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'I wouldn't say this is under control': Doctor on COVID-19 pandemic cases

University of Arizona College of Medicine, Dr. Murtaza Akhter, joined ahoo Finance Live to discuss the U.S. response to COVID-19 as cases surpass 27M.

Video Transcript

- Let's get to the latest on the pandemic. US cases under 100,000 for the second day in a row. For more on that, we want to bring in Dr. Murtaza Akhter, clinical assistant professor in emergency medicine at the University of Arizona's College of Medicine. And doctor, it's great to have you on the program. Let's just start with what we're seeing play out nationwide and also in your state of Arizona. Specifically in Arizona, we've seen the number of cases drop by over a half in just the last two weeks. So I'm curious just to get your take on how you've been able to get the case count under control and what the current state is inside of Arizona.

MURTAZA AKHTER: Well, thanks for having me. The first thing I want to clarify is I wouldn't say that this is under control. Yes, there's been a massive sort of down spike. But that only happened because there was a huge up spike. If you look at the number of hospitalizations, we're at basically the same level as we were during our peak in the summer when I was on the news all the time. And so while the numbers look a lot better than they did before, they were really really, really terrible a couple of weeks ago. Now they're only really, really terrible.

So it's still bad. And I want to be clear on that. Just because the numbers look like they've gotten better, it doesn't mean they're good. Probably the reason they are going down is because a lot of that holiday surge from Christmas and New Year's is now down trending. But as you know, as the number of cases go down, the deaths go up. And so it's a very unfortunate situation. And of course, the concern is, what will come? Especially with the new variants.

- Doctor, why is it important, if it's important, to determine the pathway and the origin of the virus? Because aren't these viruses common and all around us to begin with?

- Yes. So it's a good point. There are viruses everywhere. One of the reasons-- you can look at it medically. You can look at it epidemiologically. And different people have different goals. And when I'm in the emergency department, not only do I not care where the virus originated, I try to not even ask how this person got it. Because I've got a patient in front of me and I'm trying to treat him or her. But from an epidemiological and public health standpoint, it's good to know where a virus is started because then it's good to know how they spread.

If you know where they started and how they expanded beyond that point, you can think about containment efforts for the next virus or the next pandemic. And rest assured, this is not the last pandemic. There will be other viruses. There are always going to be viruses. But there will be other pandemics as well. And hopefully we can contain them much better than we did this one. But one way of sustaining and stopping disease is by locating where it started and how it spread. So it's important a public health perspective.

- Doctor, we heard from the administration today, the US is boosting its weekly vaccine shipments to 11 million. I'm curious just to get your thoughts on the vaccination process so far and how it is progressing in the state of Arizona.

MURTAZA AKHTER: Yeah. So I was somewhat lucky. I suppose you could look at it that way because in healthcare, we obviously had sort of expedited access to the vaccine. But we know there are plenty of people who've had trouble making appointments or told the vaccine is available but they can't get them. The state of Arizona is doing what it can-- what it can. I'm sorry. And there are certain sites. There are tents being set up in various places, drive throughs.

And when you go to them, it looks like an impressive feat. Every time I go, I'm very impressed. And somehow it's still not enough because there's so many people who can't get them. One of the things that this administration has been talking about is do sort of a national coordinated effort. And that can help distribute vaccines as efficiently as possible.

So again, Arizona is doing what it can. But it can always do better. And in particular, we want to be able to get it to the people who need it most. And sometimes it's hard to get it to them. Imagine if you don't have a car, it's hard to go to a drive-through and get vaccinated. And some of those people, the ones who ride public transportation, the ones who are the front line workers, the ones who are trying to sustain the economy basically, are the ones who need it most and sometimes can get it the least.

- Doctor, let's finish on a positive note. What's working right now with the national response to the pandemic?

MURTAZA AKHTER: Well, not to get too political, but I think having people on the COVID Task Force to enforce task forces and committees, I'm sorry, who actually know how a pandemic spreads and how to contain it goes a long way. So the fact that there are actual experts on there and not conspiracy theorists goes a really long way in trying to help the public health standpoint of beating this disease.

But also to try to have a coordinated effort and not just saying, states do what you want and try to curry political points. But us actually having a national coordinated effort for how to beat the disease. Because remember, if Florida does its own thing, and Alabama does its own thing, and Georgia does its own thing, and New York does its own thing, well people travel in between all those states. So just because you might do well in one state and not the other, the virus doesn't care. It will still spread.

So having a nationally coordinated effort I think goes a really long way. And I think the administration is trying to do that. But honestly, just having actual public health experts who know medicine goes a really long way in trying to beat the disease.

- Dr. Murtaza Akhter, clinical assistant professor in emergency medicine at the University of Arizona's College of Medicine in Phoenix. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us. We wish you all the best.