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COVID: Risk of health complications rise when 'under-vaccinated,' U.S. Surgeon General says

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss how Americans should continue to receive vaccinations as cases of COVID-19 and respiratory infections spike ahead of the winter months, in addition to addressing optimal mental health environments employers should establish for their employees.

Video Transcript

DAVE BRIGGS: With lockdowns spreading across China, many are asking is another COVID wave ahead for the United States over the holidays? Here to discuss that, the RSV outbreak, and mental health in the workplace is US surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy.

Doctor, I really appreciate you being here on Yahoo Finance. Thanks so much. Mental health really something that matters a lot to me, but let's start with COVID. It's faded from the minds of Americans, largely speaking. Where are we in regards to putting it in the rearview mirror in your eyes? And what lies ahead, do you think, for the holidays?

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, Dave, thanks for that question. And it's the right question to ask. And let me put COVID in context for a moment. We have come certainly a long way over the last 2 and 1/2 years when it comes to COVID. Our debts are down more than 90% from their peak. We have our kids back in school learning in person full-time. And many people are able to see their families over the holidays and over weekends. This is all good news.

But the reason that we have made this progress is because we've had critical tools we've built, namely life saving vaccines and life saving medications. We've also used air filtration masks and other tools to help reduce spread. This is a time when winter approaches that we've got to keep that in mind, because each of the last two winters, we've seen cases rise. And so if you haven't gotten an updated vaccine yet, it's important to do that. And anyone who's five and up is eligible who's more than two months after-- out from their last shot.

It's also important if you do get COVID, whether you're vaccinated or not, that you reach for treatments, that you talk to your doctor, especially if you're older, above 65, if you have other medical conditions because those treatments could save your life.

DAVE BRIGGS: We're also battling what some are calling the triple-demic, COVID, RSV, and flu. It's a buzzworthy media term, but how concerned is the administration about that possibility?

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, we're certainly working very closely on these viruses. We know that when COVID certainly has spread in the winters. We're already seeing flu moving up quickly, in fact, earlier than it typically does. And RSV as well is affecting a significant number of children and is, in fact, filling up hospital ERs in many parts of the country. There are other viruses circulating as well. We see this in the fall. We're seeing it a bit earlier for some of these viruses than typical.

And, you know, for me, this-- I've experienced this personally. Just last week, I had to take my daughter into the emergency room because she was infected with one of these respiratory viruses. She's four years old and was having difficulty breathing. So I know what it feels like to be a parent in that circumstance, but here's the good news. When it comes to COVID itself, there are vaccines available for children six months old and up. They can reduce your chances of your child ending up severely ill, and god forbid, losing their life.

When it comes to the flu, which is also an issue now, there are vaccines that are available there, too, for kids six months and up, as well as treatments if your child does get the flu. And with RSV, it turns out there, some of the basic precautions we've been talking about for respiratory viruses are more important than ever. Staying away from folks who may be sick, staying home if you're sick yourself, making sure you're washing your hands, these are all measures that we can take to help protect ourselves from RSV and other circulating viruses.

DAVE BRIGGS: I hope your daughter is doing better. Was there something about COVID that changed our perception or made our immune systems more broken down and susceptible to flu and RSV?

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, it's a good question. Certainly, a lot changed in the last couple of years in terms of our behavior patterns, and that impacted what we were exposed to. You know, but we fully-- and you see when you look around the world that the pattern with which these viruses are now coming back is varying. I expect we'll settle into some sort of equilibrium here. But the bottom line is what has been shown time and time again, is that when we use vaccines in the appropriate way, when we stay up to date with our vaccines, those dramatically reduce our chances of getting severely ill.

And Dave, one thing I just want to underscore here, is what the purpose of vaccines are. Many people say, hey, I got vaccinated, but I still got infected. Does that mean the vaccines don't work? Well, the goal of the vaccine, the most important goal is to save your life. And by that measure, the data, now from hundreds of millions of people who have gotten vaccinated for COVID, is telling us that the vaccines are working to save people's lives. We just need to make sure people are up to date with them because if you're under-vaccinated or unvaccinated, that's when your risk of complications and death increases.

DAVE BRIGGS: Important message. Now, one might argue that an even bigger epidemic is upon us regarding our mental health. And that's why you've rolled out a framework for workplace mental health and well-being, and some staggering numbers in there, doctor. 76% of US workers reported at least one symptom of depression or anxiety. That's up 17% in just two years. Why did the pandemic have such a negative impact on our mental health?

