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ER Physician: 'I don't have confidence' in CDC being allowed to do their jobs without interference

Boston Emergency Medicine Physician Dr. Jeremy Faust joins Yahoo Finance’s Zack Guzman to break down the latest coronavirus developments as U.S. hospitalizations turn positive for the first time since July.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: As we've been watching, some worrying trends have presented themselves on the coronavirus front here in the pandemic and the response to it as well. The global death tally has passed 1 million. And here in the US, there are rising positivity rates here when we think about how those test results have been coming back.

Overall nationwide, it seems to be falling, but when you look at some hot spots here, Florida sits at about 5%, and here in New York we've seen that trend, which has held below a 1% positivity rate, triple in the last couple of days here to top 3%, which is worrying since that's the level, if it holds, that could potentially get schools shut down once again. So it's a trend a lot of people here and a lot of people around the country have been watching to see how the return to schools might go.

And here to discuss that with us and more is Dr. Jeremy Faust, a Boston emergency medicine physician joins us now. And Dr. Faust, good to be chatting with you again. I guess I would just start on the idea of where these upticks in cases might be stemming from, because something we've been watching play out here on the national level were some of those risks to reopening schools.

And "The New York Times" is reporting what we had earlier heard from Politico here, that the-- that the White House task force might have been pressuring the CDC to downplay some of those risks in reopening schools, particularly even coming from White House task force doctor, Dr. Deborah Birx even pointing to some mental health questions around all that as well. I mean, we've talked about this pressure coming from the White House to reopen here. But what would you make about maybe the upticks we're seeing now and how it might be tied back to schools reopening?

JEREMY FAUST: Certainly, the upticks that we're seeing around the country are-- there's no one-size-fits-all answer to this. We certainly see that positivity is going up in certain areas, as you say, a huge concern, means that we are really missing a lot of cases. Alternatively, in certain jurisdictions, like here in Massachusetts, we might actually see-- we actually might see the opposite, which is that we're doing so much testing at the university level, so a college wants to stay open and they do tons of tests, that actually the positivity rate locally could go down, and you think that things are going well.

This is why you actually have to separate out, you have to tease out what you're testing, who you're testing, and what it means. So if you're doing asymptomatic testing for a school, that's one piece of information that you can use to make a decision about whether you're safe in that jurisdiction, but you shouldn't extrapolate that to the population. And the same thing is true in reverse. You could have a very terrible situation in one area with lots of positivity, but if you're really doing a very good job in your school jurisdiction and you've kept it out, then you could actually stay open.

The idea that there is influence on the CDC and other health organizations from the White House is very chilling. The kind of demagoguery we see about some of these issues just should not be anywhere near science. And it's alarming when you read the quotations from CDC officials that they're feeling this pressure, and you see publications come out on the CDC that weren't vetted.

I have confidence in the career professionals at the CDC. I do not have confidence that they are being allowed to do their jobs without interference. And once we can kind of factor that out, then the CDC and other agencies can go back to doing really great work, which they're doing, but it's just getting obscured.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and when we talk about that, I mean, obviously, faith in our agencies is important, especially as we approach whatever vaccine results we might get from these phase III trials, which sounds like it could be coming, in some cases, in a matter of months here. But when we look into that, a new Axios and Ipsos poll was looking into trust placed into potentially President Trump or their doctor when it comes to whether or not Americans would take a vaccine at the suggestion of one of these agencies or people here.

And looking at that, barely two in 10 Americans said they would take a first-generation coronavirus vaccine if President Trump told them it was safe. It was much higher at 62% if it was a personal doctor jockeying for them to take the vaccine or five in 10 if it was the FDA. I mean, we've seen a few of these polls come out here in who you should be trusting to give us the best advice.

Obviously, everyone would like to say they trust the CDC 100% here, but there are questions that you're-- you're kind of talking to here. What do you make of that and how faithful some Americans should be in the system to work as it's expected to?

JEREMY FAUST: The CDC is not really going to play a major role in terms of its-- people listening to whether they should do the vaccine. That's going to come down to, as you know, the FDA. And as we've discussed, I think in the past, the FDA has done an exceptionally good job of undermining itself with respect to the public being able to listen to what they say, and say, OK, they are making nonpolitical decisions.

The emergency use authorization for plasma was very clearly politically driven and a mismanagement the likes of which few of us had ever seen in public health before. The problem, of course, as you correctly say, Zack, is that now down the road if that same agency says we have good data on a vaccine, why would the public listen? So that's what front line physicians like me and my colleagues are going to have to deal with.

I do have a little bit of optimism that on a one-to-one case-by-case basis, we will be able to have those conversations. Of course, the problem is there's going to be a delay, because the FDA is going to come out with something, and that's going to be meaningless to people like me. We're going to have to just say, OK, that-- they've asked the question now, is this vaccine safe, they're going to say it's safe.

Is it-- is it useful? Well, we'll look at the data and then we will see if it is or it is not. And if it is, then we have to start that catch-up race, that sort of catching up with lost time to tell our patients that it's OK. And if it's not OK, or if it's not fully vetted, we're going to have to have that conversation, which could kick the can down the road even farther on these issues, which would drive the numbers down lower.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, as I said, I mean, we'll wait and see what the results look like when we look at phase III trial data as that comes out. But if you think about the timeline that we've heard from Dr. Fauci or Robert Redfield at the CDC, and we think about how long it's going to take, obviously, it's going to be, according to them, past election day. President Trump has said it's possible to get one by then, but that's not what we're hearing from the medical experts.

So when we think about how long we might have to wait and what could happen this winter, how worried are you that we might see cases start to rise like we did see back in March? I would point out, we did see a spike in Europe, but Italy finally also reported new cases coming in below their seven-day average, so I guess that getting under control, maybe assuaging fears that we were going to see a complete uptick the likes of what we saw back in March. So what are you expecting here as we hit the winter months?

JEREMY FAUST: Well, one thing that I think-- I don't want to leave aside is the notion that there might be evidence on one of the vaccines that's in a phase III trial before election day. I cosigned a letter to Pfizer, which is one of the leading companies towards a vaccine, that we want to make sure that they do not report any data that's too soon, because it could undermine the public trust if it turns out that the safety data has not been fully reported. We expect these vaccines to do well, or at least on the safety side, because if there is a safety problem, they tend to get stopped immediately.

But we do not want pressure to be mounted on any company to push results out too soon because they will not have been vetted. So I agree, I think that we're-- we're closer than we ever thought we'd be, and I think it's wonderful, and I'm optimistic. But I worry that there could be a political pressure that it could come out too soon.

In terms of the winter months, look, this is a scary moment. We do not know what this virus wants to do next or what it will do next based-- based on our behaviors, based on cold and flu season. In Australia and New Zealand, they didn't have much of a cold and flu season this year because they did such a good job of public health and suppressing cases and doing all the things that we need to do.

So maybe we could take a page out of their book and not have what everyone's been calling twin influenza, coronavirus and flu at the same time. Or it could be a worst-case scenario, and we could be looking down-- looking down the barrel here and seeing something like 1918, where the worst happened in November. If that were to be the case, then the kinds of numbers we've seen so far would be, unfortunately, a preamble. I'm not saying that's going to happen, but it's certainly a possibility, and we have to stay vigilant.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, I mean, we're seeing similar fears play out here in New York. As I said, the positivity rate tripling over just the last couple days. We're hearing calls from the governor here to stay vigilant as well, and people trying to wear their masks again. But Dr. Faust, always love having you on. I know you're very busy, but appreciate you taking the time.

JEREMY FAUST: Thanks for having me back on.