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Doctor: We're in a race against the case count 'to vaccinate as many people as possible'

Dr. Rachael Piltch-Loeb, PhD, Associate Research Scientist at NYU School of Global Public Health, joins Yahoo Finance's Kristin Myers to break down the latest coronavirus developments, as the U.S. death toll reaches above 4,000 for the first time.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: I want to turn now to the coronavirus pandemic. There are now over 21.6 million cases of coronavirus in the United States. And yesterday, the daily death toll hit a record high of more than 4,000 deaths. Now that brings the total death count now to 366,000 people. We have Dr. Rachael Piltch-Loeb, PhD, here with us. She's an associate research scientist at NYU School of Global Public Health.

So I want to start with the news from the incoming Biden administration, which is that they are not going to be holding back the second dose of the vaccine and instead are going to follow what the UK is doing, which is getting a vaccination out to as many people as possible and then delaying that second dose. I'm wondering if you think that's the best way to go, especially considering that, when at least it comes to vaccinations, we are way under where officials say that we should be and want to be right now.

RACHAEL PILTCH-LOEB: Yeah, I mean, I think the rationale for increasing or shifting the dose strategy has a lot to do with the fact that we need to get as much vaccine into as many people's arms as quickly as possible. With the new variant that's taking hold from the UK, as well as the variant that seems to be coming out of South Africa, more infectiousness, higher infectiousness means that there's likely to be more cases, which means our health system is likely to be overwhelmed.

So we are really in a race against those variants and the case count to vaccinate as many people as possible. And I think that that is what's underlying the shift in strategy that's coming out of the Biden administration.

KRISTIN MYERS: Is it possible-- you just mentioned those two variants. We have the one that we've been talking about from South Africa and then the other one that had been reported in the UK. Is it possible that we could hear that some of these mutations might be resistant to the vaccine that we have going out right now?

RACHAEL PILTCH-LOEB: The latest evidence seems to suggest that the vaccine can still work against the new variants, but anything is possible. And we know that viruses continue to mutate, and we know that there may come a time when the vaccine has limited effectiveness towards those-- whatever the new variants may be. So the goal, again, is just to move as quickly as possible, recognizing that the vaccine we currently have should work against the strains that we're seeing.

KRISTIN MYERS: So, as you mentioned, we have to move as quickly as possible. This is really, in a lot of ways, a race against the virus, but also a race against the clock. And so, I'm wondering-- we don't have this new administration for another two weeks, give or take a couple of days.

And so, how tough do you think January and February are going to be, given the rising death count, the fact that in places like California, 20% of the tests are coming back positive, the fact that we haven't vaccinated enough people, and these two mutations are more contagious, increasing the infectious rate. How difficult will these next two months be to navigate?

RACHAEL PILTCH-LOEB: We're in for a challenging couple of months. I think that many public health experts are sort of echoing the same sentiment. Unless we sort of take dramatic measures to either lockdown or shift the way in which we're able to get vaccine to people in a much more rapid capacity, it's going to be a challenging couple of months.

That being said, we recognize that with the vaccine, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. What's important to remember, though, is the day you get the vaccine is not the day that you are immune from from COVID-19. And so, there is still that window by which when people get vaccinated, that they may still be able to get the virus, to spread the virus. Immunity doesn't develop just immediately.

So, we're in for a challenging couple of weeks, even with the vaccine, based on the strains that we're seeing, maybe perhaps a couple of months. But it sort of, again, emphasizes that that speed is really critical here.

KRISTIN MYERS: Doctor, I have about a minute left with you. I'm wondering if you can comment on the fact that we see a state like Arizona being a hotspot right now for the virus. What really, you know, makes a place a hotspot, and do you see over the next couple of weeks, couple of months, for example, that, you know, these states-- really, I hate to use this phrase, but might start passing the baton, so to speak, when it comes to the highest coronavirus infections. Is that how this virus has been working?

RACHAEL PILTCH-LOEB: Yeah, I mean, I think that states become hotspots or localities become hotspots when an outbreak happens, and then there isn't the appetite from the public or from the policymakers to kind of implement control measures. I think that yes, it's likely to see that we'll be shifting who is the biggest hotspot, however we're defining that.

But what's important to keep in mind is that what are the overall number of case counts, what are the overall number of deaths, and how localized is that. So, for example, we're seeing 4,000 deaths a day. That's an incredibly high number. And I think when people realize that that's hitting their own communities, that number becomes really personal or can become really personal. So, there's going to be different communities that are really adversely impacted by this virus in the coming weeks and in the coming months.

KRISTIN MYERS: All right, NYU School of Global Public Health associate research scientist, Dr. Rachael Piltch-Loeb, thank you so much for bringing us all of those updates and insights today.

RACHAEL PILTCH-LOEB: Thank you.