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How the ‘grandma phenomenon’ is influencing when people get the COVID-19 vaccine

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Dr. Stella Safo, co-founder of Vote Health 2020 and a NYC-based HIV primary care physician, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the latest coronavirus vaccine developments, how patients are responding, and why the science that has come out around COVID-19 is ‘inspiring.’

Video Transcript

MYLES UDLAND: COVID-19 pandemic continuing to rage across the globe, though we are starting to see cases, and importantly hospitalizations, come down here in the US as vaccine distribution continues. But concerns are increasing, mounting, we should say, on what various variants of SARS-CoV-2 may be capable of, what they can evade, what they cannot, and what the future of the pandemic may indeed have in store.

Joining us now to discuss all of this is Dr. Stella Safo, a New York City HIV primary care physician. Dr. Safo, thank you so much for joining the program this morning. I'd love to just start with where you are at in assessing the various variants, I guess we could call them, mutations, I don't know what the proper way you would characterize them are, but what we know, what we don't, how concerned you are at this point in the pandemic.

STELLA SAFO: So what we know is that COVID is doing what viruses do, which is mutating. All viruses mutate. With HIV work, we saw that happen. And it's why it matters so much that we kind of move as fast as we can to contain them. The longer a virus is out in the population, the more it will mutate. So what we're seeing is actually normal.

And it's really helpful for us to kind of start off with that, because I think people have this fear that COVID is something that's so different. It's definitely a very deadly virus, but its mutations are the things that viruses will tend to do, and that's how viruses survive. The concern for us, however, is whether the mutations will make it more trans-- more easy to transmit and whether these mutations are going to make it more deadly once you do acquire them.

JULIE HYMAN: And so, Dr. Safo, you talked about that containment is really important here. And part of that, of course, includes vaccination. The last time we talked, we were sort of at the beginning, the very beginning, I think, of the vaccination push.

And you talked about hesitancy in the communities you serve, in minority communities, given the historic relationship between the health care-- health care profession and minority communities. So I wanted to get an update from you. How are things going? Are people taking the vaccine when they can get access to it? And how is that attitude going?

STELLA SAFO: So what's so interesting is that people definitely have questions about the vaccine. They have questions about how the vaccine came to be made so quickly. This is the fastest generated vaccine in history. And I think that people have a lot of concerns about is it safe? Can I take it? Will it protect me?

What we're actually seeing now, though, about, I would say, five or six weeks into our vaccination process is that while there are some people who have a lot of questions, there's a lot of people who cannot wait to get their vaccine. And we're calling it the kind of grandma phenomenon When grandma gets her vaccine and goes home and says to some of these communities where there's some vaccine hesitancy, hey, I got my vaccine, we know that others will be more likely if they're seeing loved ones do it. But they can't get in just yet.

And so we're in this place where we should absolutely talk about vaccine hesitancy and address that, and we're doing that in lots of different ways. But we also have to really think about the fact that right now we're seeing some of our community's zip codes where COVID is really predominantly affecting minorities, and their vaccine rates pale in comparison to other areas where the rates of COVID are not as high and it's more white populations.

We have to really think about that. Are we being equitable in how our vaccines are being distributed? And sometimes it feels like this conversations about hesitancy can kind of get us in trouble where we're like, oh, well, these people are just reluctant, when actually it may be that they also can't get access if they wanted it.

BRIAN SOZZI: Assuming that Johnson & Johnson's candidate gets-- gets approved, how game changing is it to have a one-shot vaccine in the market?

STELLA SAFO: Absolutely game changing. I mean, I say that we're at war with COVID. And COVID is getting stronger by having these variants that are coming out. And we, on our side, are getting stronger by having our vaccines. But the vaccines only work as well as we can get them into people's arms.

And so it's really a race against time. The longer we let COVID kind of hang around, the more mutations we'll see, and likely the deadlier it will be. So we have a couple of tools that we can use today, right now. One of them is all the public health things of wear a mask, social distance. Two is get vaccinated when it's your turn.

And if we can get people fully inoculated against COVID-19 after one dose, that is a game changer. But people are saying, we're nervous because it's only 70% efficacy. However, that is-- that still translates to zero people hospitalized from severe COVID. So the efficacy is not something that people have to be worried about when it comes to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, because we know that it will do the thing that we want, which is prevent you from getting sick.

MYLES UDLAND: And Doctor, we started the conversation with you mentioning that mutations are normal for a vaccine that spreads widely. And I also think about your primary area of expertise, HIV, there is no vaccine for HIV. And perhaps is it helpful for regular citizens to remember how far ahead we are in fighting COVID, consider we have multiple vaccines, and there are many viruses out there for which there is only treatment, which can sometimes work over extremely long and arduous treatment cycles?

STELLA SAFO: It's a brilliant point. I mean, we have vaccine-- rather, we have viruses that have been with us for almost 40 years that we have no vaccines against. And it's actually a point of sadness for a lot of my patients. They'll say, Doc, I've had HIV for so many years, and I've never-- we've never gotten a vaccine.

And it's because HIV is such a tough disease, such a tough virus to be able to find a vaccine for. But it's also because HIV didn't have the entire scientific community looking at it to figure out a solution. You know, with COVID, we have this, everyone is talking about COVID, everyone from your scientists to your street vendors, everyone, right. And so if you have the best of the best minds, you can create a vaccine within one year.

But I think you make a very good point that what we're seeing with COVID is very unique. There are many diseases that, specifically many virologic diseases, that we do not have a vaccine for, which makes it all the more reason why it matters that once we do have these tools we actually use them. So when it's your turn, get vaccinated, because it will protect you, but it will also avoid the continuous spread to other individuals as well.

JULIE HYMAN: And so Doctor, finally, just in 30 seconds, are you hopeful, then, that this push on this disease that we will see that replicated with things like HIV now that we know it is possible?

STELLA SAFO: I mean, it's hard to say that you're excited when you talk about COVID, because COVID only gives us heartache. But what we're seeing with the science that's come out around COVID is absolutely inspiring. The vectors that we're using for the vaccine will open up a whole range of ways that we can vaccinate for other diseases.

And we're even seeing some benefits for other conditions like multiple sclerosis, potentially. So this is going to benefit us, certainly for COVID, but for much longer beyond. But really, the focus, I think, for everyone right now is let's get COVID under control, and then let's see how science continues to grow from this.

MYLES UDLAND: All right, Dr. Stella Safo, Vote Health co-founder, a New York City HIV primary care physician. Doctor, thanks so much for joining the program this morning. I know we'll talk soon.

STELLA SAFO: Thank you.