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Hospitals are ‘playing catch-up’ as COVID-19 cases surge in the U.S.: Doctor

Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit Medical Director Dr. Brian Garibaldi joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the latest with COVID-19 as the rising number of patients strains U.S. hospitals.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: As the country hits yet another record in hospitalizations, surpassing 125,000 for the fourth time in five days. The total number of related deaths now surpassing 350,000. Meanwhile, over in the UK, we've got health care workers beginning to administer the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca.

Let's bring in Brian Garibaldi. He's a doctor and medical director at Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit. And Dr. Garibaldi, it's always good to talk to you. The holidays are sort of distorting the numbers, if you will, because we're playing catchup here on the number of cases that were reported during the New Year's holiday. But help us understand where things stand right now, and how much worse you think things are about to get.

BRIAN GARIBALDI: So right now, things are really, really bad. This is- among the worst periods that we've had in our country, and the numbers don't yet reflect what's going to happen after millions of people travelled over the Christmas and New Year's holidays. You know, we set records in people who were screened through TSA at airports who are flying over the holidays, and it's going to be a couple of weeks before we see what the true impact of that travel and those holiday exposures is going to be.

So we're entering a really rough patch from a place where we have more infections, and more hospitalizations, and deaths per day then-- then at many points we've seen so far. So we're all really worried about what the month of January is going to hold for us as health care workers and for hospitals across the country.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and Dr. Garibaldi, I mean, we were talking for a while here about kind of the fears the medical community had around January, December the winter months, as people move more inside, travel obviously a factor here as well. But I wonder, in your mind, how much might stem also from that new strain out of the UK there, and one that supposedly spreads a lot more rapidly than the other strain before? How much of that maybe adds to some of the concerns now when you think about hospital staff being strained to their limits right now, as we're seeing play out in California and other regions of the country?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, we don't know the extent to which that strain from the UK is-- is circulating here in the US. And the reason we don't is because we've simply not genotyped or looked at the genetic makeup of enough viruses here in the United States compared to other countries. So we've genotyped far less than 1% of the cases-- confirmed cases we've had in the US. So it's very likely that that strain is circulating, and we do know from some really well done epidemiologic data from the UK that this strain likely does spread faster.

Part of that could be related [INAUDIBLE] infected with the strain early on and what their behaviors are, but there's emerging evidence that it probably does spread faster than other strains of the virus, and so that's another thing that we have to worry about. What we hopefully will find out over the next week is whether or not these new circulating strains, particularly the one from the UK, but also from South Africa, whether they'll respond to the vaccine.

And so, there's hope that certainly the UK one probably will respond to the vaccine, but there's a little bit more concern that's been raised in the last few days about whether or not the South African variant will respond to the vaccine. We hope that it will, and we think that it will respond partially, but we need to know for sure what we're dealing with in terms of those issues.

AKIKO FUJITA: And doctor, there's a lot of concern about the slow pace of vaccines being administered in the US, about $200,000 a day right now. We heard Dr. Fauci over the weekend saying that he hopes ultimately we can get to a million per day. In your assessment, where is the breakdown happening and what needs to be done to accelerate the process?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I think one of the issues is that we've put a lot of burden on state health departments that we already know were understaffed and underfunded before the pandemic began. And they've been working nonstop for the last 10 months, first to set up testing strategies, then to work with hospitals to make sure that health care workers have PPE, to make sure that hospital capacity is augmented in areas that are surging. And they're being asked to do more than they can probably handle right now, given the staffing they have and the budgets that they have.

You know, I think it's going to take time to get the allocation plans in place. You know, the states, you know. Were asked in November to put together these plans, but they didn't know what vaccines they were going to get, they didn't know what the storage procedures were going to be because they didn't know which vaccine was going to be [INAUDIBLE]. And so, even though they had some advance notice, it really hasn't become clear until the last month or so, which vaccines are going to be available, and when and how to begin the [INAUDIBLE] distribution centers and storage capability. So that's something that-- we're playing catch-up.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and there seems to be this debate too, doctor, across, you know, communities here in the medical field, whether you're talking about what the UK is planning on doing of rolling out those vaccines that really need to be administered a few weeks apart here. It sounds like Dr. Fauci is not in the camp that it would be better to kind of roll those out wider, in terms of getting those vaccine doses out without necessarily following up there on the second dose right away, or the way that you would normally do it. Talk to me about that kind of debate right now, and where you fall in trying to, I guess, figure out the best strategy to attack it.

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Sure. I think there-- there are two strategies that have come out. One is, you know, vaccinate as many people with the first shot of the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccine, hope that in three to four weeks, depending on which vaccine you get, that we will have ramped up our distribution enough to be able to give those folks who got the first shot, give them their second shot. That's been the strategy that the UK has started to do with their vaccine rollout.

The other strategy is to try to get by with using a lower dose of the Moderna vaccine, for example. Give half the dose for each of the shots, so that you can double up on the number of people who have it. I think those are unproven. While a half dose of the Moderna vaccine has been shown in early trials to produce a [INAUDIBLE] response, that's not the way the trial was designed. And so, I think we have to be really careful to stray too far away from what the data shows us.

We've made incredible [INAUDIBLE] over the last year in vaccine development. We know that these vaccines are effective in the way that they were administered during the trial. And I think right now we have vaccine on hand, it's just been harder to get it distributed than we initially anticipated. And it's going to take time to ramp that up. I think, part of this, we need some patience. And we need people to remember that, you know, the vaccine itself, while effective, it's going to be a really long time before the majority of Americans get that vaccine.

And we know how to slow down the spread of this virus, and for reasons that I continue to not understand, we are just not willing, as a nation, to get together and to do the right thing, and to try to protect those, you know, who we know we're going to have bad outcomes from this virus, but also to protect ourselves from spreading this asymptomatically among young healthy people. We--

You know, I wish I could put on a GoPro and take guys into the ICU where I've spent the last week and show you what it's like to be intubated patient on a ventilator, prone and paralyzed, lying face down, and not being able to breathe. And having to talk to families and update them on their loved ones, and sometimes having to, you know, tell them that their loved ones died when they haven't been to visit with them. I just don't understand why people can't-- why we can't get our act together, as a nation and do what we need to do.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, well, we appreciate all the work that you do on the front lines, and, of course, bringing some important perspective here. Dr. Brian Garibaldi, Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit, medical director there. Appreciate your time today.