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Prepare as much as possible for a COVID-19 surge, says doctor

Dr. Bhavna Lall, Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Houston College of Medicine, says things like vaccines, ventilators, masking, testing and social distancing all help fight COVID-19's spread—and addresses the mental health toll the pandemic is causing around the world.

Video Transcript

EMILY MCCORMICK: Dr. Bhavna Lall is University of Houston College of Medicine clinical assistant professor. She joins us now. And Dr. Lall, it's great having you on. I wanted to pick things up with what Anjalee was talking about, about the difference in response to omicron that we've seen so far globally. Just over the weekend, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK government would try to get boosters to residents 18 and over by the end of the month, as he warned of a tidal wave of new infections.

But here in the US, the focus seems to be on the early data, suggesting that omicron may be less severe or cause less severe illness than the delta variant. I'm wondering, do you think the US is being slow to respond? And will we be caught potentially unprepared for another wave with this variant?

BHAVNA LALL: Well, thank you so much for having me. I do-- as we know, COVID has spread around the world. And now with this new variant of concern, we need to be as prepared as possible. I think there's nothing more that we can do than to continue the same messaging to everyone in the states, which is please continue to get vaccinated. Get your boosters if eligible. And continue indoor masking, continue testing when possible, continue encouraging ventilation in indoor settings and workplace safety as well.

We need to be prepared, because as you can see, what's happening in Europe, if we do not-- if we're not prepared, we're going to see the same problems that happened in every surge, which is healthcare systems being overwhelmed. And as they already are in many states around the country, we do see healthcare systems that are already getting overwhelmed. Healthcare workers are tired. There are staffing shortages. And we know what works. I mean, we know that we have a vaccine that can help prevent the spread of severe disease and help prevent death and severe-- and hospitalizations.

And at this point, we need to use the tools that we already have in our toolbox, which is rapid testing, test PCR testing, ventilation, indoor masking, and vaccination. And if you're eligible to get a booster, I would encourage everyone to get a booster as well. And most importantly, we need to stop the spread of these variants from forming.

And given right now, we have 61% of America vaccinated, we still have only 42% to 43% of the world vaccinated. And most low income countries are not vaccinated. So if we do not get low income countries vaccinated and countries around the world vaccinated, we will continue to see the spread of variants as this virus spreads. So it's so important to vaccinate the world.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Lall, Anjalee here. I wonder, do we take note from what happened in the UK, to Emily's point, the fact that there has been, in fact, a death? Should we consider that concerning and be looking more broadly at maybe restrictions or other public health policies that might work better?

BHAVNA LALL: I think we need to be really mindful of the fact that we don't know what will happen with this virus. And we continue to be surprised every day. And I think we need to be preparing as much as possible for the surge that is predicted and is happening right now with almost 120,000 cases per day in America and 1,300 deaths. I hope that people are realizing that even though people are saying that there might be mild illness with omicron, it has the potential to spread rapidly. And we need to be prepared.

Although delta is the dominant variant in America, we need to be prepared for this next variant as well. And the same tools we need to be using, which is vaccination, indoor masking, ventilation, testing, and encouraging people to actually do these things. There's a lot of pushback right now from a lot of places that don't want to actually have these mandates in place. And we know what to do. We just have to do it.

JARED BLIKRE: Well, and we know these mandates, whatever it is with respect to the virus, it's going to be somewhat controversial, at least here in the US. And I want to keep on this subject and ask you about the treatment by the CDC of the word, the definition fully vaccinated, versus elsewhere in the world.

Fauci-- Dr. Fauci was out over the weekend saying that the booster shot gives us optimal care, but the CDC isn't going that extra yard length. I'm just wondering, you know, given the fact that the US is such a big place, does the definition of fully vaccinated, does it really depend-- should it be universal or should it depend on the territory? For instance, Idaho, Utah may be having a different standard, a different definition, versus a highly populated area like here, like New York City.

BHAVNA LALL: I think we need to have a universal definition if we're going to be fully vaccinated. But at this point, what we need to do is get the people who are not vaccinated, vaccinated, as well. And that is of the highest priority. So we can continue to boost people. And they should get boosters as well if they're eligible. But it is that 39% that still hasn't taken one shot yet in America that we really need to get to.

And also, I think when you get into fully vaccinated, we need to also be mindful of the fact that around the world, people still haven't gotten their first shot as well. So if we're going to say fully vaccinated in America, we need to also have the other countries of the world catch up to these three vaccines as well, if we're going to say fully vaccinated, is three vaccines. That's a lot to--

EMILY MCCORMICK: "The New York Times"-- I'm sorry. I was just going to pick that up and mention in that same vein, or really, in a different vein here, "The New York Times" was also out with a story today about the mental health impacts of being in this kind of pandemic-induced uncertain environment for going on its third year now. I'm wondering, how can this be addressed while still implementing the policies that are needed to keep COVID-19 infections down?

BHAVNA LALL: Yeah, great question. So mental health is of utmost importance during the pandemic. And we've already seen many people suffering from mental health issues during this time. But I think we need to also be prepared that if we don't have people doing precautions, that this virus will continue to spread and damage the health of families.

So if we encourage things such as vaccination and testing before gatherings and indoor masking and actually have universal requirements throughout the country, we'll probably be able to get more of a handle on this pandemic so that we actually can protect the mental health of the whole country as well. The more that we continue to have this virus raging throughout the country, we're never going to be able to get mental health under control for everyone.

And I think that we could have done better from the beginning on a global scale for the vaccination efforts and in the States that I'm asking efforts as well. But here we are today, one year later after the vaccines have been launched, and we still have only 62% of the country vaccinated. So mental health is so important, but it's-- and if we continue, if we actually are able to stop this virus from spreading, we'll also protect the mental health of people as well.

I would encourage people to continue to talk to their family members and continue to maintain communication with their friends and family, but also continue to encourage those that are not taking precautions to take precautions as well. Many people have been able to gather safely for the holidays by testing the day of the holiday through rapid testing, indoor masking for people that are immunocompromised, and also making sure that people have had their vaccines and their boosters as well.

So I think it's definitely possible to gather with family during the holidays and continue to encourage mental health protection for everyone, but really continue to encourage that we take precautions so we can just end this pandemic as well.