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University Hospital to mandate boosters for those who received JNJ vaccine

University Hospital CEO and Fmr. Health Commissioner of New Jersey Dr. Shereef Elnahal joins the Yahoo Finance Live panel to discuss the latest outlook for COVID-19 as health officials continue to debate vaccine booster shots.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: Tens of millions of Americans are now eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot. Now, this comes after the CDC rolled out new guidance last week. There is now one hospital, at least one hospital, that's going to mandate booster shots for employees who got Johnson & Johnson's vaccine.

So we want to bring in Dr. Shereef Elnahal. He's the CEO of University Hospital and also the former health commissioner of New Jersey. Doctor, it's good to see you again. Your hospital is one of the first to do this, one of the first to implement a mandate for a booster shot. Why was this the right move?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Thank you so much for having me. So it was a really important decision we had to make when we saw the unanimous decision making from both the FDA and the CDC advisory committees last week, essentially saying that one dose of J&J is simply no longer as protective as it once was, especially against the delta variant. I think we're seeing an issue of waning immunity, but also just the lack of protection against a more transmissible variant. And so, it was pretty clear to us that the scientific consensus is that this essentially should become a two-dose regimen, instead of a one-dose regimen.

And they didn't come out and say that overtly, but we're not only in the business of protecting our employees and protecting our staff, but also in protecting our vulnerable patients. And if there's a chance that our employees are spreading this deadly disease to our vulnerable patients, we had to take action.

ADAM SHAPIRO: So which is the best option for mixing these booster shots? For instance, if you got J&J, would you be best to get a second J&J or to mix the Moderna and Pfizer with your J&J? And conversely, if you got Pfizer and you're eligible for the booster, would you be better off getting a J&J booster? How does this work?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Well, very much underlying your question is the authorization that the FDA gave for mixing and matching vaccines when it comes to boosters relative to your primary vaccination course. And we afford all of the options for our employees who got J&J as their primary vaccination consistent with that. The best study we do have shows a slightly better immune profile if you had a J&J the first time, taking either Pfizer or Moderna over a second shot at J&J. And so that is one study. It's a very well done study that the NIH published on the eve of some of these advisory committee meetings.

And so, if it were me, I would choose to take one of the other vaccines. But there is a consensus that if you take two doses of Johnson & Johnson, you should still be adequately protected against hospitalization and death. You may have an increased likelihood of infection. But a breakthrough infection that doesn't make you ill or very sick is still better than one that does. And so I think affording that option to our employees was important to us.

SEANA SMITH: So doctor, now you have a mandate for a booster shot for those who got J&J's vaccine. You, of course, also have a mandate for your employees to be vaccinated. How has that been received by your employees at the hospital?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: So we took a very intentional approach to make sure that we communicate the rationale for doing this, as it isn't about forcing anyone to do anything. It's not about the need or desire to punish anybody or fire anybody. This was really about keeping our community safe and our employees safe. And I had personal lunches with groups of unvaccinated employees. We gave about six weeks of lead time for folks to get vaccinated after we announced our mandate.

And after some of these lunches, more than half of the folks who came decided to get the shot. Simple questions, dispelling myths, dispelling disinformation and misinformation. Or it's easier if you have a trusted figure on the other side of the table, whether that's a family member or somebody who has medical expertise. But all that said, we took a really compassionate approach. And as a result, we only had to discipline less than 10 employees and release very few out of 3,700 in our hospitals. So we have more than 93% of our employees vaccinated. And the rest essentially have medical or religious exemptions.

ADAM SHAPIRO: At what point, if it ever happens, do you just lose your patience? And compassion is important, but we're almost a year since the vaccines were-- you know, we got the first news about Pfizer in December of last year. And you'd almost have to be living under a rock not to know the truth about these different things. It depends on which echo chamber you listen to, but at what point might you lose your patience?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: You know, it's amazing how much you learn just by having conversations with hesitant people, why they are hesitant. And in the vast majority of cases here at my hospital, we did have to release very few people who are really stubborn about it and wouldn't do it, despite all of the benefits. But really, so many of them are susceptible to what they are reading on social media, the toxic misinformation and disinformation.

And so the more we have allies of communities talking about how effective these vaccinations are, every political persuasion of every sort of demographic, every constituency, the more I think people will realize that the shot is safe and effective. We have a trust problem in public health and in government in this country. That's what this is indicative of.

It's not a matter of competence or education. You'd be surprised the level of education of some of these folks who are hesitant to take the vaccine. It's really just a matter of trust. And so, if you have somebody on the other side of the table, and the vast majority of the cases that I've experienced, really talking about the benefits and risks and the facts and the evidence, you will get people to take the shot.

SEANA SMITH: So, doctor, with that in mind, as we do head into the winter-- so you're CEO of the University Hospital, the former health commissioner of New Jersey. Should we be worried about another wave, especially in the northeast, as we do head into the colder months?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Well, it's certainly something to look out for. We now have folks aggregating more indoors. We have a situation where you may see more traveling, you may see larger gatherings. And it's actually the informal familial friends, family gatherings where a bulk of the spread happens when it comes to COVID-19. And so what I want to say is that if you're thinking of traveling or thinking of seeing family, make sure you're vaccinated. It is safe to aggregate with loved ones during the holiday season if you are vaccinated.

The mission around primary vaccination, getting people to take the vaccine in the first place, in addition to boosters, is just as important, if not more important. And it's important to understand that that is going to be the determinant. How vaccinated a community is will be directly related to whether they see yet another increase when it comes to the colder months of this year and early next year. And so, again, the message is, get vaccinated.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. Shereef Elnahal, CEO of University Hospital and former health commissioner of New Jersey, thanks so much for taking the time to join us.