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We can’t convince covid-19 skeptics to get vaccinated: Doctor

Dr. Michael Saag, University of Alabama at Birmingham Associate Dean for Global Health joins the Yahoo Finance Live panel with the latest COVID-19 update.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

- Well, even as the US looks to reach a critical threshold when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines, CEOs of Moderna and Pfizer are discussing the potential for booster shots coming to market as soon as September. That, at least, according to a discussion they had with Axios. To talk more about that, let's bring in Dr. Michael Saag. He's University of Alabama at Birmingham associate dean for global health. Doctor, always good to talk to you.

We're having a discussion about booster shots at a time where we're not even at 50% for this initial vaccine rollout. What have you seen over the last month or so in terms of those who have been hesitant maybe willing to come to the other side because of a lot of venues, some workplaces, potentially saying that unless you have the vaccine, we're not necessarily going to open things up.

MICHAEL SAAG: Right. I think there are a lot of folks who are still a little bit hesitant. They tend to go into four groups-- a nice "New York Times" article yesterday about this-- but those who are sort of not quite sure yet, on the fence. I think they'll be ultimately convinced to get it. There's those who are concerned about costs. And that's just basically not understanding that the vaccine is free and that a lot of businesses are covering costs.

The two tough groups are those who don't trust the medical system and those who are just COVID skeptics. They think this is a plot, a conspiracy. I don't think we're going to be able to do much to change the minds there except just encourage. And they together make up about 15%, 20%. So if we can get the 80% of folks who are not being vaccinated yet into the picture, we're gonna be in good shape.

With regard to the booster, I don't think-- it's a little bit premature to talk about that. It's good to know there is one. It's good to know that they're thinking about it, that they're testing it, and it will be available if and when we need it. The question is, when? And that I don't think is gonna be for at least another six to eight months at a minimum. So I think if we're gonna get a booster, the earliest I think we'll be getting it is around December, January. And it really just depends on how long the immunity from the first series of vaccines lasts.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah. And, Dr. Saag, I mean, that's kind of the conversation at this point here in the US. But when you look abroad, also just fascinating to see even potentially South Korea negotiating with the US to kind of get an advance, if you will, on their vaccines, trying to use some, saying and promising a payback later on. But a similar story is playing out across the globe here when you think about how low the vaccination rates are in other countries and how they're struggling to kind of catch up. Japan, obviously, being watched closely because of the Olympics there. But what do you make of the way that other countries, even far along in regards to maybe the economics, and the standing there in some of these developed countries? They still have a long, long way to go when it comes to vaccinating their populations.

MICHAEL SAAG: We really do, Zack. And I think it's going to be up to the United States to be a leader here. And we already are. 20 million doses went out in the last week or two to other countries, but that's not nearly enough. We're going to need to facilitate billions of doses all around the world. A lot of people say, why is that important? The number one reason, besides the humanitarian one where you don't want to see people dying unnecessarily elsewhere, is that every time there's these outbreaks, take for example India, we can see emergence of variants.

And those variants ultimately could mutate to a point where the vaccines are no longer as effective or effective at all. And I'm not trying to do fear-mongering here, but it is a serious concern. So far, we're fortunate. It looks like the vaccine does cover all the variants that are known. But with these outbreaks, especially the magnitude in India, we've really got to get that under control for multiple reasons, if not just a humanitarian one.

- Doctor, on the issue of vaccinations here in the US, we had the CDC come out this week saying that, if you've been fully vaccinated, you don't need to wear a mask, not just outdoors, but indoors as well. To what extent do you think that has moved the opinion of those who have maybe been kind of on the fence about getting the vaccine? Have you seen any movement on that front in terms of that guideline's ability to accelerate the vaccination process?

MICHAEL SAAG: Yeah, I don't think that was a primary reason that they released that information. But let's break it down. What they're saying is that recent data has shown that if you're vaccinated, not only is your risk of just getting the infection much, much lower, but if you do get the infection, number one, you don't get that sick. And two, you don't spread the virus to others for any length of time. And that's great news.

So in celebrating that, in a way, they're saying to people, if you're vaccinated, pretty much you're covered and you're going to be OK. For the unvaccinated people, they should be looking around and saying, if I get vaccinated, then I can be free too. I can be liberated. It's my ticket to ride. It's my ability to get out there and do the things that I want to do without that cloud or the threat of COVID over my shoulder. So I think you're right. Basically it's saying to people, if you get vaccinated, you get the freedom to go back to what you normally did before there was COVID and engage in these normal activities with very little fear of COVID.

One final point-- people that are immunocompromised, especially solid organ transplants, people on chemotherapy, even if they're vaccinated, still need to be careful because they still are susceptible to infection. So for folks in that category, I would continue to wear a mask.

ZACK GUZMAN: And Dr. Saag, I mean, when we talk about where we go from here, it was interesting because you're talking about masks, we saw Equinox, other gyms, seeing boosts in membership as people kind of shed their masks, go back to normal life here. But when it comes to maybe, I guess, the new normal here when we go out and you have no longer the psychological impacts of the lockdown-- we keep focusing on those. I remember asking you about this earlier on in the pandemic. How large of an issue do you think that will be as we reopen? It doesn't seem to be when you look at maybe people going back into gyms, people very excited about getting out to concerts again. But what is maybe the underlying risk there that maybe the medical community might be overlooking now?

MICHAEL SAAG: Yeah, I think the real risk is to the unvaccinated, as we were saying earlier. And so if I was not vaccinated, I would be a little worried about going into a larger crowd, and I could pick up the virus very readily. All this talk about vaccine passports, it's a political issue. The bottom line is those people who are vaccinated are safe and they can get back to their normal activities. And for those of us who are not vaccinated, think hard about getting vaccinated.

I think most people watching this broadcast probably are vaccinated. Good for you. If you're not, get out there and get vaccinated. We are going to be getting back to normal. It's already happening. The pictures from Times Square in New York looking more like the normal Times Square. That's all great news. What we are going to watch for in the medical community, Zack, is whether or not there's spikes or new surges. I think we'll see it, but mostly in pockets or areas where vaccination uptake has been minimal or low. That's where we're going to continue to see cases.

- Yeah, I can tell you, we've definitely seen the masks coming off at least outdoors here in New York City, like so many other places. Dr. Michael Saag, Associate Dean for Global Health at University of Alabama at Birmingham. Always good to talk to you.