIBLE] substantially. Because I think that's really the key. What lessons were learned so that you can articulate and share that.

I think, for me, if there's any disappointment is that we didn't come together, I think, effectively as a nation. And really hone in and reinforce a central message.

Masks work. There's no question about it. The science is clear. And yet, I'm sure you can have 10 people get on your show and tell you that masks don't work.

And this is difficult when the American public is trying to understand what message do I accept? I'm trying to-- we have tons of evidence.

Some of it is when you're getting a new pathogen, as we did, when it first came, we were looking at this like flu. And so people was assuming that the real target that we had to focused on it was symptomatic illness. And then once we had symptomatic illness, symptomatically ill patients should then wear masks.

And then, all of a sudden, we learn, wait a minute. This virus isn't like flu. It's not like SARS. This virus actually transmits really well asymptomatically.

And then that's what led us to understand that we needed to get source control. And so we needed everyone to wear a mask. Because we didn't know who was infected and who wasn't. And I think that transition of message from January and February to April 3, when we issued our mask guidance, a lot of people who exploited that. And basically, put doubt in whether masks work or don't mask. Sadly, that issue became politicized.

So what I would say is the biggest lesson that I've learned is how critical it is to have unity in message. Unity in message. Unity in message. And you're right, we keep repeating the same message.

But I'm hopeful, particularly now as people see what's happening-- the spike in cases. We had over a million cases in a week last week. Now getting back up to 1,500, 1,700, and 1,900 deaths a day. My hope is that people will take that message, again, and realize now-- particularly because we have a vaccine that is going to be available starting in a couple weeks and then over the next months ahead, between now and probably the end of the second quarter-- beginning the third quarter of 2021, the American public's going to have the benefit of being vaccinated. And we're going to be able to put this pandemic behind us.

So it's so important now not to be in the last group that ends up with a serious fatal outcome because my 28 year old child who works in a hospital comes home and inadvertently infects me and my wife. I think we have to be vigilant now. Not give up on it.

But, to me, that's the biggest lesson, is if we had unity as a nation of message, using the tools that we have, hopefully we can still get there for December and January and February. And put a rally around the reality that the vaccines are here.

There's a light at the end of the tunnel. The calvarly's coming. We're going to get the vulnerable vaccinated. We're going to make sure we start to confront this pandemic and really put it behind us. And then we can turn our attention to helping the rest of the world, particularly resource-limited areas, begin to get this pandemic under control for them, also.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Redfield, a final question on that vaccine distribution. I know that the advisory committee did recommend that essential workers get vaccinated before the elderly. And it seemed to make a lot of health equity advocates very happy. But then we heard Secretary Azar yesterday say that it was really up to the states. Where do you stand on this? And what can we expect in terms of actual distribution?

ROBERT REDFIELD: Well, we're still in discussions, as you know, to make the final recommendations that we will have from CDC. And what has been determined, as you know, and as Secretary Azar and Operation Warp Speed had probably articulated the other day is there is a distribution to each of the 64 jurisdictions. That is going to be done based on the amount of vaccine scene we have based on population size.

But the micro distribution, once that vaccine is within those states, clearly, CDC is going to give clear guidance. And as you mentioned, whether it's health care workers, first responders. Whether it's the most vulnerable. Whether it's strategic in trying to maintain health care resilience. Obviously, individuals in nursing homes. Those final recommendations will be forthcoming shortly.

But at the end of the day, the vaccine is going to be delivered to these jurisdictions. And what I call them microbe distribution plan will be executed by the individual states, based on how they finally decide to do it.

The CDC sent out a playbook back in July, to have each jurisdiction-- 64 jurisdictions-- start to figure out how would they distribute this vaccine to their population. They worked on them. They completed them by late September, early October. We went back and forth to make sure there weren't any gaps. And so each of these jurisdictions do have a plan.

That plan may be modified based on the final recommendations from CDC. But ultimately, the decision on exactly how to distribute this vaccine will ultimately be made by the individual states, as the Secretary Azar said the other day. But we will be giving our recommendations-- how we believe-- this vaccine should be distributed at this moment. And I expect those to be forthcoming shortly.

MYLES UDLAND: All right, Dr. Robert Redfield-- the director of the CDC. Sir, you've been very generous with your time this morning. We really appreciate you joining the program. Have a great Thanksgiving.

ROBERT REDFIELD: God bless you all. Be safe. Thank you.