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U.S. COVID-19 cases surpass 19M, death toll tops 335k

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a Senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, joined Yahoo Finance Live to break down the pace of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and what changes are needed to end the pandemic.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: Vice President Kamala Harris receiving her COVID vaccine today, as more and more people get vaccinated across the country. But, of course, we're hearing health experts slam the rollout process. So here for a little bit more about this and where we are in curbing the spread of this pandemic, we want to bring in Dr. Amesh Adalja. He's a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. And Dr. Adalja, great to have you back on the show.

Let's just start with the vaccine rollout, because people are getting vaccinated, but that distribution effort is falling well short of those initial goals that we were given from the administration. From your point of view, from talking with your colleagues, why is the rollout falling short of those initial expectations?

AMESH ADALJA: Many of us in the field knew that this wasn't going to be something that was easy. And a lot of us cautioned against coming up with specific numbers by a specific date that would be vaccinated. Because when you're doing something this big, and you're doing something with vaccination-- which Operation Warp Speed was much more about development rather than actually turning vaccines into vaccinations-- there were bound to be delays and hiccups.

And I got vaccinated last week, almost two weeks ago now, and everything went fine. But that clearly is not going to be the case as we move from different phases from vaccinating what are the easy people, the people that are in hospitals and nursing homes, to the community. And I do think we're going to have a long haul ahead of us. And we're going to see many more hiccups and problems, because we just don't have the public health infrastructure to do this as rapidly as we'd like.

ADAM SHAPIRO: So Dr. Adalja, wouldn't it make sense to use perhaps the social security records-- because the government knows how old each of us is-- and to assign a date based on our age as to when we get that inoculation? The reason I ask this is I have relatives in South Florida who are being told to call a hospital there-- all of them, they're 75 and older. And they can't get through. They get an answering machine, and they leave a message. Wouldn't it make sense to have the government say, you're this old, on this day, you go get a vaccine at this location?

AMESH ADALJA: I do think that we have to be innovative. And we want to make sure that people know when it's their time to be vaccinated. A lot of this is kind of going to vary from state to state. But I do think having some way for people to know when it is their time and making sure that they know that their number has been called makes sense. And I think using social security numbers and date of birth is one way to do it.

Hospitals can do that themselves, because they have a record of everybody that may be attached to their hospital, so they can notify people. And I know of some-- of parents of a friend in Colorado who got vaccinated that way, because they were called by their hospital based on that. So there's a lot of different ways to do this. I think that we need some kind of best practices. And I suspect you're going to see variations from state to state.

SEANA SMITH: Dr., given the slower rollout than we were initially expecting, I guess, when can we expect to see that widespread and meaningful impact from the vaccinations?

AMESH ADALJA: I think the first impact that you're going to see is when we start to get the vulnerable populations vaccinated. So even if we could just get the nursing home population vaccinated quickly, we'd start to have breathing room in hospitals, because nursing home patients do still occupy a lot of hospital beds. A lot of people who are in the ICU are coming from nursing homes. That's when we're going to start to see some of the first benefits of the vaccination.

It's going to take some time, though, before we start to see an impact on the number of cases, because we're not really vaccinating based on whether you're getting it or not or trying to decrease the cases. We're kind of vaccinating now to decrease the damage that the virus is doing. So that's why you're seeing the high-risk individuals being vaccinated first. But I suspect probably in late winter, early spring, we'll start to see some real benefits of the vaccination as we roll out and get through some of those priority groups.

ADAM SHAPIRO: When we see the headlines, that might frighten people out of places like Southern California. Are you saying the majority of those hospital beds are people who are elderly and might have been living in nursing homes?

AMESH ADALJA: Not necessarily the majority, but a significant proportion. Maybe 40% or more of our admissions are still likely nursing home or personal care home-related. So that's why they were selected as priority group 1A, because they still are at very high risk for hospitalization, very high risk for death. And that's a lot of what we contend with on a day-to-day basis in the hospitals.

The other proportion has to do with community dwelling people that are at high risk, so somebody that might be 65 years old that lives at home and has diabetes and heart disease. They also are still occupying a lot of the beds. The people with no risk factors at all are a minority of those that are occupying a minority of those hospital beds. So it's still really clustering among those with the risk factors that we delineated long ago. And that's what's reflected in the priority groups that the CDC set for vaccination.