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Trump comparing COVID-19 to the flu 'is like comparing apples to oranges': Physician

Dr. Sejal Hathi, Physician & Clinical Fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, joins Yahoo Finance’s Zack Guzman to discuss the COVID-19 outlook as thee White House blocks FDA’s updated guideline for vaccine approval.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: Shifting over to the updates we've been getting out of the White House, of course, as I noted, President Trump leaving Walter Reed after his conditions approved. We are hearing similar updates in terms of today with the White House memo showing that President Trump reported no symptoms of the coronavirus on Tuesday, according to the medical staff there. And it raises new questions about maybe his thinking as he said in that video, his thinking about what the pandemic means and what the coronavirus, as a threat, means to the American public.

I just want to read one of the tweets that is now actually under pressure in terms of Facebook taking down some of these things tied to, again, putting the coronavirus threat against the flu. And here's what he had to say. He said, quote, "Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the vaccine, die from the flu. Are we going to close down our country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with COVID, in most populations far less lethal!"

Here to discuss that take as well as many others on coronavirus is Dr. Sejal Hathi, Physician and Clinical Fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Host of "Civic Rx" podcast. Dr. Hathi, I want to just first get your reaction to what the president said there, because we've heard this issue brought up a number of times from people talking about the flu and how coronavirus might be less deadly than that. Clearly, Facebook taking it down because they think that's misinformation. What's your take on it?

SEJAL HATHI: Well, I think Facebook's reaction is testament enough to the complete and utter falsehood that once again has been emitted by the White House. I want to make a couple of points here. Firstly, comparing COVID-19 deaths to flu deaths is like comparing apples to oranges. COVID-19 mortalities are minutely counted and reported directly. They are raw. They are real numbers. Flu deaths, by contrast, are swollen statistical estimates that are derived by the CDC and numerous public health agencies like it by multiplying the number of actual flu deaths counted by various coefficients intended to capture anything that might have been missed.

So if you look at the actual flu death counts that are recorded the same way that we count COVID-19 deaths, you would see that these have ranged over the last six flu seasons from 3,000 to 15,000, substantially lower than what we're seeing with COVID-19. But even if we were to accept the inflated numbers, the 22,000 that were reported in the last year, for instance, the flu hasn't killed 100,000 or more than 100,000 Americans annually in more than a half century. COVID-19, by contrast, has killed more than 210,000 Americans in the last seven months alone.

There's another point that I want to make, and that's this. The last time that the flu killed as many Americans as we're looking at right now was, of course, in 1918 when we suffered the global flu pandemic. And President Trump noted in this tweet there that, you know, when we suffer from the flu, we don't close down the country. Well, that's absolutely false. In 1918, cities instituted quarantines, mask mandates were imposed, classrooms were moved outside. So we did dramatically change the way that we operate as a country, and we did that, because these are proven public health measures. This is what we need to do to survive and thrive beyond this pandemic.

ZACK GUZMAN: I'm glad you mentioned that too though about the apples and oranges comparison, because that was something that even came up on the debate stage and President Trump brought up Joe Biden's and the Obama administration's response to Swine Flu, which seemingly backfired when he raised how many people died from that, and it wasn't really a fair comparison, and then also, it just, it was strange to see it play out, because these are different viruses. Obviously, the response is expected to be different as well.

But on that front, you would hope that the science is consistent in terms of leading the response, at least that's what you would hope. But on that front, we're seeing the White House continue to push back against the FDA, the CDC. That's something that also came out yesterday in terms of the reports around the White House seemingly blocking the FDA's structure here to make sure that any vaccine that does get approved is safe. They want to add two months to tracking these patients in these trials to make sure that they are safe. The White House doesn't see a medical reason to do so, so what does that say to you about, again, this conflict between the White House and pushing for a vaccine by the election, as Trump has said, versus what the CDC or the FDA wants to do and waiting to make sure it's safe?

SEJAL HATHI: Right, so as you exactly pointed out, the FDA did what it did to ensure that any vaccine that was made available was safe, reliable, effective and trustworthy by the American people. That the administration would contest that is no surprise, because it has consistently placed politics before public health. And the reality is that the Trump administration has adduced no clear medical reasons for pushing back against the FDA. It's instead using this vaccine as a political tool. And by doing that, it's undermining not only the trust that people have in a vaccine, but the vaccine's very value, right?

Because after all, the mere availability of a vaccine does nothing to combat or to reverse an epidemic. It has to be taken to be effective. And in order to be taken, it has to be trusted. And right now, 27% of Americans are saying that they do not trust, they would not trust any vaccine that is touted by the Trump administration. And ironically, this number is driven largely by Republicans. Only half will say now that they are likely to get a vaccine if it is to be released immediately, whereas 3/4 of them said that they would in May. So what we're seeing is that at a moment when public trust is paramount, once again, it is being sacrificed by an administration that has consistently valued politics over public health.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and I mean, I guess to push that point further, we've seen these biotech companies come out with kind of a statement of their own when you look at the leading ones working on these vaccines saying that they, too, won't rush this process by asking for FDA approval in emergency use authorization before they show that these things are safe. I mean, I know that this country leans a lot in terms of leaning on private companies and the corporate state doing a lot of good here, but you would hope that the agency overseeing a lot of these things would step in and have the power to do so as well to protect the American people. I guess, what does that say maybe about what these biotech companies are trying to say as well in working on this problem together to make that step that a lot of people didn't see coming?

SEJAL HATHI: Yeah, well, I hope that what they are communicating to the American people is that they will ensure that any vaccine that is released is, again, is safe and reliable and effective as possible. And what we know from every vaccine prior is that the type of rushed and frenzied process the administration is advocating and purporting to get through before the November 3 election is just simply not possible. Any vaccine that's released before November 3 is not going to work. I certainly, as a health care worker, wouldn't feel comfortable taking it myself. I would not convey to my patients that they should take it either, and I think perhaps the biotech companies realize that, and let's hope that that's what they're intending to convey to the American people.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, that's kind of surprising to hear. I mean, we've heard from some other guests as well as Dr. Fauci and Robert Redfield talking about how they would take it if it was proven safe, and that again becomes a very big question when we think about this approval process. But lastly, just because it's going to be a while before we get that vaccine if you believe them and if you believe you, I mean, when we think about what's going on right now, clearly, cases are rising. Yesterday, we saw the national case count come in at more than 36,000 in terms of new daily cases. That was up by about 4,500 versus what we saw seven days ago. So I mean, when you put these pieces together and the fact that we're going to be waiting for a vaccine, how do you see this winter going, because we have heard a lot of warnings about a twindemic.

SEJAL HATHI: Absolutely, I think that your worry is well-founded. I am worried myself, and I think that we're going to have to be doubly diligent in ensuring that we adhere to prescribed behavioral precautions. That is to say maintaining six feet of physical distancing, ensuring we're wearing masks everywhere we go, perhaps even getting high filtrate masks for health care workers and other essential workers who are exposed to what is clearly now an aerosolized virus, ensuring that we are not crowding in closed spaces, washing our hands frequently. I think we know what to do, and it's just a matter of following these protocols that have time and time again been championed by public health experts as we await a virus.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and I for one enjoy this conversation. I think it's important to focus in on those things as well as this continues to drag on. I know people out there might be getting sick of lockdown measures, of having to worry about this. I am as well, but important to bring up as a reminder here. But Dr. Sejal Hathi, appreciate the chat. Be well.

SEJAL HATHI: Thank you very much for having me.