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Pfizer’s vaccine EUA expansion request is ‘extremely welcomed’: Doctor

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Dr. Shereef Elnahal, University Hospital CEO, Former NJDOH Commissioner, joins Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers and Alexis Christoforous to discuss the latest on coronavirus vaccines.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Welcome back. Deliveries of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine are expected to drop sharply next week. States are now expecting to receive 700,000 doses, compared to about 5 million the previous week. J&J has been dealing with some production problems at a manufacturing plant in Baltimore. And of course, this comes at a time when our states are trying to ramp up their vaccine distribution.

Joining us now is Dr. Shereef Elnahal, CEO of University Hospital and former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health. Doctor, good to have you with us. Put this in perspective for us. What does this J&J news really mean for our nation's vaccine efforts?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Well, thank you for having me. The first thing I'll say is that it does make it a little bit more difficult to reach vulnerable populations. At University Hospital here in Newark, we have used our Johnson & Johnson allocation thus far for every patient who wanted one and qualified who is discharged from our emergency room or our hospital that we weren't sure were going to be able to come back between 21 and 28 days later.

But let's put this into context. The overall percentage of Johnson & Johnson against the total supply has been relatively low thus far. As one example, our hospital, it's only been around 10% of our allocation. And most weeks, it's even less than that. And so, I think overall, it should hopefully not slow down the total pace of vaccination just because of that. But I do hope that Johnson & Johnson supply does increase for the reasons I mentioned.

KRISTIN MYERS: Doctor, knowing this but also knowing the speed at which we are going right now, when would you estimate we'll actually hit that target of herd immunity?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Yeah, it's a very good question. And it's a moving target, actually. Because we get faster and faster as a country every day, which is good news. The daily average is now well over three million a day. And on weekends, we are breaking records every subsequent weekend for shots in arms administered. And so with that pace and the expected increases when the supply does go up in a matter of weeks, it should get us there by June if we are able to keep up that pace.

Now the only specter that may prevent that is if we reach a-- start to reach a ceiling because of hesitancy. And so, I do hope that we are all continuing our efforts to increase confidence in the vaccine for the groups that are most hesitant so that we can really be confident about reaching that herd immunity goal.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Just a few minutes ago, doctor, we got news from Pfizer that they're seeking US approval to expand their emergency use authorization in adolescents. What would that do? I mean, we know that inoculating the entire population is truly the only way to get to herd immunity. We haven't yet gotten those results back for the 12 and under set. But what might this news for Pfizer mean for our efforts?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: It's extremely welcome news if the FDA reviews the data and ultimately approves the extension of the emergency use authorization to adolescents. We've seen that the most spread that happens within schools for minors happens within that age group, between the age of 12 and 18. And luckily, Pfizer's already approved for age 16 to 18. But that age range of even younger than that, the middle school to early high school age, will be critical to keep even more of our schools safer, allow for vaccination not only of teachers and staff, but also students.

KRISTIN MYERS: Doctor, you were talking about vaccine hesitancy just a moment ago. When do you think we're actually going to hit that ceiling, where we've vaccinated everyone who really wants to be vaccinated, but then we start running into that problem of we cannot get more folks to come out and get those shots in their arms? When do you think that's going to happen? And how can we manage it when it does?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Well, the first thing I'll say is that I hope we'll never reach that ceiling because we cannot let up on the efforts to continue to educate about the vaccine to dispel myths and this information that may be out there on social media and other sources, and really get to the truth of the fact that these vaccines are a blockbuster. They're the most effective vaccines, really, we've seen in a very long time. 100% effective at preventing hospitalization and death across all demographic groups, according to the clinical trials, and that really are at levels of effectiveness that we haven't seen before.

And so I do think when the facts get out there, we will hopefully get more and more people to accept it. I do hope that the plateau happens closer to 80%, 85%, 90% of the population because that's much more likely to be after the threshold of herd immunity. And that may happen as early as June. But I hope it happens later than that.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: This morning, there was a White House briefing, doctor. And the head of the CDC said that COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are increasing, though deaths are going down. And we're seeing those numbers increase for hospitalizations and new cases amongst the younger population. What's your takeaway from that? Is it the fact that the older population is not being as adversely affected because they are the ones with the most vaccinations at the moment?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Well, that's certainly true. The fact that we're not seeing another surge in hospitalizations, frankly, against a set of variants that actually are more severe than the wild type variant, in particular, the UK variant, is because of the vaccine. We've largely vaccinated our seniors in this country, approaching 70% or even greater in certain areas of the country of people over the age of 65 who are vaccinated, which is incredible news. Because that is the demographic that we saw hospitalized at rates that caused the surge last spring, especially in the New York metro area.

However, because the variant, particularly UK again, is more severe, we are seeing an increased rate of hospitalizations in those younger groups. But thankfully, we are still seeing a very high rate of discharge from the hospital and nowhere near the death rates we used to see because they're overall younger and healthier. And so I do hope the death rate continues to drop as we vaccinate more and more people, and the folks getting it tend to be younger and healthier.