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FDA panel endorses Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine

Assistant Professor in Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard Global Health Institute Dr. Tom Tsai joined Yahoo Finance Live to break down what Americans should expect from Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine as cases continue to climb.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: As we await the FDA's emergency use authorization on Moderna's vaccine and also who should be getting the vaccine, we're seeing these numbers get worse in a lot of instances. Hospitalizations hitting a record for the 12th day in a row. The number of daily new cases still well above 200,000. We want to bring in Dr. Tom Tsai. He's assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard Global Health institute.

Dr. Tsai, great to have you back on the program. Since we last spoke, these numbers-- the number of cases have continued to skyrocket. The hospitalization number that I just mentioned at another record. How much worse is this pandemic going to likely get until we start seeing significant improvement from people getting these vaccines?

TOM TSAI: Thanks, Seana, for having me on. And unfortunately, I think it will be worse before it gets better. An analysis of the new hospitalization capacity data released by HHS, the HHS [INAUDIBLE] data set, which was released about two weeks ago, our team have found that about 45% of the country's hospitals have ICU capacities at a critical level. So meaning ICUs have been more than 90% full for at least two weeks since September.

And that number seems to be growing with each additional week. As the hospitalization numbers increase, we're seeing an increasing strain on hospitals who are trying to provide care for non-COVID medical conditions that had been delayed from prior months, as well as meeting the demand of the current number of COVID cases. And what's been stark is the pattern of our smaller rural hospitals, critical access hospitals, that have had severe capacity gaps. So I think it'll be worse before it gets better.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Tsai, it's Anjalee here. One of the questions relate to that, obviously, with the pressure on the health systems, the health workers getting that vaccine is so critical. We know that there has been an overwhelming push for them to get it, but we've seen some administrators also get it. There's a protest out in Stanford, as well as high profile politicians and individuals like that. I just wonder on your thoughts on that and the message that sends.

TOM TSAI: Yeah, I think that the answer is pretty clear. We have clear guidelines from the CDC about the different phases. And phase 1A is around frontline healthcare workers and then residents of long-term care facilities. And, you know, I think our leaders need to lead from the front. And the Pfizer CEO has announced that he's not going to jump the line for the vaccine.

And I think what we need to do is prioritize our clinicians and nurses at the front lines, who are taking care of patients and at risk of being exposed. So it's about everybody doing their part. And doing your part, in some cases, may mean letting people in higher risk categories to the front of the line for the vaccine.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. Tsai, have you gotten your shot yet? Do you know what the timing looks like for that? And how has the rollout gone this week at your hospital?

TOM TSAI: Yeah, so at my hospital, it's gone very smoothly at Brigham Women's Hospital. I operate and take care of patients both in the operating room, on the floor, in the ICUs, and emergency rooms. So I've been scheduled to receive my vaccine dose next Tuesday. But, you know, we're making sure that, you know, it's the clinicians taking care of patients that are getting the vaccines. And every hospital is implementing their own prioritization plans.

And we have a screening system in place at our hospital. And many healthcare systems have similar screening systems in place to schedule the clinicians, physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists for the vaccine. So, so far, it's been very smooth. And I'm hearing stories from my friends and colleagues around the country who work in hospitals as well, receiving their vaccines. So it's definitely has been a very encouraging week in terms of seeing some hope for what this rollout means for the rest of the country in the coming weeks to months.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. Tsai, just real quick here, because I know Anjalee wants to jump in with another question before we let you go, but do you know, since you are getting test-- or since you're getting the shot next week, are you scheduled to get Moderna's vaccine if it is approved today? Or are you scheduled to get Pfizer's?

TOM TSAI: It's Pfizer's, so this is part of the initial distribution from HHS to the state, and then the state to our individual healthcare systems, and within the systems to the hospital. So this is still part of that first allocation that is still being rolled out. And the hospitals are doing it thoughtfully, you know, and making sure that they are screening individuals appropriately and scheduling the appointments for that.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Good to hear. Dr. Tsai, one more thing also about testing. We know that the FDA was pretty busy authorizing at-home and over-the-counter tests. But it still doesn't seem to meet the mark in terms of affordability. I just wonder, are we ever going to get to the point where at-home testing and over-the-counter testing, nonprescription testing is widespread? And what needs to be done to get there?

TOM TSAI: Yeah, Anjalee, you make an excellent point. And, you know, even with the vaccine being rolled out, it will take months before it reaches all the populations that it needs to reach. So we still need to make sure that we're containing the spread of the virus by wearing masks, social distancing, but by breaking the asymptomatic chain of transmission through screening testing. And that can be accomplished at home.

Currently, there's requirement for a telehealth visit from MD providers. But my hope is that $25 fee will be eventually be waived, and we can truly make this a $5 paper strip test that's performed at home and done simply, cheaply, in a widescale way. So we're heading the right direction. There's still some regulatory hurdles in the way.

But again, with increases in our testing numbers of over two million, we're heading in the right direction, but we can't abandon the testing strategy. Because, again, the vaccine is not an either or approach. It's about an all of the above approach, as we really gather to suppress a pandemic in the coming weeks to months.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. Tsai, always great to have you on. We look forward to talking with you again soon. And Anjalee Khemlani, as always, thanks so much for bringing us the latest on the vaccines and also those numbers that you brought us.