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COVID-19: Vaccine misinformation is ‘killing people,’ doctor says

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Dr. Michael Saag, associate dean for global health at University of Alabama-Birmingham, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the importance of vaccine shots and how misinformation is impacting people's perception of the severity of COVID-19.

Video Transcript

- --because today Pfizer said it has begun clinical trials of its Omicron-specific COVID vaccine to determine if it's safe and generates a strong immune response in both vaccinated and unvaccinated. Here to talk about it is Dr. Michael Saag, Associate Dean for Global Health at University of Alabama at Birmingham. Doctor, thanks for being with us.

So given how rampant the spread of Omicron is, does this vaccine trial come too late, or is it-- I guess we can look at it as an insurance policy in case Omicron mutates to become something a lot more serious?

DR MICHAEL SAAG: Well, I think your question's spot on. The testing will happen in the next couple of weeks to a month or so. And by the time the new product gets tested and hopefully is shown to be effective, Omicron will probably be in our rearview mirror. So it's really a question of what are the next boosters that we should be using? And an Omicron booster might be better than the usual Pfizer booster because it gives the immune system something different to look at, obviously especially in those people who never had Omicron. Nobody knows what the future is going to hold. There likely will be new variants that emerge over time. But I think the principle is to give the immune system as many different looks as it can at the outer portion of the virus, the spike protein, so it can be prepared for whatever variants may come along.

- Doctor, we just found out a very sobering statistic today COVID-19 deaths in the US reached the highest level since last February. Even though we keep hearing about Omicron being milder than Delta, how serious is it for those who are not unvaxxed and how important is it to get that booster shot then?

DR MICHAEL SAAG: Well, the deaths are mostly occurring in unvaccinated people, and that's the way it's been ever since last December when the vaccines were released. Somewhere in the message I think the public is getting a little confused. They hear accurately that Omicron as a rule is a little bit less aggressive than Delta. That's true. It's especially less aggressive in those who are fully vaccinated and boosted. That's true, especially with regard to hospitalization and death. But for those people who are unvaccinated in particular, when they get Omicron, those overall numbers of people who might progress to hospitalization and death is less proportionately than what we saw with Delta. But the overall number of cases is so much higher that the aggregate numbers are higher in general, which is why we're seeing a new record and deaths.

And it's tragic. These folks don't have to die from from COVID, but they are dying because they're not getting vaccinated. And the misinformation that's out there that's telling people that the vaccine kills people, telling people that these vaccines are unsafe, that's just wrong. And it's killing people.

- Doctor, I know you're in Alabama where the situation there is pretty dire in your hospitals-- COVID hospitalizations, rising, about to reach an all-time high. What is their vaccine status of those people generally speaking? And what is the new case count like there?

DR MICHAEL SAAG: We're hitting a peak again, and part of the reason is that the vaccine status of people in Alabama is generally much less than the average for the country unfortunately. And that's true for a lot of the states in the southeastern US and in some of the Midwestern states. The problem is that we're having trouble getting our messaging out there. And that means that people who are not vaccinated are picking up COVID.

As far as overall caseloads, there are breakthrough infections for sure among people who are vaccinated and even some people who are boosted, but those cases are mild and typically don't lead to hospitalization. But to reiterate what I said earlier, it's really the unvaccinated folks who are filling up our emergency rooms, our hospitals, our ICUs, and they're the ones who are disproportionately dying from COVID. The rate of death is about 13-fold higher for an unvaccinated person than for a vaccinated person. That's a huge number.

- It certainly is I want to switch gears and talk about the mask mandate-- the debate there, which continues to rage on. So this week New York State judge ruled that the state's mask mandate was unconstitutional. You also had this week seven school boards in Virginia suing the new governor there for his mask optional order. I know sometimes they have to deal with the letter of the law and not necessarily the science. But as a doctor, what would you tell these parents right now grappling with whether or not to send their kids to school masks or not?

DR MICHAEL SAAG: Well , backing up. We know that masks work, especially the more robust mask like the N95, KN95. Even surgical masks are much better than not wearing anything. And I think what the school superintendents are trying to do is keep the kids safe as possible. We want our kids back in school. We really need to have them there for their sake and for just the sake of creating normalcy. But we can't just send them into harm's way with no protection. So the concept of a mask mandate is based on the knowledge that if everyone is wearing a mask, that keeps most people safe, a whole lot safer than if it's sporadic, because that person who's infected is spreading virus into the world around them, and if kids are coming into contact with each other, they're going to pick it up, not only for themselves and bring it home, but mom and dad and other relatives can pick it up who live in the house. So it's really an interesting legal battle. But from a public health perspective, there's no question that we're all better off during these spikes-- that's what I really want to emphasize-- that having us all wear a mask as we weather this storm and then get to clearer skies hopefully in February and early March.

- So I'm going to leave us on a hopefully an optimistic note. Are there glimmers of hope that you see that tell you, perhaps, this pandemic moves over and morphs into an endemic in 2022?

DR MICHAEL SAAG: Yeah. I really believe that. And I think there's two ways to look at it. One is just the nature of these epidemics. They do tend to, over time, burn themselves out as a raging fire. There will be smoldering areas that spark up every now and then here and there. But the other thing that I really want to emphasize is to celebrate our science. We are two years into this epidemic, and we already have a large number of treatments available. We have very effective vaccines. We know a lot about how this virus is transmitted and, like we just talked about, wearing masks that can prevent it from being transmitted from person to person when these spikes happen. We have all this knowledge. So I think that's going to converge over the next couple of months. And I think if we're smart, we can move forward in the most normal way getting back to where we were pre-COVID if we all get vaccinated, and during spikes, we wear a mask and protect ourselves. And when we do get infected and have symptoms, we have these new drugs, and we'll be able to hopefully keep people out of the hospital and prevent them from dying.