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Doctor on COVID-19: 'People who are vaccinated are still very susceptible to infection'

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Dr. Susannah Hills, Pediatric Airway Surgeon and Assistant Professor of ENT at Columbia University Medical Center, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss the latest on the coronavirus pandemic.

Video Transcript

The war has changed against COVID-19. That's what the CDC says. And the agency is calling for a new response to the Delta variant.

Meantime, a new Gallup poll finds Americans optimism about the coronavirus has plummeted over just the last month. Joining us now to talk about it is Dr. Susannah Hills, pediatric airway surgeon and assistant professor of ENT at Columbia University Medical Center.

Dr. Hills good to see you again. I want to start with something I saw play out in Massachusetts during a COVID-19 outbreak, a recent COVID-19 outbreak there. About 3/4 of people infected were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Four of them wound up in the hospital. What does that tell you about the way fully vaccinated Americans should be behaving and how they can keep themselves safe right now?

DR. SUSANNAH HILLS: Yeah, Alexis. This was really a big wake up call I think. It's evidence now really that people who are vaccinated, even people who are vaccinated are still very susceptible to infection.

So that changes the steps forward that we need to take before we were talking about masking for unvaccinated people. But-- but loosening restrictions for everybody who's vaccinated and leaving everything wide open for vaccinated folks. And now we clearly see evidence that, that approach is going to just continue to propagate infections.

Based on that study that population that you mentioned from Provincetown from July, health experts are estimating that this Delta variant is about as infectious as the chicken pox, for example, which is incredibly, incredibly contagious. Smallpox they're likening it to. Really highly contagious viruses.

So this is much more infectious than the common cold. And we're seeing that even vaccinated folks are at risk.

- I'm curious to know. So Dr. Fauci has already said that he doesn't expect any new lockdowns in the United States. But we are seeing state after state after state start to reimplement those mask mandates indoors. Do you think that perhaps considering how contagious we know this variant is and how we are seeing the surges and the spikes around the country.

That perhaps it might be a little bit premature to say that we're not going to have any new lockdowns. Do you think that lockdowns could potentially be in our future, especially as you're discussing even folks who are vaccinated still sometimes are coming through with some of these breakthrough cases and can also pass it on to the unacquainted?

DR. SUSANNAH HILLS: That's a great question. And you know, I look at that like everything that we've looked at throughout the pandemic in terms of guidance. It's susceptible to change. It will evolve with time.

So based on the information we have now, Dr. Fauci is estimating that we likely won't need lockdowns. I think that that's based on the fact that about half of Americans now are vaccinated. And that those who are vaccinated while they can get symptomatic infection are still incredibly unlikely to be hospitalized and get severe illness.

Of course, as we've learned time and time again, that things change in this environment. So I wouldn't say lockdowns are impossible. But I think that if people-- if we can increase the rate of vaccination the reason we felt so good a couple of months ago was that we were getting two to three million people vaccinations every day.

And now that rate of vaccination is about 600,000 a day. It's much, much less than it was. And if we were able to get the vaccination rate for the roughly 100 million Americans eligible for vaccines up to a rate that would make us feel confident, the majority of Americans who are eligible to be vaccinated in the coming months. Then we'd have to worry about things like lockdowns much less.

We do know that masking, social distancing, those measures that are being implemented and are likely to be implemented increasingly across the United States are effective in preventing transmission. They should be very effective, and helpful, and mitigate the spread of this virus.

So hopefully, if people who are advised to mask, go ahead and mask in the regions where rates of infection are high. Hopefully, we can get a hold of the spread of this virus and avoid lockdown.

But like all things with this virus, we'll see. Time will tell. And it's possible things could change.

- Do you think we're moving any closer to those booster shots that we had heard about? Those boosters for those who are fully vaccinated. Do we expect any kind of a timeline here? And-- and do we know if they're going to do the job and-- and help vaccinated folks be safe against the Delta variant?

DR. SUSANNAH HILLS: Yes. I think that's a question that all vaccinated folks are wondering when can I actually get booster. Those who are unvaccinated or probably hesitant to get vaccinated in the first place. The question about the booster shots is pretty complicated.

On the one hand, people are understandably concerned that we're seeing vaccinated people get infected. But again, we're seeing overwhelming evidence of these infections are relatively mild. They're not landing people in the hospital. People are recovering and they're doing well.

And that's where we want the vaccine to do. So I personally, and I think this is the public health messaging in general across the United States would really like to focus on getting people vaccinated who are currently unvaccinated and-- and manage a booster shot later.

I think it's likely. We'll be looking at getting a booster shot some time again in the next year. But for right now, we've got to get the shots we have into arms. And we also have to focus on the global nature of this virus because that is where these variant strains are coming from.

That then give us the strain. That's resistant to the vaccinations that we've done. So we've got to get a handle on. Getting everyone in the United States and our country vaccinated, and also and helping to get doses to countries that are not vaccinated at all. Or that have minimal numbers of people vaccinated who are experiencing surges. Because that's where we're going to get these mutations, and that's where we're going to continue to have to fight these strains that are so, so virulent.

- All right. We're going to have to leave it there. Dr. Suzannah Hills, thanks so much for being with us today. We appreciate it.