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Doctor on positive vaccine news: 'There may be light at the end of the tunnel'

Dr. Dara Kass, Yahoo Medical Contributor and Columbia University Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine, joins Yahoo Finance's Kristin Myers to break down the latest coronavirus developments as Pfizer says its vaccine is now 95% effective.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: Tracker-- nearly 249,000 Americans have lost their lives. We have Yahoo Finance's Anjalee Khemlani here with us now for more details on this pandemic. Hi, Anjalee.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Hey, Kristin. Yeah, so as you noted, we got the great news from Pfizer about its results for that vaccine candidate. So now we have two very effective vaccine candidates on tap ready for emergency use authorization review. And we know that the FDA is planning to go through the process and make sure that, in fact, everything does line up and we do have these two vaccines ready to use.

Of course, the two main differences being that Pfizer's does have that ultra cold chain problem, meanwhile Moderna's has just one sort of manufacturing partner, even though it requires a less colder temperature. So really going to be interesting to see where they all get distributed and how that happens in the process, but still waiting to hear more. No adverse events from Pfizer, so that's really good news, and they did see that the vaccine was effective in older individuals which, of course, is a priority population.

Meanwhile, looking at it from the greater perspective, because of no vaccine, we're still looking at states weighing lockdowns, weighing restrictions, weighing curfews, and debates about which of those strategies are, in fact, effective or not still going on what we lack any sort of national strategy. But that national strategy, even with an incoming Biden administration, is unlikely to include a national lockdown, according to one Biden advisor who we heard from earlier today. Take a minute to listen to that.

- A national lockdown or shut down is simply not on the table. The president-elect has no intention of implementing a national lockdown. There may be some differences of opinion on the advisory board, but the consensus on the advisory board is also that we do not need a-- a national lockdown is not indicated here.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: So as you can hear, not on the table-- that's a little bit different from what we heard last week when one advisor said there could be a short period of lockdown-- so definitely looking at what actually ends up happening. But mask mandate definitely on the table, and that's something that we anticipate seeing very shortly. It's important to note, of course, that the Biden administration has not-- or the transition team has not had access to any of the officials to clarify or get any other insight in terms of the vaccine.

Specifically at Operation Warp Speed, there's a call going on right now with Operation Warp Speed officials, but we have not heard much about the distribution just yet, just that there are plans. An important point to know about that, CDC director Dr. Redfield is an individual who would be involved in that process. And he, unfortunately, declined to come on Yahoo Finance today. Kristin, back to you.

KRISTIN MYERS: Thanks so much, Anjalee. I know you and I were both very excited to chat with the CDC director, so hopefully he'll be able to join us in the coming days or weeks. But I do want to continue this conversation, and now we're joined by Dr. Dara Kass, Yahoo medical contributor and a associate professor of Emergency Medicine at Columbia University.

So, doctor, I want to kind of pick up on something that Anjalee just said, which is about those mask mandates. You know, and I feel like I consistently repeat this question to every doctor that I chat with. You know, everyone is saying, of course, we need to wear masks, we need to wear masks, we need to wear masks. But we don't have a mask mandate as yet.

I mean, I'm seeing folks that are in Congress calling masks oppressive. So I feel like we have to kind of put the whole, everyone needs to wear masks, to the side. I'm wondering from you that if we continue on the path that we are currently on, where we have almost 11 and 1/2 million people in the United States positive-- testing positive for coronavirus, do you think that lockdowns are going to be the only thing to keep people safe?

We just heard from Dr. Celine Gounder saying, you know, there might not be necessary. But I just keep seeing these cases surging all around the country. And I'm sure many folks like myself are feeling a little bit nervous and anxious to see these numbers.

DARA KASS: So I think that what Dr. Gounder said and I think what's consistently coming from the Biden administration is that it's about leadership and data that will get us out of this pandemic. And so what I mean by that is that we need to have real numbers against why we would close certain businesses and keep others open. For example, we know that there really isn't a lot of transmission in schools.

And so a lockdown across the board would only have to happen in communities that had such large viral spread that their schools would be unable to protect their students. What we need to know is what would the positive test rate have to be, what would the number of tests per day have to be? And with the mask mandate, what's very interesting is that this is purely a leadership issue.

