This week on Facing the Future, we focus on the persistently lingering COVID 19 pandemic, as we appear to be in another national surge of infections, and have recently surpassed 1,000,000 deaths from the pandemic in the United States. The pandemic has had an enormous impact on our economy and our federal budget, and Congress is currently wrestling with another COVID emergency funding measure for states and local jurisdictions.
Joining us to help us navigate through the latest data and where we may be going was Dr. Jodie Guest, an epidemiologist and professor at the School of Medicine and the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta. Dr. Guest is also an advisor to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Concord Coalition communications director Av Harris, who was with the Connecticut Department of Public Health for the first year of the pandemic, joined me for the conversation, as did our national field director Phil Smith and policy director Tori Gorman.
Dr. Guest said we are in the middle of another national surge of COVID-19 infections, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the media coverage.
“New York is having their 5th surge, and the entire US is in a surge. It’s not easy to see that in the media, because we’re not talking about it at the level that we once were,” said Guest. “What we have right now is increasing rates every single day in the U.S., and we know that we are underestimating it more now than we ever have before because more people are using antigens at home to test than we’ve ever seen before. Even our 46% increase rate in the last two weeks is probably a very large underestimate of how much COVID is out there.”
On the positive side, as case numbers and hospitalizations are up, COVID deaths have remained relatively low. Dr. Guest attributes that to the growing national vaccination rate, the high number of people who have been infected and recovered to boost natural immunity in the community, and advancements in antiviral drugs that are now available to reduce the symptoms of newly infected patients.
As a public health advisor, Dr. Guest says it is very important for local jurisdictions to consider reinstating indoor mask mandates if levels of disease are high enough to warrant it, because there is no harm in putting on a mask to protect yourself and protect others around you. She says the number one way Americans can protect themselves and their families from COVID-19 is to get fully vaccinated, and it is time for every American over the age of 60 to consider getting a booster shot.
“If you’re fully vaccinated and you’ve already had one booster, and it’s been over five months, and you’re over the age of 60, you should absolutely get a booster right now,” said Dr. Guest. “The data for those who are 50-60 who don’t have an underlying condition are less persuasive. There is really no harm in getting it, but you do need to recognize you’re probably going to need another one in the fall. A month ago, I might have been more interested in saying you can probably wait, but I think that need to wait has stopped. We see cases going up so much that at this point in time, it would be a useful thing to get a booster. The more primed your immune system is, the less likely you are to have a hard time if you get COVID-19. Ultimately, we have to remember that’s what these vaccines are for.”
One frustration among parents of young children is that so far, COVID-19 vaccines have not been available to those under the age of 5. But Dr. Guest says good news on that front may be just around the corner. The Food and Drug Administration is set to review the data for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine trials for children between the ages of 0-5 on June 15, with the potential for approving vaccination by this summer.
“The data look really good,” said Dr. Guest. “Part of the delay was, it was being examined as a 2-dose series, and the data was not sufficient that 2 doses was the right way to approach vaccinating these young kids, because the dose that was being used is so much smaller than for the rest of us who are over the age of 5. And so they went to a third dose, and that’s going to be the standard dosing for those 0-5 years of age. That is not surprising, a lot of vaccines like this are a 3-dose series, and we’ve seen that that’s what’s needed for all of us as we’ve seen with boosters. The data look phenomenal, with 80% protection with the latest variants.”
As Congress contemplates another COVID-19 emergency funding bill, Dr. Guest says as a matter of policy, it is imperative that the U.S. do whatever it can to make sure COVID-19 vaccines are available around the globe.
“We have entire countries where less than 10% of the people have access to vaccination,” said Dr. Guest. “I spend all my time super concerned about the fact that 34% of the people in the U.S. have not been fully vaccinated yet. Putting that into larger perspective, there are entire countries that don’t have any access to vaccination, or parts of a country that don’t have any access to vaccinations. None of us are going to be safe until we have equitable access to it across the world. We are too mobile of a society across the world for it not to matter. We should all care about the vaccination status in the least vaccinated country. It matters to all of us.”
Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL in Concord N.H., and it is also available via podcast. Join my guests and me as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.