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Doctor: COVID-19 cases will ‘continue to slowly go down,’ but we’re not ‘out of the woods’

Dr. Rishi Desai, Chief Medical Officer at Osmosis & Former Center for Disease Control and Prevention Epidemic Intelligence Officer, joins Yahoo Finance's Kristin Myers to break down the latest coronavirus developments.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: With all of those updates throughout this pandemic, I want to bring on Dr. Rishi Desai, chief medical officer at Osmosis and former epidemic intelligence officer at the CDC. Always great chatting with you, Dr. Desai. So you were very critical of the previous administration and their coronavirus response.

We just heard Anjalee Khemlani really updating us on what the Biden administration now plans, invoking that Defense Production Act. But as she mentioned, that is a move that has been used before by the previous administration. I'm wondering if you think anything will be different this time using the same act, but now with a different administration.

RISHI DESAI: It's a good question. I mean, I think a lot of why I was critical is that I felt that for a long time, we were fighting this war on science. And we saw that war playing out on social media and news outlets in the way that we talked about masks.

And now, it feels like there's truly a strategy that's a war on the virus itself, right? We're not fighting some political battle about whether to wear masks or not. We're trying to figure out how to get vaccines into arms. And I think that that is the big difference. It's using these acts-- those are tactics. But the general strategy and the whole idea of what we're even fighting has shifted from fighting science to fighting COVID-19.

KRISTIN MYERS: So then, just to really make sure I'm getting you correctly, it sounds as if some of the moves that the Trump administration was making, at least invoking the Defense Production Act to have masks being produced to increase testing were the right moves to make, but that perhaps every time we took a couple of steps forward, we were taking more steps backwards because we were, at the same time, publicly fighting very publicly about how important this virus was and how dangerous it was and what we needed to do in order to fight it. Is that essentially what you're saying here?

RISHI DESAI: You're saying it exactly right. I mean, it doesn't make sense on the one hand to say that we're using the Defense Production Act to get more ventilators out there and on the other hand say that we don't really need to wear masks or that that doesn't need to be a mandate. Because we know that if you have more masks out there, then you have less people getting sick, going to the hospital, and needing those ventilators. So you can't say both. And that's the confusion that we've been dealing with for roughly a year now.

KRISTIN MYERS: So to that point, we've been dealing with confusion for nearly a year. I'm wondering if you think that the damage has almost been done, right? We're invoking this Defense Production Act. So, great, we get more testing. We get more masks. But it kind of really requires buy-in from the American public. And if the American public has spent the last year being told and being given very mixed messages, how effective can the Biden administration be going forward, do you think, after this virus has been politicized for so long?

RISHI DESAI: It's a good question. I think what happened is that at a federal level, we had a vacuum of leadership. And so, then, what happens is that typically then people look to local leaders, their state leaders, their county leaders. Maybe they're working in a company, their CEO. That's where the leadership has to come from. And that's hard because those folks aren't necessarily in the same-- able to do the same things that a president can do.

So I think now that you've got strong leadership at the national level, you've still got folks like Dr. Anthony Fauci saying the same things he's always been saying, I think now people are ready to get inspired and excited to fight this war. And it is a war that we have to kind of go out there and fight.

Whereas before, when you've got confusion at the leadership level, you kind of throw your hands up and say, oh, I don't know what to do. Forget it. I'll just kind of go on my merry way, and I don't need to wear a mask perhaps today. And so, I think now people are ready to hopefully listen and do the right thing.

KRISTIN MYERS: So we have a bit of good news, which is that COVID cases seem to be on the decline. And we're not-- we're at the end now of January. I always have to remind myself what day it is. But we've been told that winter was really going to be some of the hardest months. I'm wondering if you think that perhaps we're maybe turning things around if, you know, that this decline in cases that we're seeing could perhaps be contributed to the vaccine rollout that we have.

