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Omicron: U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments about vaccine mandate amid latest surge

Dr. Tom Tsai, a senior fellow at the Harvard Global Health Institute and assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss legal challenges to vaccine mandates, the coronavirus pandemic overall, and what living with the virus will look like.

Video Transcript

KARINA MITCHELL: We want to stay on the topic and bring in our guest, Dr. Tom Tsai, senior fellow at the Harvard Global Health Institute. Doctor, thanks so much for your time today. The Supreme Court, of course, hearing today arguments about President Biden's vaccine mandate. And I wonder, where do you stand on that? The high court is casting some doubt on the workplace rules that are going into effect. And I just want to clarify before we hear your answer that the vaccine mandate doesn't mean that you have to get the vaccine. It means if you do not get the vaccine, you must be tested regularly.

TOM TSAI: I think the vaccine mandate is an essential part of not just the administration's strategy, but our national strategy to end this pandemic. And the key point is, it's not just about vaccinating those in working for companies with over 100 employees, but in those cases where they can't be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, it's to ensure that those individuals are being tested regularly.

So I think it's that one-two combination that is a key part of the strategy to both increase the number of vaccinations, but also make sure that we're not flying blind by not doing enough tests. So it is a critical component out of this pandemic. It will be a big part of our strategy over the next few weeks. So my hope is that the Supreme Court is considering these important public health considerations

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Dr. Tsai, of course, we don't know if omicron's going to be the last variant of COVID-19. Wouldn't it be great if it was? But do you think that we're going to need a tweaked booster shot every time there is a variant? Because that's very disheartening when you think about it because we could be in for lots of shots going forward if that really is the case.

TOM TSAI: Yeah, I think the conversation really needs to change from being reactive, always being reactive to the current variant and thinking about designing a booster to that. The companies, Pfizer, Moderna, have all stated that they can change mRNA vaccines, but they need about a three-month ramp-up in order to do so to target it towards specific variants. But as COVID-19 becomes endemic instead of pandemic, really, there needs to be a paradigm shift to thinking about a regular schedule of vaccinations that are based on seasonal changes, just like we do for flu with the flu vaccine every flu season.

And so I think we are changing the conversation and thinking from, you know, this more reactive approach. And what needs to happen is a proactive approach towards vaccinations. You can call it boosters, but it may be a seasonal booster to deal with the most prevalent strain in any given moment.

KARINA MITCHELL: And doctor, I want to turn your attention to, you know, some of the psychological longstanding impact of this virus. And healthcare workers have been on the front lines. They've done so much, people like yourselves. And they are really feeling the pressure. So at some point, when does it impact them? Because even though omicron may not be more deadly, it doesn't mean that hotel-- hospitals aren't sort of overwhelmed with a surge of patients that are coming in. How are they dealing with this? What are you seeing firsthand? And how do they deal with it? Because so many are just simply leaving the workforce.

TOM TSAI: It's unfortunately a perfect storm of healthcare and physician burnout. Already, prior to the pandemic, there's data showing that burnout among physician staff has increased from 40% to 47%. A recent national survey shows 30% of physicians across the board exhibit burnout already. On top of that, you have the pandemic. And it's then the demands on healthcare workforce has increased while the supply has decreased. So that tightens the vice on the demands of the current workforce. So it is a real challenge.

And so, again, what we're facing right now is not a shortage of masks or ventilators. What we're really faced with is a shortage of human resources. And you can't just manufacture your way out of training more physicians and nurses and other staff. So I think this requires much long-term rethinking about do we have an adequate margin of safety to meet the both medical and public health needs of our communities going forward.

But it is a critical moment for our healthcare workforce. We can all do our parts by getting tested, wearing high quality masks. It's not just about protecting yourself. But in doing so, you're protecting your community and also creating that critical capacity for the healthcare workforce to still provide care to both COVID and non-COVID patients.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Doctor, we know the world has come to learn to live with influenza because of the tools that we have at our disposal in the medical community. What's that going to look like? Do you think that's going to happen with COVID-19? And what would that new normal look like?

TOM TSAI: I think so. And this is where the conversation really needs to happen, is this is not about a path out of the pandemic, but it is a path towards an endemic infection with COVID-19. And we can see a lot of the strategies that we've employed for COVID-19 over the last two years has also been effective in reducing transmission with other respiratory infections like influenza.

So, you know, good common sense practices in flu season such as wearing masks and good hand hygiene I think may be a part going forward, as well as thinking about the vaccinations as not just a reactive booster, but more as proactive vaccinations based off of seasonal increases in respiratory infections, like influenza, as well as COVID.

But this requires a large attitudinal shift. But we're also not quite there yet. We need a plan for that. But again, we're in the midst of this enormous peak with record breaking number of cases and over 110,000 hospitalized COVID patients, and still 1,400 people dying from COVID daily. So we need to both prepare for that future world in the next couple of months, prepare for what, you know, summer will look like, what fall will look like, but also making sure that right now, we still do our part.

You know, the testing is incredibly important. Our vaccination rates have improved, but can still be better. Only 71% of the population over 12 are fully vaccinated. So if you haven't been vaccinated, it's important to be vaccinated. If you've been vaccinated, but not boosted, it's important to be boosted. And then really follow through with testing and masking and quarantining or isolating if appropriate.

KARINA MITCHELL: OK, we'll have to leave it there. Dr. Tom Tsai, senior fellow at the Harvard Global Health Institute, thank you so much for your time.