Former CDC Official and Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Dr. William Schaffner joins Yahoo Finance’s Akiko Fujita to discuss the latest coronavirus outlook as U.S. cases surpass 5.45 million.
AKIKO FUJITA: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio facing increasing pressure to delay the start of in-person classes at the city's public schools. Principals and teachers saying they just don't have the proper guidelines or the resources in place to safely reopen. Meantime, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill just the latest university to move from in-person classes to online classes after seeing an uptick in coronavirus cases on campus.
Let's bring in Dr. William Schaffner. He is a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University of Medicine. He's also a former CDC official. And Dr. Schaffner, certainly a lot to get through today. Let's start with the school reopenings. Because it seems like we had heard a lot of concerns, especially about the public schools-- elementary level, middle school, high school-- about what exactly is safe to do here.
In New York City, just kind of the latest example of teachers raising the concerns. Is this a sign of things to come over the next few months? In other words, are we going to see a reopening, an uptick in cases, and then a move back to remote classes?
WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Yeah. Akiko, it's a changing landscape right in front of us all the time. And I don't like to use four-letter words like "safe" because it sounds absolutely, safe. What we're trying to do is keep the risk as low as possible.
You know, part of the big difficulty of our opening up schools was that we haven't controlled the virus spread in the community. The other countries that have opened schools safely are countries that have controlled the spread in the community. We haven't done that. So it's not a big surprise that here and there, we're going to see outbreaks.
And schools and universities may have to backtrack, if you will, and go virtual because they're seeing spread among children. And we're recognizing more and more that children can indeed be infected and spread this virus even though, fortunately, they're less apt to be seriously ill. But nonetheless, around the country, we're going to see a lot of movement and change and adaptation to local circumstances.
AKIKO FUJITA: To your point about reducing the risk. When you look at New York City and take that as an example, we're looking at one of the lowest infection rates in the country, a huge change from what we saw back in March and April. What needs to be done to keep the virus under control in these schools?
WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Well, fortunately, New York City has done a very good job of controlling the virus in the community. But what I heard from your story is that the teachers, nonetheless, are concerned that as schools have opened up, they're not sufficiently prepared. They still think that they don't have sufficient resources to adapt to this changed environment.
And public schools, as we all know, the classes tend to be larger. It's harder to get distancing, social distancing among the children. I'm sure it must be much more difficult to arrange staggered class times, where some come early, some come a little bit later, spreading the children out in the schools, wearing the masks, getting the surfaces disinfected.
There are whole lots of things that schools can do. And it sounds to me as though these teachers think they're not sufficiently prepared yet to manage this. And while we're talking about the students, remember, there are teachers, there are administrators, janitorial staff. They're older. They have, many of them, these underlying illnesses that will make them more susceptible to severe disease should they get infected, so you can understand their concern.
How do we position going into the fall? You've talked about the second wave that's likely to come where we've got not just the coronavirus but also the influenza or the flu season. Do we have enough resources in place? Do we have enough testing? Do we have enough PPE? Where are we as we look to the next several months?
WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Yeah, we're looking forward to what's already been called the Twindemic-- both COVID and flu together. And as we don't have a national policy for COVID, obviously, we don't have coherence yet for influenza, too. And the two of them together I think will strain, additionally, our already strained health care environment.
So I take every opportunity to urge everyone to get vaccinated against influenza. We know it's not a perfect vaccine, but it can still do a lot of good in preventing disease. And even should you get infected with flu despite having received the vaccine, you're very likely to have a less severe infection, less likely to be hospitalized, and less likely to die. So we're urging everyone-- I'm down on my knee here-- pleading that everyone get vaccinated against influenza this year.
AKIKO FUJITA: Let's talk about the other vaccine which is the development of the coronavirus vaccine. We've heard a number of announcements from these companies who are developing a vaccine candidate about the availability of that vaccine what if, in fact, it does succeed. And yet, there's still not enough to vaccinate all of the US. So as we look to who actually gets the vaccine first, what are the factors do you think should be driving that right now?
WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Well, for sure there's been too much hype about this. But nonetheless, there is a committee at the CDC, external experts including medical ethicists that are looking at a prioritization scheme. It's very similar to the one that we used back in 2009 for the H1N1 pandemic vaccine. And, in general, the outline as currently being sketched out-- it's not completed yet-- is that health care workers come first, then a large group of people called essential workers.
We're not sure exactly who's there. Right after them come people in high risk groups, and then after that, the general population. So that's already been sketched out, presented publicly, already started to be debated. And now, we're starting to fine tune that plan. Because, as you say, when the vaccine does become available, and we hope it does, then we won't have enough to vaccinate everybody on day one. Who gets first in line, second, third, et cetera, will have to be worked out and will have to be communicated clearly, ethically, and transparently to the US population so they understand the rationale behind it all.
AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, clear communication, as you point out, certainly something that has been lacking over the last several months and something a lot of us will be looking to as we head into this in Twindemic, as you point out, and the second wave in the fall. Dr. William Schaffner, always good to talk to you.
WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Good to talk to you, too. Thank you.