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Latest Covid deaths are 'largely preventable' and 'inexcusable': Doctor

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University of Alabama at Birmingham Associate Dean for Global Health Dr. Michael Saag joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the latest COVID-19 updates as the delta variant raises concerns.

Video Transcript

- Welcome back to Yahoo Finance Live as we are kind of continuing to update here a change in the CDC policy to require masks even for vaccinated Americans in some parts of the country here when we talk about breakthrough transmissions and increasing worries around the Delta variant and what that means for all of us as we continue to weather the storm. And for more on that, I want to bring in a doctor who's been working on the front lines of all this for his take on where we sit. Dr. Michael Saag, University of Alabama at Birmingham Associate Dean for Global Health joins us once again. And Dr. Saag, good to be chatting with you here today. Thanks for taking the time. I mean, when we talk about that change in policy, a lot of it does come from the risk of breakthrough transmission here for even vaccinated Americans. And what are you seeing when it comes to maybe how much more concerned you are as a doctor battling now that Delta variant?

MICHAEL SAAG: Yeah. It's a whole new ball game again. And we're, all of us, doctors, patients, people in public, we're getting whiplash from all this rapid changes of information. But I think I can boil it down this way. Delta is different. We knew COVID from back last year. We talked about it a lot on this program. What's different about Delta is that it's more transmissible. And it can break through the vaccine, where the other variants didn't do that very much.

And so here's where we are right at the moment. In Alabama, but across the country, we're going to see a spike in cases. Not a surge. A spike. And we're in the middle of it right now. The spike in Alabama is going to look by Labor Day to be two to three times higher in terms of numbers of cases a day than we've ever seen in the entire epidemic. Two to three times higher than our worst month, which was January of this year. And so what it means for us on the ground, we're going to have to buckle down and reorient our hospital to handle the surge in cases, the spike.

The difference this go around, Zach, is that the patients coming into the hospital are almost exclusively unvaccinated people. The people who are dying, 99.2% unvaccinated people. And for me as a physician, this is a national tragedy. These deaths are largely preventable. And from a public health perspective, that's kind of inexcusable that we can be in this country and be experiencing this kind of problem.

- Dr. Saag, Akiko here. It's good to talk to you again. When you talk about that specific spike that you're anticipating around Labor Day, how much of that can be alleviated if you've got more and more Americans that are going to get vaccinated right now? Are we sort of past the point of no return when you think about a potential spike going into a surge? Or can all of this be alleviated if people say, right now, I'm going to go out and get my vaccine today.

MICHAEL SAAG: The vaccinations today, Akiko, is that that would help us from mid-September to October. Right now, for the emergency that I would call it that we're in, anyone who's unvaccinated, for goodness' sakes, wear a mask. Stay away from large crowds. You are at high risk of not just getting COVID. But if you got it, you're going to end up in the hospital potentially and maybe going on a ventilator. I'm not trying to be freaking anybody out. But that's what we're seeing. And so you don't know in advance how your body is going to deal with COVID. Why give it a chance?

Once we get through this spike, I think the more people get vaccinated, that'll be our exit strategy. That's how we get out of this. So as Jim Morrison would say, the time to hesitate is through. No time to wallow in the mire. Go get vaccinated.

- Yeah. And as you're kind of describing it too, Dr. Saag, now when you move into the majority and people who are vaccinated, those breakthrough transmissions are kind of alarming. I would fall into that camp too. Not sure if it was Delta, but got it after being vaccinated. You think about kind of why you do it. As you said, you want to be in a better position to not go to the hospital and avoid death. So that's why you do it. But when you talk about what you're seeing there now, we already have Germany, according to reports out there, talking about boosters for their susceptible populations. I mean, when you look at the booster discussion now to those who have been vaccinated, what do you think about that? If breakthrough transmission is possible, what do you kind of advise?

MICHAEL SAAG: We don't know if a booster vaccine will prevent the breakthroughs. It could. But right now, I'm most concerned to triage to the people who are unvaccinated because at least for the vaccinated people you may get sick, just like when you had a flu vaccine, you might have gotten the flu, but you typically didn't go in the hospital after being vaccinated. That's kind of where we are with COVID. So job one for all of us is to get everybody vaccinated right now. Even though it might not be beneficial in the immediate next three to four weeks, it'll be hugely important for October to get us out of this.

