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The U.S. ‘needs a one nation approach now more than ever before’ amid COVID-19 struggles: Dr. Howard Koh

Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Christoforous and Brian Sozzi discuss how school districts should navigate reopening, and COVID-19 vaccine outlook with Dr. Howard Koh, Harvard Public Health Professor.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: We have reached another grim milestone in the spread of COVID-19. There are now more than 30 million cases worldwide with the number of deaths in the US nearing 200,000. And there are growing questions over the government's response and how to reopen schools.

With us now is Dr. Howard Koh. He's a professor at Harvard's TH Chan School of Public Health and a former assistant secretary for health in the Obama administration. Dr. Koh, always good to see you.

I'm gonna start with the schools because there's been a lot of confusion. In New York City, we had the mayor once again push back the start date for schools. What should these districts be doing?

DR. HOWARD KOH: Well, the school issues are very complex because first and foremost, we have to make sure that the background community transmission of the virus low and getting lower. So in places like New York, that opportunity does exist. That state has done very well where they used to have so many cases and deaths earlier in the pandemic, they've had a very robust response.

So that delay in New York is a little disappointing. But we're still hopeful that they can reopen in a phased manner. But there's so many other parts of the country where having schools get back anywhere close to normal is going to be so much tougher because the background transmission of virus is so high.

And then there's so many issues about people, place, and policies that have to be settled upon by all the folks involved in order to get the consensus and-- and move forward as a community. So we gotta watch this very, very carefully. Alexis, one major theme through this whole pandemic response is that every phase of it, we have underestimated the tenacity of this virus and overestimated our ability to contain it. So we have to stay really cautious going forward, especially now that flu season is here and a second wave of COVID may be upon us as well.

BRIAN SOZZI: Doctor, Joe Biden said last night in a-- in a town hall he couldn't mandate everyone in the country put on a mask, but he could mandate it in federal buildings. If he was elected president, what he-- what could he do to-- to make mask wearing more prominent across the country?

DR. HOWARD KOH: Well, he's already done, which I think is very striking, is that he models the best public health behavior. He uses the masks whenever he's out in public. He has gatherings where people are social distanced, the numbers of attendees are very low, and all the attendees are wearing masks.

And that's the public health norm that we need to be striking right now if we're ever gonna get this pandemic behind us. Unfortunately, the current leaders in the White House and the administration don't do that. And it sends such a confusing message to the public. So those are some of the changes I see from vice president Biden going forward.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Dr. Koh, Dr. Fauci said-- I believe it was just yesterday-- that he wouldn't be surprised if we got a vaccine in November or December. Is he talking about a widespread vaccine or-- or a vaccine for those who are maybe highest risk? And is that timeline that he's talking about still too optimistic?

DR. HOWARD KOH: Well, we're all hopeful that we can get one or several vaccines approved by the end of the year, perhaps. I think that's what Dr. Fauci was talking about. But we have to remember that a rollout of any vaccine takes many, many months.

Look at the seasonal flu vaccination efforts that we do year in and year out. To get everybody vaccinated for that takes four, five, six months. And for COVID vaccines, we're talking about potentially two doses for people. And that complicates the distribution logistics right away.

So whenever a COVID vaccination becomes a reality, a distribution campaign will begin immediately so that's good. But that rollout is gonna take many months. Dr. Fauci said last week that he wouldn't expect the country to come back to any hint of normalcy until the end of next year.

And that is defined by people being able to go into crowded restaurants, in crowded theaters without a mask. So I think that's what he was talking about. And I think, again, we have to temper these expectations so that we can all work together as a country.

BRIAN SOZZI: Doctor, real-- lot of focus this week on whether the FDA can be trusted. Is it being politicized? And for many folks out there, this is a-- a new topic, not something they have dealt with before. You see the FDA stamp of approval on so many items that we use and consume. Could the FDA be trusted to get this vaccine out in the right way?

DR. HOWARD KOH: So, Brian, you know that I'm a former assistant secretary for HHS, and I have so many colleagues at FDA, and CDC, and throughout that department that I respect and admire so much. They're tremendous public servants. And at a time like this, we need trust and confidence in HHS, FDA, CDC, our state and local health officials to be at the absolute highest level.

And you're right, we are seeing confidence being shaken in these agencies for a number of reasons. There are so many polls out documenting that. And we gotta restore confidence at the highest levels because when a COVID vaccine is improved, we need as many people as possible to trust the value of that vaccination and be eager to receive it because if we don't do that, this pandemic may go on indefinitely. And that would be absolutely unacceptable.

BRIAN SOZZI: Doctor-- doctor, real quick, you know, have the folks inside the FDA-- have they been able to tune out a lot of the noise they're hearing from the administration?

DR. HOWARD KOH: Well, when you go into public service, you know your mission is to serve the American people. And that's what they get up every morning and go to work to do. These are critically important and sensitive times.

But that mission has got to be upheld up through the commissioner, and the secretary of the department, and beyond. Here we have the worst health crisis that our country has faced in a century. So we have to keep the science high, keep the rigor as high as possible with respect to vaccine trials and analysis, and keep the trust and confidence high so people will follow public health guidance and receive the vaccine, and we can put this pandemic behind us sooner rather than later.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Dr. Koh, you make an excellent point. We could have an effective vaccine, but it won't do anything unless we have many, many people going out and getting the vaccine. So what can we do to increase trust in the FDA, in the CDC in a vaccine? If you were part of this administration now, what would you tell them? What steps should they take to increase that public trust?

DR. HOWARD KOH: Well, first and foremost, we need daily communication sponsored by the White House that features the top public health officials speaking directly to the American public. We haven't had that in quite a while now. And so the public health officials have to speak through other means, through other venues.

And that's fine, but there hasn't been the national coordination we need and deserve to just speak directly to the American people about the importance of masks, and social distancing, and hygiene. And then also, Alexis, very importantly, the value of flu vaccination right now. So if people want to contribute to public health, they can get their flu shot sooner rather than later.

We can make this fall's seasonal flu effort a roaring success and build the momentum for COVID vaccination effort that's gonna follow. We have to do this in a united fashion because from the beginning, we have not had a national strategy. We have had 50 states going in 50 different directions. And in time like this in the fall with the schools and the colleges reopening, the seasonal flu upon us, we need coordination and a one nation approach more now than ever before.