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Lifting restrictions without a fully vaccinated population is gambling: Doctor

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Dr. Jeremy Faust, Emergency Medicine Physician, Brigham and Women’s Hospital joins the Yahoo Finance Live panel to discuss the latest COVID-19 vaccination news.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: President Biden says the country will now have enough vaccines for all Americans by the end of May. That is two months quicker than the initial timeline he laid out several weeks ago. Meantime, Texas just the latest state to drop its mask mandate, Governor Greg Abbott saying, quote, "It is now time to open Texas 100%."

Let's bring in Dr. Jeremy Faust. He is an emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Let's start with that development over in Texas. Do you think the state's acting prematurely? Or does the lifting of these restrictions, does that make sense?

JEREMY FAUST: I think any time you lift restrictions when you don't have a fully vaccinated population, you are gambling. Texas hold'em is not the game you want to play against this virus. And I think that I've never seen anyone really feel good about downplaying the threat of this virus. And masks, in particular, I don't see the point of dropping the mask mandate when we're this close to having access to vaccinations.

Masks have been a problem, but of all of the things we do to stop this virus, the non-pharmacologic interventions, the behavioral changes we're asking people to make, actually mask wearing was one of the only ones that increased over the year last year. People kind of got used to it. And obviously, we don't want to have to do it forever, but it's something that I think has really helped, in some degree. We will never really know how much.

But why-- why, at this point when you're a month or two away from full access to vaccines, would you do that? And I almost detect a note of defiance in the governor's messaging on this, and that's really not the tone that I think I appreciate. This is a virus that kills people.

And we should open when it's safe to do so and with all due care. And yes, we'll celebrate the things being normal. But this-- this almost kind of felt like he was rubbing it in the nose of people who were actually still concerned that not everyone's vaccinated.

ZACK GUZMAN: And Dr. Faust, also, I mean, when we look at the vaccination rates in Texas, it's ranking near the bottom, just a little bit over 12% last I checked. But you know, maybe it's climbed a bit. But still, not necessarily leading the nation by a long shot.

When you look at that in comparison with some other states here, are there any that might be close enough to start trying to do something like this? I mean, businesses themselves, it sounds like, Alamo Drafthouse, you know, other theaters out there, other businesses, the Dallas Mavericks, don't sound to be changing their masking policies even despite the governor's new order. So I mean, what would be the medical takeaway from other people watching this play out?

JEREMY FAUST: Well, one thing I worry about is a feedback loop here. So a feedback loop is when the cases go down and so people feel safe so they go back out, and then they go up, and then they stay home and they come back down. So you have this sort of around and around you go.

But only this time around, we actually have a vaccine in the mix so that maybe the feedback loop will be really blunted and that the peaks and valleys become microscopic, in a sense, we can't really sense them and feel them. That's where we're headed. But I don't know if we're there now. And I agree with you, with low vaccination rates, it really feels premature.

The issue, of course, with vaccine rollout is availability, but also interest. There are now a couple of pieces of research out that really show us a lot about what we call vaccine hesitancy, people who aren't sure or wouldn't want to get the vaccine for any reason. And a paper came out actually on a preprint server in the past 24 hours by a bunch of colleagues who I really respect. It's not peer reviewed yet, but they did a nice survey nationwide, and they did find that there are some associations, some things that we can say, oh, these are the kinds of people who might not get the vaccine.

And really, the biggest thing was if you hadn't got a flu vaccine, if you hadn't received a flu vaccine in the last several years, you were far more likely to not want to receive a vaccine this year. Tells me that we have a lot of work to do on our public health messaging just in the normal times. Another-- the second biggest piece of information we learned was that Republican Party affiliation was associated with vaccine hesitancy.

And that doesn't surprise me. You didn't have the president and the first lady out there getting their vaccine in public. No, they did it privately. They didn't use the opportunity to educate the public. I will never understand that. As a physician, any life I can save is something I cherish.

And when you are a public figure, you have a tremendous opportunity to save lives just by your actions. You don't have to go to medical school. You can just show us the right way. So I really am concerned about places like Texas, certain areas, of course, in the South, where you have a higher percentage of Republican people. And everyone should get this vaccine, because that's the way we're going to get out of this.