RISHI DESAI: Yeah, I think that this decline is real. I think we're going to see it continue to slowly go down. But the key is that although it continues to slowly go down, if you look at the curve you've got shown up there, it has gone down in the past and then risen again, right? So the moment we get complacent is the moment when the vaccine-- or the virus starts taking off again. And we're not nearly at the levels of vaccine where we can expect to kind of feel safe and that we're out of the woods.

So we're definitely not out of the woods. But I do think that if we continue to hunker down, wear masks, and have those folks that are eligible for vaccine go out and get it, I think that we're going to continue to see not just cases go down, but hospitalizations will slowly kind of tick down. Deaths will slowly tick down as well. But the key is-- but we've done that three times now. So that's not the hard part. The hard part is, can we keep applied pressure and not kind of get complacent and see another rise again?

KRISTIN MYERS: I have a question about that I'm going to ask you in just a moment. But I want to ask you about this new variant, or the several new variants that we have out there. Scott Gottlieb coming out and tweeting, actually, that the new variant could be a game changer, essentially, especially as we see these new mutations are more contagious.

At the same time, as you mentioned, our vaccinations are not where we want them to be right now. So it almost feels like we're a little bit behind in this war, in this battle against this virus. So how much do you think that this new variant, these new mutations that we're seeing right now, are going to impact these case counts that we have going on?

RISHI DESAI: That's a really good question. It's also why we want to make sure we're not fighting science. I mean, science is informing us about the variants. And think about each variant as having two potential kind of new powers. One is being more contagious, and the other is being more virulent.

So you just alluded to the first one being more contagious. If it is more contagious, then we need to be worried because then that means that we need a higher threshold of folks immunized and have vaccine to be able to protect against this from kind of getting out of control again. So I am very worried about that from that standpoint.

The other issue is virulance, and if we find that some of these variants are getting people more sick, landing them in the ICU, and causing more fatalities, then that's another cause for concern in terms of how we treat these patients as well.

KRISTIN MYERS: So going back to that the point that you were making just a moment ago, I keep wondering, as you mentioned, you know, we have this decline, and then we see them spike back up again. And I'm wondering if we are setting ourselves up in a way for kind of, like, this perfect storm. Because we do have these low vaccination rates. At least these vaccination rates are not where we say we either want them to be or even need them to be to reach herd immunity by late spring or early fall.

But we also have folks going back outside again as much as they can. People are having pandemic fatigue and hanging out. It seems as if travel is starting to pick back up a little bit more slowly. We now have these new mutations, which, as you mentioned, could be more virulent. It could be more contagious. Are we setting ourselves up to really get walloped in February perhaps, or even in March?

RISHI DESAI: One other thing that I would add to your long list of factors is also folks that might get one dose of the vaccine, but not go back and get the second. Because they think maybe one is enough, or they've heard one is enough. Or even states that might say, let's just give out one dose because we're short on supply.

All of those kinds of things are a setup for creating more variants, right? So that's exactly the environment in which a variant gets created, where you have one dose of vaccine, but not that second dose. So things like that are a setup.

I personally feel like based on all the data I've seen and what I've looked at, I think at this point, if we just really stick to the plan, get these two doses into arms, focus hard on that, I don't think that we're in for a setup. I don't think we're going to get walloped in February or March. I think that we're going to do OK.

But I do think that we need to just keep with the game plan and not get fatigued and all those other things, until everyone is getting the vaccine in the arms and has got two weeks after that to kind of get that full immunity and keep their masks on. Keep in mind, 95% is not 100%. So we might still need masks while the levels of COVID-19 are still quite high.

Once those levels go down, we can at that point, way down the road, start saying, you know what? Maybe at that point, masks aren't needed. It's not like I'm suggesting masks for life. But right now, while levels are high, even with vaccine, we need to keep our masks on.

KRISTIN MYERS: Yeah, applied pressure is incredibly difficult when people just want to get out of their house and see their friends again. But it is an important reminder that we can't let up right now because then we'll be back where we were back last March and last May. Dr. Rishi Desai, chief medical officer at Osmosis and former epidemic intelligence officer at the CDC, thanks so much for joining us.

RISHI DESAI: Thank you.