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, Dave, thank you for asking. This is one of the great concerns I have about our country now and in going forward, is how do we address the mental health crisis that is impacting so many Americans, particularly young people? And I think a couple of things that are worth saying here. When it comes to COVID itself, COVID added so much strain to people's lives. Not only were people worried about their health and the health of their loved ones, but their lives were turned upside down, especially in the early days of the pandemic.

That's why it's so important that we worked hard to get our kids back to school and give people the opportunity to see their loved ones again. That's an important part of your mental health and well-being. But the workplace is worth focusing on in particular because keep in mind, people who are working full-time spend close to half of their waking hours at work.

And your work affects your mental health, but it also turns out that the mental health of workers impacts an organization. It impacts their productivity of workers. It impacts creativity. It impacts retention. So the reason I issued a surgeon general's framework on workplace mental health and well-being is to lay out five key essentials that organizations can use to build a foundation for mental health, which will not only help workers, but keep in mind, will help the bottom line and the longevity of organizations themselves.

DAVE BRIGGS: So what's the most important thing employers can do? And how does remote work impact that?

VIVEK MURTHY: Yeah, so the most important thing that employers can do is to bring workers into the conversation about how to improve mental health. Bring them to the table and make sure that their voice is helping shape your approach to mental health and wellbeing. You can take the framework that we put forward and use it to begin that conversation by asking workers how the organization is doing on those five fronts. And those five essentials, by the way, include protection from harm. That's physical and psychological harm.

A second involved building connection and community at work. Third, work-life harmony. Fourth, ensuring that people know that they are valued, that they matter at work. And fifth, making sure that people have opportunities for growth. You know, we recognize some companies are doing great in some of those areas. In other areas, they have areas to improve. We wanted to put this framework forward so people knew what that roadmap was because now, more than ever, we've got to invest in mental health for the sake of individuals, organizations, and society as a whole.

DAVE BRIGGS: It means a lot. Look, I wear my mental health struggles in the past as a badge of honor. I have suffered from depression and anxiety most days, quite frankly. How do we address the stigma that's attached to mental health in the workplace? And is there any way to address affordability and access?

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, Dave, first, I thank you for your courage in standing up and sharing your own story. I say that as somebody who not only cares about this, but has struggled myself with mental health concerns over the years, especially when I was a child. And look, I think the way we address the stigma, it starts with people stepping up and sharing their stories. It starts with leaders in organizations helping people understand, not just in words, but in deeds, that we're going to support people with their mental health and well-being.

Look, if somebody fractured their leg and needed to be out for a few days for surgery and recovery, we would say, that seems perfectly understandable in the workplace. Yet, too many workers do not feel comfortable. They're having a mental health crisis, saying, you know what? I need a little bit of time to go see a therapist to get some help. We have to change that, and leaders can change that, again, through the force of their example.

And finally, just keep this in mind as well that, you know, at a time where I know workplaces are feeling like they have a lot on their plates, a lot they have to deal with, it's important that we recognize that mental health is really-- when we invest in it in the workplace, it's a win-win for both workers and for the workplace in the short and long-term. But also, a lot of these measures that we're talking about in the framework I put forward, they don't require heavy capital investment.

Sure, there are some areas, like providing paid leave to employees, ensuring that they have adequate time off to rest. These may require some investment of time. But when it comes to building an environment where people can come to know one another, building a culture of gratitude and appreciation, and ensuring that people know that they are valued and ensuring that there's a boundary between work and non-work time that's respected, these are things that we can do with little capital investment, but they return huge dividends.

DAVE BRIGGS: Really appreciate what you're doing on mental health in the workplace. One tip on addressing the triple-demic in the workplace, see this pocket square? It's actually a mask. See that? We can encourage that. And boom, what do you think, doc?

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, listen, I'm glad you brought it up because one thing that we have learned is that masks are an effective tool at reducing the risk of spreading not just COVID, but other viruses as well. So particularly for those who are at higher risk or if you're living with somebody at higher risk, during this time, when there are a lot of respiratory viruses circulating, using that mask can be an effective way to reduce the risk to you and the people around you.

DAVE BRIGGS: And a way to stay in style. US surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy, great to have you, sir. Really appreciate the time.

VIVEK MURTHY: Thanks so much, Dave. Great to be with you today.

DAVE BRIGGS: All right, good to see you.