And in the meantime, the booster, yeah, we're going to have a booster. The question is, what is it going to be? Right now, people are thinking it's just a third shot of whatever you had before. And that's a good start. But Pfizer and Moderna, maybe other companies, are developing a specific new vaccine that is-- it'll be designed to attack the Delta virus or other variants that we might see. So you might want to wait just a little bit, especially if your immune system is healthy. And let's get through this surge and this spike, and we'll learn more about what a third shot does.

- In terms of what that booster rollout could look like, do you anticipate it will be the elderly that will get it first, just like that the first rollout of the vaccine? Or has the Delta variant sort of changed the game on who's most vulnerable?

MICHAEL SAAG: Well, it really hadn't changed the game. It's still the older folks. But also people who are immunocompromised. There was an article about a week ago in the "Journal American Medical Association" that showed that a third shot of the previous vaccines-- in other words, you got Pfizer, you got a third shot of Pfizer-- that it was protective for immunocompromised folks. So that's people with cancer, people who are on immunotherapy for other reasons.

And those individuals have benefited from that third shot. So that's the beginning of the wave. But you're exactly right, Akiko. That's going to be the people who are going to get it first. But at the same time, we don't want to take our eye off the ball of getting those unvaccinated people vaccinated as well. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can get this done. But we really have to do both over the next couple of months.

- And Dr. Saag, I mean, I appreciate the simplicity of having you on it and kind of just boiling it all down because it does come down to really how well we do on the vaccine front. And of course, we've known that for a while. But when it comes to now, where we're at, you know, you look at scenes like Lollapalooza, it's weird because you think about the backlash of some of these things.

But they were potentially doing it the right way. I mean, looking into vaccine passports or testing negative. I mean, as we try and move past this, if you are vaccinated, people who have done everything right, who have followed all our orders along the way, to get to this point now, I mean, how do you look at the right way to do it and hosting opening back up. Is there still a need maybe for vaccine passports and requiring people to maybe avoid large gatherings still?

MICHAEL SAAG: Yeah. I had a lot of sympathy for people at Lollapalooza and especially the organizers because based on May, June experience that was a great idea to have the festival in the first place. And then Delta showed up on really July 4. And that was the spark that ignited this wildfire that we're in right now. And we're suffering pretty mightily at the moment. We learned from Provincetown-- that study the CDC put out this week or last week. Provincetown, 75% of the people who got infected were vaccinated. And we also learned that vaccinated people can transmit to other vaccinated people.

But the bottom line is that vaccinated people don't tend to get very sick. And they don't end up in the hospital. And they don't die. So it's kind of a mixed message. It makes it very hard for all of us, you guys telling the story, us being interviewed about it, to try to bring out these nuances that the vaccine is paramount. But in the meantime, while we're experiencing the surge of cases a spike, we all have to sort of take one step back and at least be aware that we're not completely safe before-- again, two months ago, I would have said, you get your vaccine, it's like having a biologic mask. I still believe that for the other variants. For Delta, it's different.

- And lastly, Dr. Saag, just when you look at the doctors you're working with on the front lines preparing for potentially another wave there as you're describing it, I mean, what's the morale? How's it been kind of going through this as a doctor here and having to witness what you witnessed and you think about the position we're in in this country?

MICHAEL SAAG: Yes, Zach. I just had an op-ed in the "Washington Post" the end of last week that addresses that head on. I called it pre-traumatic stress disorder. So we're trying to gear up for our, if you will, third tour of duty in a war zone. So I didn't serve in the military. But I can certainly imagine what it was like for a serviceman or woman to have fought their tour of duty, gone home, gone back, and now we're going back again. That's what it feels like. Health care workers are exhausted, worn out, frustrated, angry that people aren't getting vaccinated.

And those are precisely the people who are showing up in our yards and being admitted to the hospital, being transferred to the ICUs. And here we go again dealing with death. And we don't like it. But the health care workers are professional. They'll rise up. They'll do the job. But it's very demoralizing, to your point. And we just got to support one another. And above all, what the public can do is get vaccinated. And if you've been vaccinated, please encourage those around you. You can make a difference simply by having a positive message and getting your friends and relatives vaccinated even if they're hesitant.