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Fmr. White House Doctor: It’s ‘ill advised’ to relax COVID-19 mandates amid spreading variants

In this article:
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Dr. Jennifer Pena, Nurx Chief Medical Officer & Former White House Medical Unit Physician for Obama, Biden and Pence, joins Yahoo Finance’s Julie Hyman and Alexis Christoforous to discuss the latest coronavirus updates and women in medicine.

Video Transcript

JULIE HYMAN: Now I want to talk a little bit about the coronavirus and women's health. But first, we should mention the Centers for Disease Control today issued new guidance having to do with people who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, saying that people who have been fully vaccinated may get together with other people who have been fully vaccinated inside without masks. And they gave some other guidelines around those get-togethers.

Joining us now is Dr. Jennifer Pena, Nurx chief medical officer and former White House medical unit physician for Obamas-- presidents Obama and Vice President Biden and Pence. Thank you so much for being here, Dr. Pena. So first of all, I want to ask you with regards to something like the new guidance we got today, about messaging around coronavirus coming from this administration and the last administration. Because obviously, good information is so important and has been so important during this pandemic. How do you think the new administration is doing so far?

JENNIFER PENA: Well, first of all, thank you for having me, and Happy International Women's Day. Is truly an honor to be here. You know, what's most important regarding messaging surrounding this pandemic is transparency-- transparency and following the science. Obviously, we didn't necessarily do as well last year in terms of maintaining that transparency with the public and what was happening from the government and that messaging getting to the people.

I am very happy to see that that is improving tremendously-- has improved tremendously with the new administration. Again, we're trusting the science first again. And we're keeping people informed, again, with science as the number one basis for the information that's coming out of the White House.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Dr. Pena, what are your thoughts on some states, including Texas, now relaxing some of their mandates. The Texas governor saying that people will no longer be mandated to wear masks, although we know that some places within the state, including some large retailers like Starbucks among them, saying no, customers must still wear masks if they're going to come into our stores. But what do you make of some pockets of the country now relaxing those restrictions?

JENNIFER PENA: Unfortunately, it's premature to do that. As Dr. Fauci has mentioned very clearly in the last week, it's ill advised to relax those mandates right now, especially as we're seeing in incidents increasing of the variants across the United States, especially in some of those states that are relaxing mandates. And so, it is unfortunate.

I suspect that it's going to lead to an increase in cases in some of these states. And it's something that can be very easily avoided with continuing to wear masks and maintaining that that distancing as much as possible. Again, we're almost there. We now have a vaccine. We're getting people vaccinated. We just need to stay the course until we're able to reduce those numbers of new cases significantly and get more people vaccinated before it's really safe to take those masks off.

JULIE HYMAN: As we've talked about frequently, the pandemic, in terms of the economic impact, has disproportionately affected women and people of color. What are you most concerned about over the next six months from a health perspective when we're talking about this cohort?

JENNIFER PENA: Yeah, so as we know, this pandemic has really affected women disproportionately. And we should be concerned of this secondary health impact of what it's going to cause. Not just the virus itself, but the fact that a lot of women are not being able to access essential health care that they need. And that's a result of women losing jobs, something called the she cession, right?

Women have lost 5.4 million jobs since the beginning of the pandemic, which is 1 million more jobs than our male counterparts. And more than 2.3 million women have left the workforce entirely. And a lot of that has to do with them having to be at home to care for the children that are learning remotely or being the primary caretakers for their vulnerable family members. And a lot of that burden does still fall on women. We're the CEOs of our households, for the most part.

And so, with job loss also comes the loss of health insurance a lot of times. And with the time demand that's placed on women to be the head of their households also comes that decreased ability for them to access healthcare. And so all of those factors put together are causing a disproportionate effect on women being able to access the healthcare that they need.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: I think you bring up such a good point when you say, doctor, that there is not enough access to the healthcare. We saw that take play out even before the pandemic when it comes to women and their ability to access appropriate healthcare for themselves and for their families. So what role does telehealth, which now we've seen during this pandemic, how important that is for all of us, what role can that play to help that situation going forward?

JENNIFER PENA: So telehealth was already booming very present prior to the pandemic. The pandemic, of course, unfortunately, it had to be this way but it really highlighted the need for these platforms to improve access to care. But telehealth has been absolutely essential during this past year, not just for women, but for everybody to be able to access care.

You know, we've seen a tremendous increase in demand for services and specific demands of certain medical issues that people are suffering more because of the pandemic, things like stress, behavioral health. There's been a tremendous increase in behavioral health need. And telehealth has really helped bridge that gap.

And so, you know, it offers a lot of benefits. It allows people to obtain care on their own time, at their convenience when they have time. Think of these women that are at home taking care of their children and vulnerable family members. Sometimes time is of the essence, and the ability to be able to access healthcare whenever they have a spare moment is a huge component of why telehealth helps bridge that gap.

Also, the costs. Traditionally, telehealth will be able to provide care for lower than what traditionally folks will pay for in person co-pays and out of pocket costs. And so that's another big component. And ultimately, there's no time away from work if they're working remotely or having to take time off to go to the doctor. Transportation costs-- there's an issue with transportation. Telehealth helps bridge all of those issues. So it's a tremendous asset to improve access to care.

JULIE HYMAN: And as you pointed out, if you're at home with your kids, you don't have to schlep them to the doctor's office with you. You can just have a few moments to sit in front of your screen. Dr. Jennifer Pena, thank you so much for being here. She's the Nurx chief medical officer. Appreciate it.