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Doctor on school closings: 'Let’s make sure we’re closing the highest risk things first'

Dr. Darria Long, ER Physician in Georgia and Tennessee & Clinical Assistant Professor at University of Tennessee School of Medicine, joins Yahoo Finance's Kristin Myers to discuss the latest coronavirus developments as NYC closes its school system amid the case surge.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: We're joined now by Dr. Darria Long, an ER physician in both Georgia and Tennessee, and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine. Dr. Long, thank you so much for joining us today. As I just mentioned, 170,000 cases in one day. So we are sadly breaking records all the time when it comes to this pandemic.

Wondering if you had a sense about what the source of these new infections are? Is it just a matter of the fact that we're going into the colder months, that no one seems to be wearing masks as much as they should, or perhaps was it Halloween? What is it?

DARRIA LONG: Hi, Kristin. It's good to be here. I think it's kind of multifactorial. I think in part it is, yes, we are going into colder months. People are more likely to go indoors. I think there is some degree of kind of masks and COVID fatigue, that coupled with the fact that people are getting very mixed messages lead people to not be following the same kind of protective guidance that we wish they would follow. And that's why we are seeing this continue to spread. And yes, potentially the holidays can, of course, contribute to rising numbers as well.

KRISTIN MYERS: So I didn't hear you mention schools as a part of that reason. And we keep seeing headlines as schools are not super spreader areas. And yet, of course, we now have this news that we are seeing schools closed, especially here in New York City. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on that. Are we being a little bit too hasty in shutting down schools given all that we know about the virus as it affects young folks?

DARRIA LONG: Yes, Kristin, I'm glad you asked this. I'm actually working with a number of schools, consulting for them to help them on their back to school protocols, and looking at the data in terms of testing, and what we are finding is, yes, the schools, when you can follow the protocols, and when you can couple that with testing, then we are seeing much less risk from schools as opposed to things like we know, bars and restaurants. So let's get our priorities straight. Let's make sure we're closing the highest risk things first. And then let's make sure we're protecting our schools so that we can keep them up and longer, which we're starting to show is indeed possible.

KRISTIN MYERS: OK, so to that point, are we getting our priorities wrong because we are hearing schools are closing, right? Children have to stay home. And yet when it comes to bars, restaurants, gyms even, for example, it's been a patchwork response around the country.

And it largely seems to be hey, OK, a restaurant has to close at 10:00 PM. A bar has to close at 10:00 PM. But it's still allowed to be open throughout the day, which seems to be a little bit of a disconnect when it comes to policy. Wondering what your thoughts are on that.

DARRIA LONG: Yeah, I think you've read-- you heard the underlying context in my comment there. Yes, we are getting our priorities incorrect if we are shutting down schools, and then we're letting these restaurants and bars open, or in these sort of patchwork schedules. I think the biggest problem, Kristin, is there is a lack of centralized net nationwide guidance. And from the schools I'm working with, we are requiring heads of schools to make decisions on protocols.

We're requiring restaurants and bar owners to make decisions. They're stressed about just trying to stay open and how they can serve patients-- serve people safely. Let's have a centralized guidance for this. We can give everyone guidance on what to do, give them the rules so they can follow it, and get back to what they do best, which is educating, or feeding people, and doing it safely.

KRISTIN MYERS: And now I keep reading the news that we are seeing the virus surge all around the country. We now have 170,000 cases in just one day. And I know I'm not alone because I'm getting a lot of text messages from friends who know that I've been on a plane just throughout this pandemic.

Hey, I want to travel for Thanksgiving. I don't know what I'm doing. Should I do it?

What was it like when you were flying? I'm hearing this a lot. My friends talking about this generalized anxiety over the coronavirus cases that are surging.

And yet we keep hearing, OK, we actually don't need to go into a lockdown. Schools can remain open. So, I mean, I guess to talk to that fear, do we need to worry, and does everyone need to stay in their homes and just wear a mask if they're going outside? I guess I'm trying to really get a sense of how bad this could get in just one month, for example.

