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Public Health Professor on COVID-19: ‘The big question though is how many people will be willing to get vaccinated’

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Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Caitlin Rivers discusses the latest COVID-19 developments as the White House secures 200 million more vaccines.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: We're continuing to see progress being made by the Biden administration to secure deals that will make available more and more doses. This time around, the administration announcing deals for another 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. That would bring the total in the nation up to 600 million, which, according to the timelines laid out, would allow for 300 million people in this country to be vaccinated by July. So summer now kind of the timeline we're looking for.

And for more on that, I want to bring on our next guest here. Caitlin Rivers is senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Caitlin, appreciate you coming on here to chat. I mean, if that's the timeline, right, people are talking about getting back to normal in 2021, but we've heard a lot about the need to still wear masks, still social distance even after getting vaccinated. So how do you see this return to normal playing out?

CAITLIN RIVERS: Vaccines are going to go a long ways towards getting things back to normal. As you say, we expect to have enough doses to cover 300 million people by midsummer. The big question, though, is how many people will be willing to get vaccinated. How many people are willing to take that step?

Surveys show right now between 2/3 and 3/4 of people say they would be ready to get vaccinated. But that leaves some room to go up and to get more people confident that it's a safe and effective measure. But as you say, I do expect that we will continue to wear masks and have some social distancing, even as the vaccination campaign extends.

AKIKO FUJITA: Caitlin, this comes at a time when we've seen some significant improvements, at least in terms of numbers of coronavirus cases, down about, what, more than 30% over the last two weeks. What do you think has contributed to those declines? Is it about enforcing mask wearing? Is it about the vaccinations themselves? What are you seeing?

CAITLIN RIVERS: I think it's a little bit early to see the effect of vaccination in our positive trends. I think two things are probably at play. One, over the winter, people saw things getting worse in their communities. And so they made different choices. They were more likely to reach for a mask or a good quality mask, more likely to skip gatherings. And those changes really do add up to slowing transmission.

I think the second element that is contributing is that by now, probably 25% to 30% of the country has been infected and recovered and is now immune. That's going to vary from community by community. But you can imagine that if every third person is no longer able to get infected, the virus will have more trouble bumping around. And so that slows things down as well.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, I feel like the Dakotas, where we saw huge cases kind of playing into that herd immunity argument, is one area where we've seen that play out, not just vaccinations to really take into consideration, but cases themselves. But when we talk about the other big swing factor here, I'd be remiss to not ask you about the variants and how that changes the course of our return to normal as well because as these vaccines roll out, still questions around how effective they're going to be. So what are you making of maybe the variants we've seen so far and the possibility we could see more?

CAITLIN RIVERS: There are three main variants that we're tracking. One is more transmissible. It spreads more easily from person to person. This one concerns me because in places where it has become established, it's precipitated severe resurgences.

There are two other variants of concern that may make our vaccines and therapeutics less effective. And we are monitoring closely to see how things unfold here in the United States, whether those variants become established. For now, they are circulating at low levels. But looking closely to see if that changes.

AKIKO FUJITA: And so Caitlin, I hate to put you on the spot here. But I know a lot of our viewers look at what is playing out on the pandemic. And the ultimate question becomes, when can things resume? When can we start to gather in the way that we did pre-pandemic? Given all of the steps that you have put together here in our conversation, has that timeline shifted at all? We've heard a lot about the second half of the year, potentially the fall. Or do you think these variants complicate that?

CAITLIN RIVERS: The variants do concern me. They are a curveball. I'm not sure yet how they will really factor in. So that's why it's really something to watch. But I'm looking ahead towards summer as a time when we will have more flexibility. It won't be like 2019. We will still have to take steps to protect ourselves and slow transmission. But I think we'll have more flexibility to do things that are important to us.

ZACK GUZMAN: All right, Caitlin, one last one for me in terms of schools being the biggest thing, I think, for a lot of parents watching this in terms of that return to normal. We heard from Dr. Fauci talking about vaccinations for children later on in the fall. What do you make of that key element here and parents' return to normal?

CAITLIN RIVERS: That's right. There are two vaccines authorized for use right now. And the youngest people they can be used in is 16. That will expand over time. There are currently trials looking at using the vaccine in children ages 12 to 16. And so we can expect that data to be rolling out in the coming months. But it will be a while before all school children are eligible to get vaccinated.

And I think that really points to the importance of making sure that the school environment is safe through the measures that we've been using all year to slow transmission, masks, social distancing. Ventilation is an important strategy as well. These are the tools that we can make sure to implement in the school building to keep it safe for children, for teachers, and for families at home.

ZACK GUZMAN: Caitlin Rivers, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and assistant professor as well, appreciate you joining us here today to chat that. We're going to take a quick break here on "Yahoo Finance Live." But when we return, our exclusive interview with the Dallas Federal Reserve president Robert Kaplan. He's going to be speaking with our own Brian Cheung in just a few moments.