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COVID-19: 'Vaccination is the way' to keep the economy open, doctor says

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Dr. Taison Bell, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Virginia, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss Virginia getting rid of its mask mandate for schools, the Omicron variant, and coronavirus vaccinations.

Video Transcript

EMILY MCCORMICK: Dr. Bell, thank you so much for your time. I want to start off with some news in your home state. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin has issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates. Democratic lawmakers, some school districts, and parents have already been pushing back against this. What's your response to this order and how this might impact COVID spread in your state?

TAISON BELL: Well. thanks for having me on. And I completely disagree with his executive order. So he's-- it's coming at the wrong time, right at the moment where we're about to hit our peak of cases in the state of Virginia. So I'm happy that my school board, Albemarle County, decided to stick with the CDC guidance, what they're required to do by law.

But he argues that masks are both not effective and they're not practical, and he's wrong on both fronts. We have multiple studies now that have shown that using universal masking in schools is a way to decrease transmission. And it's part of an effective strategy of test, trace, isolate, and vaccinate, of course, because we need to do many things in order to try to prevent the spread of disease.

And then, when it comes to practicality, you just have to look at my two children. I have a three-year-old and an eight-year-old. They've been wearing masks for over a year now. And let me tell you, it is the only thing that I can get them to consistently do. If I asked them to pick their toys up off the floor, kiss it goodbye, but they will wear that mask.

And so I think, you know, the arguments that he make are not sound, and they just don't make sense. And it's not the right time.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Bell, Anjalee here. Good to speak with you again.

I want to talk about-- you mentioned preparing for the surge there. I know a lot of focus has been on the Northeast and the states that have already possibly crested. And what do you feel in terms of preparation right now? We know that while PPE is not in short supply, as it has been in the past, the idea of treatments being available now and what is actually accessible, do you feel like we are at a point where there is enough to go around?

TAISON BELL: Well, we certainly aren't there yet, because we have to ramp up production. And when it comes to treatment, we're really focusing on-- at least for now-- trying to prevent people that are high risk from going to the hospital.

Now, there's recent news about the Paxlovid pill, which is Pfizer's pill, up to 90% effective at preventing death and hospitalization when used. And it's a pill, which is much easier to administer than monoclonal antibodies, for instance.

The production is going to be the issue, right, so making sure that it's in communities that are high risk and people have accessibility to it. It also needs to be given within five days of symptoms. Similar to many of the other medications, they're better used early on in the course. So testing is going to be-- early testing is going to be very important as well. So these are all things that we need to do to combine together to keep in the toolkit so we can continue to beat back the wave.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Hey, Doc. It's good to see you again. When we look at where we stand with this wave-- and a lot of us have fear when we hear Dr. Fauci say things about the worst-case scenario is a variant that eludes vaccine protection. But what we know through other viruses and pandemics, how likely is that worst-case scenario? Don't these things tend to have a life; they become, over time, weaker, and there is an immunity among the population as a whole?

TAISON BELL: Right. So one way or another, the waves of different variants are going to burn through the population. And the question we have to ask ourselves at a global scale is, do we get there through vaccination and people being protected, or do we get there through people going to the hospital and many people like myself in the ICU where their life is at threat?

And so I would argue that vaccination is really the way that we need to go if we want to keep the economy open, keep hospitals from being overstrained and overwhelmed and get through this and be prepared for the next wave. And when we talk about vaccination, the importance of it, I mean, all you have to do-- if I had the ability to and have you come to my ICU, you would see the stark difference in who's coming to the ICU now. They are unvaccinated people by and large. My hospital, about 75% of the people with symptomatic COVID are unvaccinated. And if you go and find the other rest or 25% who are vaccinated, these are people with things like organ transplants, stem cell transplants. There are multiple medications that suppress their immune system. So there really is this stark difference now now that vaccinations are out and who's getting sick with COVID.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Bell, I wonder your thoughts specifically on that point. We saw CDC reports just show that prior infection provides better protection in addition to vaccines against Delta specifically, but we also know that there are individuals who still remain unvaccinated, and some people think that Omicron widely spread could help with that catch-up of some level of herd immunity I guess. I know no one really likes using that term. But tell me about how you see all that sort of unfolding and maybe the message it sends to potential patients.

TAISON BELL: Right. So natural immunity is a way to achieve some protection. And I think what's been confabulated is that some people are promoting that natural immunity is the better alternative to vaccination, which it clearly is not.

So the reason is, just like when you have immune protection from the vaccine, it can wane over time, and you get a booster. Well, you can't do that with infection, right? Once you get infected and your protection goes away, it's gone. And so the rate of reinfection is higher, and for folks who have been infected with COVID before, if they get vaccination, their chance of being infected again is lower by a factor of two.

And so there's really no arguing with the fact that vaccines are the way to go, even if you've been infected. And my concern is that if people are relying on getting immunity through infection and not following up with vaccination, we're going to be right back to square one when it comes to being six or eight months down the road, another variant comes, and the people who've relied on natural immunity without vaccination are kind of left out to dry.

EMILY MCCORMICK: Dr. Taison Bell is assistant professor of medicine in the divisions of Infectious Disease and Pulmonary Critical Care Medicine at the University of Virginia. And Yahoo Finance's Anjalee Khemlani is our own health care reporter. And we thank you both so much for your time.