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U.S. has 'never really caught up' to other countries in COVID testing, says top doctor

Dr. Brian Garibaldi, biocontainment unit medical director at Johns Hopkins, reviews the White House's plan to test more Americans for COVID-19, gives background on Dr. Anthony Fauci's comments on Omicron, and talks about how the winter weather is set to impact the spread of COVID-19.

Video Transcript

EMILY MCCORMICK: We're keeping on this topic with our next guest. Dr. Brian Garibaldi is Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit medical director. And he joins us now. And Dr. Garibaldi, as we continue to receive new developments on the Omicron variant, I want to highlight one in particular, because Dr. Fauci just said today that it is almost certainly less severe than the Delta variant. What's your read on these updates and the risk of the Omicron variant based on what we know right now?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I certainly hope that's true. I certainly hope that it ends up being not as severe as the Delta variant. I think the evidence we have so far suggests that it spreads as readily, if not faster or more easily, than the Delta variant. But I still think we need a little bit more data before we can say for sure whether or not we're going to see more severe disease or less severe disease.

What's important, though, is that if this spreads widely, if it infects hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, we're going to see hospitalizations. We're going to see deaths. So even if it's not more severe for any one individual case, if it spreads widely, then we might, again, see surges, hospitalizations, which impact not just the treatment of COVID patients, but also potentially of procedures and care.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Doctor, I'm glad you brought that up, because we saw cases in different parts, different states where they've limited elective surgeries, or when hospitals reach 90% of capacity, no more other capacity for other situations. So when we talk about severity of the disease, when doctors talk about that, like Dr. Fauci, are they talking about severity for the unvaccinated? Are they talking about severity for those who are vaccinated? Or is it just a general term, severity?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I think it's context [AUDIO OUT]. When I say "severe disease," I mean, the risk of any individual developing severe complications. And really what we're talking about [AUDIO OUT] get hospitalized? Does someone ultimately go to the intensive [AUDIO OUT] or do they pass away from their disease?

This still, right now, most of the cases we're seeing, the vast majority of cases we're seeing in the US are the Delta variant. And we do know that vaccines, while people can get infected with Delta even if they've been vaccinated, the likelihood of being hospitalized or having someone die from COVID is dramatically reduced due to the vaccine. And we really hope that that's [AUDIO OUT] as Omicron is [AUDIO OUT].

EMILY MCCORMICK: And Dr. Garibaldi, one of the things that we've been continuing to monitor, of course, on the virus front has been around testing. And I do want to call attention to some comments from White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on that topic during a White House press briefing yesterday with a reporter. Let's take a quick listen.

JEN PSAKI: Should we just send one to every American?

- Maybe.

JEN PSAKI: Then what happens if every American has one test? How much does that cost and then what happens after that?

- All I know is that other countries seem to be making them available for greater quantities for less money.

JEN PSAKI: Well, I think we share the same objective, which is to make them less expensive and more accessible, right? Every country is going to do that differently. And I was just noting that, again, our tests go through the FDA approval process. That's not the same process that-- it doesn't work that way in every single country.

EMILY MCCORMICK: So Dr. Garibaldi, I'm wondering, what do you make of these comments? And is the testing regime that we have now in the US sufficient to address COVID-19 and these new variants?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, we've been behind the eight-ball in testing since the very beginning of the pandemic. The initial delays that led to us rolling out widespread testing to understand how widespread the pandemic was initially, we've never really caught up to the amount of testing that other countries are able to do. I think this becomes particularly important as we start thinking about how to deploy retroantiviral therapies that may be coming down the pipeline, particularly pills that might combat COVID. We know that these therapies work better if you [AUDIO OUT] earlier. And the only way that you're going to know if you have the disease early on as if you have access to testing.

So I think these steps to try to have insurance company [AUDIO OUT] people for tests is a move in the right direction. But that's not going to solve the accessibility problem for the vast majority of people who find the test, can't afford to get it, don't have insurance, or aren't going to be able to navigate the system to get reimbursed for those tests. I mean, imagine how much easier it would be for us to gather together as families if we had widespread access to testing and everyone could get tested and hopefully vaccinated.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Doctor, we're hearing that there may be approval and wide access to these new treatments for people who do develop COVID and might wind up in hospitals. I'm asking you, we know that doctors and medics and all kinds of people in the health-care industry well deserve a break. Do you think you're going to get that break come March with those new treatments?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: You know, I think there's much uncertainty now about what's going to happen with Omicron and other variants. I think the break that we need is going to come when we get more people vaccinated and we really have a better handle on infection throughout the world. We've been saying from the very beginning, this pandemic doesn't end until it ends everywhere in the world. And variants are going to continue to pop up as long as we have pockets of the population in the US and elsewhere that aren't vaccinated and there's continuing community transmission.

EMILY MCCORMICK: And Dr. Garibaldi, what are you seeing on the ground right now in terms of how just everyday Americans have been responding to news of this new variant? Are you seeing any changes in behavior in response to the latest developments?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I think we're seeing in Maryland what we're seeing in several other parts of the country. We're seeing an increase in cases. That's being driven right now by the Delta variant.

I think we're starting to see a spike in cases related to travel around the Thanksgiving, people getting together, perhaps sometimes either being unvaccinated or not being masked up indoors. So I think we're right now, we're still responding to the surge we're seeing in Delta cases. And I think we need more information to really know what's going to happen with Omicron.

EMILY MCCORMICK: All right, definitely something we'll be keeping an eye on. Dr. Brian Garibaldi is Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit medical director. And thank you so much for joining us.