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University Hospital CEO on COVID-19 vaccination rollout

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Dr. Shereef Elnahal — CEO of University Hospital and former NJ DOH Commissioner — joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the latest developments on the coronavirus vaccination front, and what the government needs to do on a federal level to get communities of color to trust the medical establishment to boost inoculation.

Video Transcript

MYLES UDLAND: So let's stay on the pandemic and bring in Dr. Shereef Elnahal. He's the CEO of University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey. Former New Jersey Department of Health commissioner as well. Dr. Elnahal, great to speak with you once again.

So let's stay on some of what Anjalee was talking about and I think that the public is quite concerned about now, which is the variants with different strains of COVID, what we know, what we don't know. That Moderna news certainly, to me, sounds encouraging. How have you and your team thought about the possibility of these new variants? And have you seen any yet in your part of the state?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Thank you so much for having me. So as Anjalee mentioned, this is expected. As you see rapid spread of this virus, it is going to mutate. Viruses do that. It replicates millions and millions of times in each individual.

And so again, the name of the game for all of this is stopping the spread. If the virus doesn't spread to more individuals, it will be less likely to mutate. So it does underscore all of the preventative efforts since day one of this pandemic to really limit spread.

Secondarily-- and paradoxically in terms of the thinking-- what this does is it really just emphasizes the fact that we need to vaccinate more and more people, faster. Let's say the variants are-- reduced effectiveness by 20%, 25%. We don't know those exact numbers yet. What that says is that, hey, actually now we're at 70% efficacy or 65% effectiveness, whatever it may be. What that does is it impresses upon all of us to vaccinate more people, faster, so that the probability is lower in a-- a sooner time frame.

And so we see effectiveness around 65%, 70% for flu vaccines. And we know those are effective if they get to a lot of people. So really all this does is it impresses upon all of us to vaccinate more people more quickly.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Elnahal, on that, we know that there's still sort of a bumpy road when it comes to vaccine distribution. We know that we're waiting for Johnson & Johnson to reveal theirs. And that one-dose shot holds a lot of hope.

We also got news from Merck that they are-- they are ceasing their pursuit of a vaccine, a COVID-19 vaccine, based on the low immunity response. So that kind of takes one major player out of the game.

How does it look now in terms of the goal to start vaccinating 100 million people in 100 days, to the Biden administration's goal? Where can we get on that, considering all the ongoing issues?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Well, the good news on that goal is that we've actually already exceeded 1 million vaccinations per day. And so the name of the game now is just to keep up the pace.

One concerning thing is that states have expanded eligibility significantly to people over the age of 65, and in many states, people between the ages of 16 and 64 with chronic conditions. And so what that does is it expands the pool of people who can get it into the millions in many states, which means that people are going to have to wait in line unless the stock of vaccine catches up.

So really what the Biden administration is doing that will be very effective is it's using the Defense Production Act to make use of all the infrastructure in the country to make sure that we have vaccine stock that can catch up to the demand. But again, since we've already exceeded the 1 million vaccinations per day, the goal should really be just to keep up with that current pace to meet it.

JULIE HYMAN: Dr. Elnahal, it's Julie here. I want to ask you about what's happening in different states, because we see such divergent outcomes in terms of vaccine distribution in different states. Just to give a couple of personal examples, my mother-in-law in-- in Florida, who's over 80, has not been able to get hers. But my father, who's in his 70s, in Maryland, has his now scheduled.

So how do we smooth that out? Because that really seems to be a big problem.

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Well, I hope your mother-in-law gets it soon. This is something that, unfortunately, the last administration did not take into account. The fact is, not every state, and certainly not every region or county, was as prepared to deliver the vaccine as others. There's a wide spectrum of preparedness, of infrastructure, of staffing, of expertise.

And so really that's where the federal government should have stepped in to assist the states and the localities that needed it to make sure that we kept up pace and that there was equitable administration of vaccines across the country.

And so I do know for a fact that the Biden administration is taking that into account and making sure that where you don't have mass vaccination sites, where you don't have the staffing, where you don't have the infrastructure, that's where the federal government's going to step in with all of its assets, including the National Guard, including making sure that there's equitable distribution of PPE, syringes, other equipment. And that's what I think is going to change, and hopefully lead to a leveling-out of vaccination potential across the country.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Well, speaking of that, I know that there have been some states that have been trying to purchase directly from these manufacturers. Do we see that as a potential game-changer if the FDA gets on board with that, with adjusting the emergency use authorization?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Well, what I would say to that, Anjalee, is whatever gets vaccine quickest to the people who can administer it fastest is something I would support. And so I think that flexibility could be helpful. We need to make sure that the reporting and the accurate accounting for where the vaccines are going, especially where they're being administered and to whom they're being administered, all that needs to be ironed out. And so that will require some planning.

But again, I think where there's innovation, where there are new ideas to be able to accelerate vaccination, especially in the context of all of these concerning new variants, I would support that.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Speaking of those variants, I know that the South Africa one is definitely one of most concern. We also got the report about the one out of California. But a lot of people also saying that mutations are normal. It just depends on transmissibility and if-- if it does in-- if it is in fact causing more deaths. We know that we got the news out of the UK last week that there's indications that it might be. But nothing seems very certain right now.

How are you operating with all of that? And are you concerned?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Of course it's concerning. You know, the more people, again, that this virus spreads to, the higher the chance of mutations and the higher the chance that you'll get more virulent mutations and more transmissible mutations.

So the name of the game since day one in this pandemic has been to limit the spread and to stop the spread. And so the importance of wearing masks, the importance of social distancing, the importance of following all the restrictions of public health authorities, local, statewide, and now national, could not be more important. We need to get ahead of this virus.

Again, the analogy that I found best is that, if the vaccine is a hose and the virus is a fire, we need to not only expand the power of that hose by introducing more vaccines and delivering more vaccines more quickly, but limit the spread of that fire to make sure that we can get ahead of it.

MYLES UDLAND: And Dr. Elnahal, I know we've talked previously about uptake. And there was a story in "The Wall Street Journal" about what's happening in Essex County, probably one of the most aggressive counties in the country in terms of getting folks vaccinated.

So I suppose, locally, it would seem that uptake is not an issue. But I know, broadly, there was a lot of concern about national uptake and reluctance of some folks to take the vaccine. Is that, in your view, playing out? Are those fears becoming founded, I guess.

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Well, we're right here in Essex County. And I know for a fact that the planning of this has been going on for months. And kudos to the county executive here, Joe-- Joe DiVincenzo, for doing so.

But yes, the other barrier in addition to the potential lack of preparedness to administer the vaccine in regions across the country is adoption, people's willingness to take the vaccine. And unfortunately, that's more prevalent in communities of color, communities that trust the medical establishment less for a lot of justifiable reasons, the history of discrimination and institutional racism in the medical establishment. What that does is impress upon us the need for a national strategy to get the facts out and to approach communities humbly and say, yes, there's been systemic racism in the system for a long time. There's been atrocities committed, frankly, to communities of color by the medical establishment in this country. But to say, please suspend that and trust us with this vaccine. It works.

And then the important thing is, of course, to follow on with more efforts to treat and manage public health issues that have plagued communities of color for a long time. As a country we've proven that we can mobilize and fund, and there's the will to develop a vaccine for this disease in less than a year. Let's do the same or similar things for diseases and issues that have been plaguing communities of color for a long time.

MYLES UDLAND: All right, Dr. Shereef Elnahal, CEO of University Hospital in Newark. Doctor, thank you so much for joining the program as always. And Anjalee, thanks for stopping by as well.