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U.S. must remain ‘worried about variants’: Doctor

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Dr. Anand Swaminathan, Emergency Medicine Physician in New Jersey, joins Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers to discuss the latest on the coronavirus.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: I want to bring in Dr. Anand Swaminathan. He's an emergency medicine physician in New Jersey. Doctor, always great chatting with you. So let's talk about some of these variants, some of these mutations.

We're seeing that vaccine production is speeding up. I'm wondering, are we in a place where we no longer need to worry about those variants, those mutations, at least here at home in the United States because the vaccinations are somewhat outpacing those variants? Or are these still very much capable of almost knocking us off of the path that we're on right now?

ANAND SWAMINATHAN: I really wish that I could say we didn't have to worry about them, but we clearly do. What we're seeing is already some spikes in cases in the Northeast, New Jersey and New York, where we're seeing a real expansion of the numbers of patients were rising instead of the fall that we saw coming from January until now. And I think the variants are definitely a part of that. We know that the UK variant, which is becoming predominant in this country, is easily transmitted, or more easily transmitted. I think that's a big part of why we're seeing a surge now. So we still have to be worried about those variants.

And what we also have to be worried about is as we vaccine up, if we allow our public health measures to lapse, we're going to get new variants that's going to be emerging. And some of those variants might actually be resistant to the vaccines or make our vaccines less effective. So we really do have to be cautious about this, which means that we have to continue those public health measures.

But that's not what we're seeing. We are seeing, again, those variants spreading. We're seeing some pandemic fatigue. But I think more than the pandemic fatigue is the mixed messaging that we're getting from our local government. We have on one hand our governor saying, we're opening indoor dining to larger numbers. You can gather in larger numbers. And then on the other hand, they're saying, but keep masking and don't go indoors.

And that lack of consistency of messaging is very difficult for the public to take and understand what to do with. If the restaurants are open, then we're going to go, because we've been waiting a year to go out to eat. So we need to start buckling down a little bit more as those cases rise and say, if we're going to suppress this rise and make sure that it doesn't become another huge surge, the way to do that is to stop those gatherings.

KRISTIN MYERS: OK, so then I'm just going to ask the straight up question. If we have the mutations and the variants, and if we continue to stop wearing our masks, or do like we're doing, as you mentioned; go to bars, go to restaurants, go to concerts, just gather with each other, go to parties, go to clubs, do we ever get out of this pandemic? As we are right now, as it stands right now, does this pandemic ever end?

ANAND SWAMINATHAN: I don't think we can really end this without both coupling those public health measures with vaccinations. As vaccinations are ramping up, like you said, we have a lot of supply. A month ago, we were saying we should be targeting 3 million doses a day. We're at that mark already. We're already beyond 3 million or at 3 million doses a day. So we're ramping up the vaccines.

But we can't loosen those restrictions and get back out there until the vaccines have been delivered. And remember, it's two weeks after your second dose for the Moderna and the Pfizer, and two weeks after the J&J before you're fully immunized. We have to continue to keep that tight, or else we're going to see another surge, and another one after that. And the more these variants spread, again, the more we'll get more mutations.

So I can't say that we'll never get out of it. But I think unless we tighten down and keep those public health measures in place, we're not going to get out of it any time soon. And the worst case scenario is that we render our vaccines less effective, in which case, we're going to be going down the same path we were going down a couple of months ago. We're going to see huge spikes as well as peaks in hospitalizations and deaths.

KRISTIN MYERS: OK, so what would we have to do in order to render those vaccines essentially ineffective, or perhaps even useless? And are we doing some of those behaviors now?

ANAND SWAMINATHAN: I think what we would see is more spread and more-- as the virus spreads, it mutates more. We get more variants. I think that's really what we have to be trying to avoid. And we're seeing some of it already. If you look at New Jersey, we've been having a rise in cases consistently.

And yet, we are expanding what we're allowing for indoor dining and things like that. Now, we haven't had recent expansions, but we also haven't pulled anything back from the restrictions that were lifted a couple of weeks ago. So while we still have universal masking in place in public, we are allowing up to 150 people to gather for weddings outdoors. We're allowing almost unlimited gatherings for funerals, religious services.

And then that indoor dining issue. We talk about ventilation being so important. These restaurants don't have the ability to ramp up their ventilation and ensure the safety of everybody. And it's getting warmer anyway, Kristin, so let's just wait a little bit longer and let's do outdoor dining. Let's do outdoor events.