DARRIA LONG: Yes, you know what, Kristin, as an ER doctor, there is a lot of places where you could get anxious or get concerned about things. And what we try to do is instead of doing that a bit and seeming anxious about something vague, we try to put in systems in place. So we say, what are the risks? Let's put protocols in place and then we don't have to be anxious. And that's what I want people to have.

And then if we put in some guidelines, say, schools can stay open, but no, you shouldn't be doing a lot of traveling for Thanksgiving. In fact, the CDC just released new guidance about an hour ago saying they don't want people to be traveling for Thanksgiving at all. So no, minimize your travel for Thanksgiving.

Minimize your socializing. If we do these things, then we wouldn't have to do a global large scale lockdown, and we wouldn't have to be anxious about an uncontrolled outbreak. If we could do the smart things, be testing well, then we could be much more measured about it, without being anxious.

KRISTIN MYERS: I want to get to the holiday in a minute, but I want to ask you first. We see these daily case counts. You know, they are essentially ahead of the hospitalization counts and the hospitalization figures that we eventually see. If we start seeing 170,000 people being tested positive for the virus in just one day, which leads me to think, although you are the expert, but leads me to think that we could be seeing 200,000 before too long.

What does that say for hospitals, especially hospitals-- I think some people say, listen, the hospitals are overrun are probably in smaller areas, smaller communities. We don't need to worry if it's in a big city. I'm hoping you can maybe do a little bit of myth busting there. What do you see coming, especially since you work in the ER, down the pike for those hospitalization figures?

DARRIA LONG: Yeah, I think anybody who's not worried about hospital capacity, they just need to come work a shift in the ER with me right now. Whether you are in a big city or a small city, I mean, our hospitals run at capacity on a daily basis, Kristin. That's a separate issue that we should get to to being able to fix that better. In my ER and many others that I know, we are so-- our hospitals are so full, they are boarding patients in the ER that are inpatients, which means that we're seeing our ER patients out in the waiting room.

So just to lay that out there. So now your ER doctor, we're running back and forth seeing patients in the waiting room. That is before we've seen a real flu season. That is before we've seen what could be coming in terms of a peak of COVID.

So we need-- our nation needs to start planning right now for what we're going to do about hospital capacity. And it's not just, Kristin, about having more beds and medications. You only have so many doctors and nurses as well. So we need to start planning now because we are already in shortage. And I hate to have to ring that bell, but we really are. It is-- it's bad already in the ER.

KRISTIN MYERS: So I know what you are saying, everyone needs to stay at home for Thanksgiving, and we're running out of time. So I'm going to move on past that. We all hear your advice, stay home, see your friends and family through FaceTime. I want to ask you about these vaccines.

We now have Pfizer saying 95% efficacy rate. Moderna, 94.5% efficacy rate. AstraZeneca, our vaccine is safe in the elderly. That is the only one however that has actually published their results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. As people are hearing these news, should they be saying, OK, I want the AstraZeneca vaccine when they become available?

Should I want the Pfizer vaccine, because it's 95% efficacious. How are you squaring them all together? Is one better than the other?

DARRIA LONG: So, for one, we can't make decisions based off of press releases, that's for certain. And that's what we have with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. I think they are promising. And in terms of being in stage of the game, I think Pfizer and Moderna, we are seeing them ahead of AstraZeneca. This mRNA technology is promising.

But we don't know about them is that, is this immunity actually sterilizing, meaning do you actually not get COVID? Pfizer and Moderna know that they reduced symptomatic COVID, but we don't know if they actually reduced total COVID. So that's a really big question. And we also need to know how long does that immunity last?

We don't know that. And of course, for none of them, we don't know the long-term effects. But what I'm telling people right now, especially if you're in that high risk group, you're going to want to get a vaccine. And it's just probably going to come down to which one is available to you first because with the technology and then the risk of being able to distribute it to people, there's a lot of variables still there.

KRISTIN MYERS: All right, a lot of questions out there. I'm really thankful that you were able to join us and answer some of these questions, at least put some of my anxieties to ease. Dr. Darria Long, ER physician in Georgia and Tennessee, and Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine. Thanks so much for joining us.

DARRIA LONG: Thanks, Kristin. Take care.