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‘Vaccination is really our route out of this pandemic’: Doctor

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Dr. Anand Parekh, Bipartisan Policy Center Chief Medical Advisor, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health, HHS, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss the latest on the coronavirus pandemic.

Video Transcript

- The vast majority of patients driving up COVID-19 hospitalizations in parts of the US are unvaccinated. That's according to hospitals. And as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads nationwide, public health officials said they are preparing for hospitalizations to potentially reach new pandemic peaks in areas where fewer people are vaccinated. Joining me now is Dr. Anand Parekh, Bipartisan Policy Center's chief medical advisor and former deputy assistant secretary for health and human services. Dr. Parekh, always good to see you. Lots of disturbing news coming out about this virus over the weekend as COVID cases rise not only here, but in the US. What is the message right now even for those who are vaccinated and going on about their lives without wearing masks?

DR. ANAND PAREKH: Hi Alexis. Well, in America today, you really have two realities. One for those Americans who are vaccinated who are protected from the Delta variant, and those who are unvaccinated who are facing a threat like they've never seen before. This Delta variant is not the same virus that we saw a year ago. It's highly-transmissible, it may even lead to more severe illness. And so I think the message is, particularly for those unvaccinated, that vaccination is really our route out of this pandemic. Until you get vaccinated, masking in public is also going to be critical as well. You are seeing some regions in the country where rates of cases, hospitalizations are going up at such an exponential that universal masking is now being recommended irrespective of whether you're vaccinated or not.

So this is a critical time, Alexis, during our pandemic, and particularly we worry about regions like the Southeast, the South and mountain states where it's a perfect storm brewing, low vaccination rates, lack of mitigation measures, high prevalence of the Delta variant, cases going up, testing down, positivity rates high, hospitalizations high. And that's really driving what we're seeing nationally, threefold increase in cases up to about 30,000 seven-day average, hospitalizations going up. So again, the vaccinations are the answer here, and masking will be critical as well.

- Doctor, I'm curious what you are doing when you are out and about. I'm vaccinated, I was actually in many public places over the weekend, and for the first time in a while decided to wear a mask. Should people who are vaccinated going out into large areas, or perhaps sitting next to people they know are not vaccinated, is it time for them to mask up and why? Because I think that's also confusing for a lot of folks. If I'm vaccinated, why do I need to mask up?

DR. ANAND PAREKH: Yeah, that's really important. So I think every individual needs to assess their particular circumstances as well as their environment, what are the transmission rates in their community, in their state. Also, amongst their family members, are there vulnerable family members there. Also, children who have not been vaccinated as well, where exactly are you going, some public places are a higher risk than others. So I think, Alexis, you need to take all of those into account. I'm in Maryland currently, which is low risk. But we have a young kids who are unvaccinated at home. I still wear my mask when I'm going to the grocery store, for example.

And masking is important because it breaks chains of transmission. Masking is important to reduce transmission as well as to protect yourself. We know both of those are true. And so it's protecting others who may not be vaccinated. It also protects yourself from potential breakthrough infections. So there are a number of reasons to ask yourselves these questions. And again, it depends on the specific circumstances and environment that you're in.

- You know, this week on Friday is the opening ceremonies for the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. Of course, these will be games unlike any other with lots of protocols put in place because of COVID, no fans in the stands. We've known that now for weeks. What are your expectations around those Olympic games?

DR. ANAND PAREKH: Well, ideally, Alexis, I would have liked to see stronger encouragement for vaccinations, even maybe a mandate for vaccinations for athletes as well as staff. I think daily testing is going to be really important, social distancing, masking. But I think we have to be realistic here. There are going to be cases, and the most important question is going to be, what's going to be the reaction after there are cases? And that means having sort of a swift response, quarantining, contact-tracing. You want to make sure that the isolated case doesn't evolve into an outbreak. And so I think that is really what I'm going to be looking for. The planning is there, but the execution I think will be critical.

- I also want to talk to you about misinformation, especially being spread via social media about the virus and about vaccinations. This weekend, the surgeon general said that there is a lot of misinformation right now online, and is asking social media companies to step up to the plate and to fix it. We know the Biden administration got into a heated debate with Facebook over the weekend saying that Facebook is actually, quote, "killing people with the misinformation on its site." What do you make of that? And is it the responsibility of the social media companies, do you think, to sort of set the record straight?

DR. ANAND PAREKH: I do. I think it's all of our responsibilities, it's the public sector as well as the private sector. Certainly, misinformation, we have to combat that through education. I think what I'm most worried about, Alexis, is disinformation, which is the willful or falsification of information. And that has to be priority number one, that just cannot be acceptable. At the end of the day, Americans will have to decide for themselves. I hope that everyone gets vaccinated, but Americans should have the facts to make the decision.

But disinformation, when you have actors out there that are willingly falsifying information, I think absolutely private sector partners such as the tech industry, they need to take steps, they need to be public about the steps that they're taking. So I think it's really important to get at the disinformation piece. The misinformation piece we're going to have to continue to work on. That's education, but combating disinformation needs to be the number one priority.

- And lastly doctor, what do you make of so many countries now opening up their economies, lots of folks traveling again? Do you think that perhaps we're getting ahead of ourselves a little bit, and should officials start to rein in some of those reopenings? I'm not talking about going back into lockdown, but should we start to pull the reins back just a little bit given the fact that this Delta variant now seems to be spreading like wildfire?

DR. ANAND PAREKH: Well, in this country, Alexis, as you know, we have about half of the population that's vaccinated. 60% of adults fully vaccinated, 80% of the elderly, we still need to do better there. Masking is going to be critical for us. But for the rest of the world to your question, they are not as far ahead. Very few countries are actually further along than us. Most vaccination rates are in the 10% range. And so this is really a critical time for the rest of the world. And that's important for us as well. Global health is US health. And so I think we're going to have to try to help countries around the world ensuring that we can get vaccines to these countries, help them with their manufacturing capacity.

And it could very well be that many countries in the world, maybe not the United States, will have to fall back upon some of the community mitigation measures, including shutdowns or closing non-essential businesses, or are closing down schools. We probably won't get there in the United States because of how far we are with our vaccination efforts, and the fact that the vaccines protect against Delta variant, but we absolutely could be seeing that in other parts of the world. This is a global worldwide pandemic. It's going to take some time until we get through this, and we need to focus not just on our domestic response, but the global response and helping countries around the world.

- All right. Dr. Anand Parekh, always good to see you. Thanks for your time today.