There is no conflicting science about whether or not masks work. We know they work not just to protect the person wearing the mask from spreading the virus, but also from protecting the person wearing the mask from getting the virus or, more importantly, getting a severe form of the virus. So what we'll see from the Biden administration is a national mask recommendation at federal spaces, and then obviously the partnership, I think, with local officials to continue to reinforce mask wearing in their local jurisdictions, knowing full well that it's going to be up to the local communities to reinforce mask wearing and to really show leadership at the community level, at the school level, and at the elected official level to keep masks front and center as we get out of this pandemic with the therapeutics and the vaccines that are coming our way.

KRISTIN MYERS: Now, as I mentioned, we're standing right now at a daily case count of 11.4 million. And every day on this show, I share the numbers of those daily case counts. And it was under 10.6 million on Friday, less than a week ago, and we've seen a huge jump. I'm wondering, as you're looking out across the country, do you think we're going to get to a point where this virus really starts spiraling out of control? Or would you describe this as a spiral already where we start to see these numbers-- I mean, it's almost unthinkable to me that we're seeing these numbers jump 100,000 cases a day. But I kind of want to know, how bad could it really get going forward?

DARA KASS: So honestly, we don't know. This is really unfathomable to those of us, especially those of us that were in March and April in New York City and we were dealing with 20, 30,000 cases a day and really felt like we were at our breaking point. The idea that we have let ourselves get to the point of 100 to 200,000 new cases per day with a death rate right now seeing between 1,000 and probably up to 2,000 deaths per day, and really not interested in doing much about it at the federal level, is astounding to those of us that are watching these cases on the ground and feeling the personal effects of this virus.

I don't know what our threshold is for tolerance for suffering and death under this current administration. I do know that things will change come January 20, because new leadership will enforce new restrictions, and more importantly, new guidance about what we need to be doing is to get ourselves out of this pandemic.

KRISTIN MYERS: So you, of course, are an associate professor of emergency medicine. And we've heard a lot of talk around hospitals, emergency rooms, of course, that they are going to be getting inundated. I have friends that are doctors that are telling me-- and they work in pediatrics-- that their children's hospitals are now having to take on adults, because the adult hospital, those beds are becoming filled. What does a worst case scenario really look like going forward between now and, as you mentioned, January 20 when we're going to have a new administration?

DARA KASS: And remember, there's no light switch that happens January 20. On January 20, we'll see the beginnings of new leadership, which will hopefully start to take effect between 4 and 10 weeks later. But it's not going to happen overnight. Unfortunately, when we need hospital beds, we take them from where they are. And so we've seen the conversion of children's hospital floors to adult hospital patients.

The worst case scenario is one where you go to the hospital for actually something unrelated to the coronavirus or the coronavirus and a critical illness, and there is no bed for you. You go there, you need to be intubated, maybe you are having a heart attack or a stroke, or if that's your family member, and you get there and there's no more room because the patients who get sick with this virus stay in the hospital for a very long period of time, even when they survive.

It's been a very, very-- it's been very poor messaging from the beginning to act like just because this virus didn't kill you right away, it somehow wasn't a stress on the system or the patient. It is a devastating virus even for those who survive, and we need to not forget that as we head into the winter as their hospital systems get stressed.

KRISTIN MYERS: You know, I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about the vaccine-- roughly 95% efficacy rate across both the vaccine candidates from Pfizer and also Moderna. I'm wondering if you can share some thoughts, if you are enthusiastic, optimistic looking forward, or do you have some questions even in the back of your own mind since that data has not really been released yet in a peer-reviewed journal? It's just coming out to us in press releases right now. And of course, there's a lot of concerns and questions about what the rollout is going to look like.

DARA KASS: So I think that we've all learned now that press releases are not peer reviewed data, and that we need the data to really understand what those numbers mean. But those numbers are encouraging. And more importantly, Pfizer and Moderna and the other vaccine companies have really walked the walk. They put out a process, and they're following the process. This is happening faster than any other vaccine development ever before.

But part of it has to do with the investment in not just the production, but in the pre-purchasing of the vaccine doses, and also in the pandemic itself. The number of people that were exposed to the virus in phase 3 has happened at a extraordinarily fast rate. I am very encouraged by this data. I think that it's a new vaccine process, it seems to be a really good fit for this particular virus, and I think that we're going to see encouraging data with a great safety and efficacy profile.

The delivery is going to be complicated. Obviously, both of these vaccines need cold storage and are harder to distribute than a regular room temperature vaccine. But I am encouraged by this information. And I think it means that there may be a light at the end of the tunnel for all of us, and we just need to stay the course through the rest of the winter.

KRISTIN MYERS: All right, Dr. Dara Kass, Yahoo medical contributor, always great to chat with you. Thank you so much for breaking all of that down.