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‘We still have a lot more work to do,’ former White House vaccinations coordinator says

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Former White House Bechara Choucair joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss on getting more Americans vaccinated and stopping the spread of Omicron variant.

Video Transcript

KARINA MITCHELL: The list of countries with confirmed cases of the omicron variant grows. And as South Africa reports that COVID cases almost doubled since Tuesday, governments across the world are pursuing different approaches to mitigate the spread. Joining us with insight into the US approach is Dr. Bechara Choucair, former White House vaccinations coordinator, and Yahoo Finance's Anjalee Khemlani. Thank you both for joining us.

So, sir, getting shots in people's arms has been a top priority for this administration. You've helped coordinate that. It continues to be the messaging that's coming out of the White House in the face of this new variant, even though we don't know how effective the vaccines that we currently have will be. It's not advocating lockdowns. But how effective has the rollout of these vaccines been? Because there are still many people in this country that do not have their first or second shot. I think the booster rate is somewhere around 20%. Should we be doing more now?

BECHARA CHOUCAIR: Well, Karina, I think we have to be very proud of the progress we've made as a country to getting so many people vaccinated. And yet, we still have a lot more work to do. You know, we've administered more than 450 million doses of the vaccine. We have nearly 200 million people fully vaccinated. And we've expanded eligibility to adolescents, to kids, boosters for all adults. So it's really important that we continue to double down on the strategies we know work to get more and more people protected. That's going to be really important as we get into this holiday season and as we are dealing with the omicron variant.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Choucair, Anjalee here. I want to touch on the boosting strategy and the idea that the White House and, really, the US government did open boosting for all adults, that is, as of right now. There are some concerns that if, in fact, omicron, which, to date, we don't know the answer to this, if it does, in fact, escape the protection of the vaccines, that we would be unnecessarily boosting, while, again, going back to global equity, there are people who don't have access to these doses. Is there a trade-off that we're missing the opportunity to close off here?

BECHARA CHOUCAIR: Well, here's what I can tell you, Anjalee. We know over the last several months we've been seeing data about the improved protection that we're getting from the vaccine when we are providing adults with booster shots. We've seen the data from Israel. We continue to review data every single day. And we know that boosters work. They augment the titers of antibodies that we have in our body several folds, which gives us that additional protection that we'd would want to get. And as we are heading into the holiday season, we'd want to do everything we can to be able to celebrate safely.

I also would want to remind everybody that the predominant variant that we're seeing in the United States right now is still delta variant. More than 99% of the cases are the delta variant. And we know that the boosters gives us that additional level of protection. And we do have reason to believe that the booster will also give us that additional protection hopefully from the omicron variant as well. We just have to wait and see what the data coming out from the laboratory tests and from the real life, real world data coming out soon.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Doctor, I want to stick with boosters for a moment and get your opinion on mixing and matching. I actually spoke to my doctor recently who said that even though I had received two doses of Pfizer, she's actually recommending I get the Moderna as a booster. What are your thoughts on that? And is there a downside to mixing?

BECHARA CHOUCAIR: Well, look, we know from the CDC recommendation is people can mix and match if they choose to do so. You know, obviously, we have months and months of experience with all the three vaccines that we have. At the end of the day, though, I do anticipate that people will end up sticking with the dose that they've got for their primary series. You know, they've got the dose there, the primary series. They probably have had very mild or no side effects at all. And they'll be more comfortable staying with their same vaccine. I mean, that's what I've done. I've taken-- my first series was-- the primary series was Pfizer. And I got a Pfizer booster shot. And I know a lot more people are sticking with the dose that they've gotten in their primary series.

But if you choose to be-- if you choose to get another vaccine, that's totally fine, too. I know there are a lot of folks who have taken J&J, for example, who have taken Moderna as a booster or Pfizer as a booster. I know there are some people who are mixing and matching.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Doctor, I want to get your take on just the number of vaccinations here in the US. I know we've been watching sort of a slow increase over time when it comes to broad first courses, and then the upswing that we saw for boosters. But there have been some experts, I believe Dr. Paul Offit being among them, that said something along the lines of whoever has gotten a first dose by now, whoever has gotten vaccinated by now, that's pretty much it. So what should the US be doing when it comes to looking for future-- the future of vaccinations right now? Are there-- is there any more that can be done to get to a higher percentage?

BECHARA CHOUCAIR: Well, Anjalee, there are three things I would add here. One is we know we're seeing more and more people every single day rolling up their sleeves and getting their very first shots still. I think most recently, when I looked at data, it was about 300,000 people 12+ who are rolling up their sleeves and getting their first shot every single day. The second thing I would add is just like what we've seen with delta, possibly the rise of an omicron variant in the United States could lead to more people rolling up their sleeves and getting vaccinated.

And then the third thing I would say is we know that vaccine requirements work. We've had thousands and thousands of businesses, health care organizations, universities adopt vaccine requirements. And we're seeing that their percentage of their employees getting vaccinated is going up to 95%, 99%. And we're going to see more and more entities adopting vaccine requirements and I have no doubt that a lot of the new vaccinees are getting their vaccinations because of these vaccine requirements.

KARINA MITCHELL: And sir, I want to ask you, given your involvement, how prepared is this administration to deal with a surge in omicron cases if we do see them? So far, there have been no reports in this country, but we do have initial reports that young children, toddlers, even younger, have been infected. Obviously, there are no vaccines for them. Are we equipped, particularly children's hospital, pediatric units, to deal with a surge if there is one?

BECHARA CHOUCAIR: Well, look, we have never been more prepared as a country because a lot of the steps that this administration has put in place. I mean, think about where we are today compared to a year from now-- a year ago. More than about 70% of people in this country have gotten one shot. More than 82% of adults have gotten one shot. More than 99% of seniors have gotten at least one shot. You have now multi different options for treatment from antivirals, monoclonals.

We've expanded eligibility for vaccinations for adolescents, for kids 5 to 11. We have a booster program for all adults in this country. We have systems in place on testing that we've invested resources to expand testing significantly in this country. We have systems in place that the CDC'S put on travels and others. So I feel like we're so much better prepared than we've ever been before when it comes to variants.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Absolutely. I'm so glad you brought up the treatments part of it because that's what I wanted to ask next, was, should we anticipate maybe a shift in how we are managing the transmission of this virus maybe with more reliance on treatments once they're approved?

BECHARA CHOUCAIR: Well, I want to make sure that I re-emphasize the importance of vaccination. Getting vaccinated is the most important thing you can do to prevent yourself from getting infected from the get-go. Now if you're infected, now we obviously have monoclonal antibodies. Merck had their product discussed today at an advisory committee to the FDA, and they voted in favor of authorizing the treatment. We know Pfizer is in line to get their treatment, their antiviral also in line to be reviewed by the FDA.

So we're going to have more tools in our toolbox. My recommendation for now is what we know works. Please go and get vaccinated if you're not yet vaccinated. If you're vaccinated and you're eligible for a booster shot, please get your booster shots. We'd want to do everything we can to protect ourselves and be better prepared for the holiday season.

KARINA MITCHELL: Excellent advice, and like my colleague, Alexis, I myself am getting my booster shot after work today. Dr. Bechara Choucair, former White House vaccinations coordinator, thank you so much for your time today, along with Yahoo Finance's Anjalee Khemlani.