But let's keep them small until more people are vaccinated. We just have to hold off a little longer, which is what Dr. Walensky has been saying for weeks. Just hold off a little longer. We're getting there. We were talking about not having enough vaccine for everybody until maybe the middle of summer a couple of months ago. Now we're saying by May 1st everyone's going to be able to book appointments.

We just have to wait a little bit longer. It's a little bit more patience. Which I'm not saying is easy. And I'm not blaming individuals for this. This is really where the government has to say, you know what? We need to have these restrictions in place. We need to wait a little bit longer. So let's not open up everything. Let's keep things a little bit tighter until we're in a safer place.

KRISTIN MYERS: We just heard on Anjalee Khemlani saying that it would require 100% of people to get vaccinated in order to declare this pandemic officially over, which seems pretty unlikely that we can get 100% of Americans to do anything. I mean, honestly. So then, do you imagine realistically-- and I know that you don't want to just come out and say, you know, Doctor Anand Swaminathan says pandemic will never end.

But let's be realistic about this. Do you imagine that this pandemic is going to continue? Perhaps not as badly. Perhaps we can still gather with our friends, go to work. But that we are still going to have to talk about and think about and consider coronavirus, or rather, COVID-19 specifically, for several more years to come?

ANAND SWAMINATHAN: I think that's probably true. And I'm not sure exactly what the number is that we need to get to. I don't think anybody knows. Dr. Fauci has said it. Dr. Walensky has said it. We often throw around 70% for herd immunity. It might be higher than that. We don't really know. We're nowhere near that number now.

So it's almost this idea in front of us instead of a reality. Do we need to get to 100%? 100% would be great. I think it's very, very unlikely that we get there. But I don't know that this will be forever. It will probably be in a very different kind of a picture than what we're seeing right now, as more people get vaccinated, as people are safer. And we still think that there may be boosters down the line as new variants emerge.

So yes, I think we're going to be talking about COVID-19 for a very long time. But I don't know that we're going to be seeing it in the same way that we're seeing things right now as vaccinations get a little bit more uptake. But Kristin, really what you're talking about is this messaging that we need to get to. It's great to have 60% of people vaccinated, better to have 100%.

And how do we do that? And part of this is vaccine hesitancy. That is a major part of this. But a lot of it, really, is about access and logistics. There are a lot of people who want a vaccine who can't get it. And so we need to address those issues as well. And as far as vaccine hesitancy, what we need to be doing is really partnering with local people who are respected, whether that be priests or rabbis, or whatever it is. Whoever are the local, respected leaders. Let's partner with them to get better messaging across.

And what I've found as we're doing vaccinations in our emergency department is a lot of people are skeptical until you sit down with them for about two or three minutes and answer a couple of quick questions. Then all of a sudden, they're saying, how quick can I get this shot? So I think we just need to do a little bit more outreach. We need to talk to leaders and really partner with them to get this messaging through.

KRISTIN MYERS: All right, doctor. I have one more quick one for you. I have, like, 30 seconds. I know we're already running a little bit over time. But I want to ask you about the global picture, because we're seeing cases rise in Europe. We're seeing cases rise in Brazil. Even if we do things well here in the United States-- and I know you're saying it's not too rosy here in the US, either-- what's the global picture going to look like going forward?

ANAND SWAMINATHAN: We absolutely can't beat this pandemic without working with our partners globally to fix that. And the Biden administration has worked really hard to get more funding and more vaccines out. But what we really need to do is, as our supply ramps up, as we're getting to the point where we have enough vaccine for everybody, we really need to be pushing more vaccine outside of the US. Getting it to other countries where there's very, very low vaccination rates.

You know, we've got about 25% of people in this country with at least one shot in the arm. That's far higher than almost everywhere else. And there are many places that are below 1% or below 1/2%. So we need to take some of the vaccine that we are producing and start getting those to other places. Really start working to see, what are the logistics of delivery to harder to reach places?

Without that, without partnering globally, we cannot beat this pandemic. So this is the time to start pushing more of that vaccine abroad so that we can help our neighbors. And help everybody so we can fight the pandemic.

KRISTIN MYERS: All right. Doctor Anand Swaminathan, emergency medicine physician out of New Jersey. Thanks so much for joining us.