AKIKO FUJITA: On that front, we did hear from President Biden yesterday saying the country will have enough vaccines for all Americans by May. How should we be looking at that timeline? Is that-- you know, once Americans are all vaccinated, does everything just automatically resume? Do things go back to normal? Can we assume herd immunity? How do you think people should be looking at this headline?

JEREMY FAUST: Well, I think that it's an open question, because we have to see how many people get vaccinated. We have to see if there are any variants that mess this party up, so to speak. But in my mind, yes, that's really when it becomes the possibility of a new normal. And the summer would, to me, be a nice opportunity for a lot of normal activities, because there are so many outdoor activities where there's less risk.

But even in the fall, start to think about, what are we going to do with normal life again? There's going to be what I sort of would call societal PTSD. And we're-- we're going to have a lot of trouble staying open, even in situations when we should stay open. And that's going to be very difficult.

So this is why I really think it's important for public health officials to monitor the virus in a lot of different ways, not just case loads, but also things that I follow like excess mortality, is there more death overall, things like excess hospitalizations. That's how you can really tell if a virus, or any kind of threat, is having a really historic outsize effect. If we get this thing down to where it really truly is just another flu, which was a talking point that a lot of the deniers have said, but if we can get it down to that level, then yes, we really shouldn't be changing our behaviors that much in the future. But we're not there yet.

I was pointing out to a colleague that we're still in a situation where driving to an event is-- is still not the most dangerous part. You want-- you want the-- want the drive to anything to be the dangerous part, and that's true of anything. People always-- they're afraid of air travel, but of course, the scariest thing of air travel statistically is the drive to the airport in terms of the numbers. So the same thing is true here. We want to get to a point where our activities in our daily life are lower-- have lower risk associated with coronavirus than the risk we accept in our daily lives just in non-pandemic times.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and Dr. Faust, I mean, we've been having you on the show for almost a year now to kind of go over all the COVID-19 headlines, and we've appreciated it. It's kind of crazy to think about how far we've come and how much we've learned about this. But when you look at where we're at right now, kind of approaching that May deadline for where the president thinks we'll have enough vaccines for everyone to get them if they want them, what do you grade kind of where we're at now?

Obviously, that holiday surge had a lot of people worried. But once we moved past it, the hope was that really we were out of it in terms of the worst. So where do you grade us now as we kind of approach the spring and kind of eventually that-- that full reopening perhaps later in the summer?

JEREMY FAUST: Well, in terms of the vaccine, just the whole story, a year, as you mentioned, it's just been a really interesting and, unfortunately, sad time in terms of our public health. The one bright spot has been the vaccination. And I would emphasize that it was not developed in a year. It was developed-- it took 20 years, took 100 years with knowledge that basic science brought us this moment.

So to me, the vaccine development, I'd give it an A. Like, it was just fantastic example of our resources coming together. Now when it came to the rollout and when it came to getting this-- we-- really, we fumbled. I don't understand how there has been websites crashing. There have been people outside in long lines in Florida, around the country.

My own parents, who are pretty educated people in California, had a rough time trying to figure out the system to get vaccinated in California. And I think that this did not sneak up on us. We knew months in advance there was going to be a vaccine. And I don't understand why we haven't done better with this.

Equity issues have been a huge fumble and problem in terms of access to-- to lots of care, but the vaccine in particular. We really have to reach out into the communities. I think that we're going to see better days here. I think the Johnson & Johnson vaccine helps a lot because, you know, the resources that are needed to get that vaccine to communities that don't have these really intensely cold freezers, both here and abroad, is going to make a huge difference.

I think about, also, keeping the world safe, not just the United States. So vaccines, A, A-minus, on the vaccine A, maybe a lot lower on the rollout. And when it came to-- when it came to everything else, I'd rather not say, because I like try to keep it upbeat.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, we'll grade on a curve here. But appreciate you coming back on here to keep it honest with us. Dr. Jeremy Faust, emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Thanks again, as always. Be well.