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It's 'no surprise' we're seeing a COVID-19 surge in Republican areas: ER doctor

Emergency Medicine Physician Dr. Steven McDonald joins Yahoo Finance’s Akiko Fujita to discuss which states are seeing a rise in COVID-19 infections.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: We’ve got some news on the vaccine front, with Pfizer shares up 3 and 1/2% now, after the CEO of Pfizer said he would likely apply for emergency use of their vaccine candidate by late November after the election. This comes as we’ve seen a huge uptick in COVID cases here in the US. More than 65,000 new cases on Thursday alone, a big jump, and the first time we’ve seen that number since late July.

Let’s bring in Dr. Steven McDonald. He is an emergency medicine physician. And Dr. McDonald, it’s good to have you on today. How are you processing this news? On the one hand, seeing that potentially Pfizer could get to more clarity on efficacy by the end of November, but at the same time, this coming as we see a huge surge across the country.

STEVEN MCDONALD: Sure. So first off, it’s great to be here. You know, the news of a vaccine is something that everyone is really excited about. That’s a– for Pfizer to achieve an EUA, an Emergency Use Authorization, they have to demonstrate three things. The first is efficacy. The second is consistency, that it’s efficacious across millions of people. And the third is safety, which I think is what most Americans are concerned about.

Currently, they have to demonstrate two months of safety data, although the White House and Mark Meadows are pushing back on that at the moment. And so I think whether or not this drops the end of November, it will ultimately come down to how much meddling the White House does in processes that are already in place to ensure we deliver only the safest vaccines.

AKIKO FUJITA: To that point, there’s been a lot of concern about the political pressure that could circumvent the safety protocols in place for this vaccine development.

As a doctor, are you comfortable with what you’ve heard from drug makers more recently, seeing the pause in the vaccine development from those like Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, hearing the CEO of Pfizer come out and talk about a little more of a timeline and what exactly is going to be the factor that pushes it to the market? Do you feel like the science has started to maybe take polls at a time when we’ve been talking so much about politics?

STEVEN MCDONALD: I do. As long as Dr. Fauci is in the CDC and is overlooking these processes, I do trust him. I just had a conver– was privy to a conversation with him recently that made me feel very much assured in the processes that are in place. That said, there’s two months to go. The White House could meddle in this process. And so, we do have to keep a watchful eye.

And the last thing I will say is that this is a disease that has really affected Black and brown populations. And so one thing that I personally am looking at is, how many Black and brown people are being recruited into these trials? And I’ll be very interested to see the data when it is released.

AKIKO FUJITA: Let’s talk about what we’re seeing nationally here. We’ve talked more than 64,000, upwards of 65,000, cases reported on Thursday alone. When you look at where the uptick is, how quickly this is spread, what’s your biggest concern?

STEVEN MCDONALD: Well, you know, this seems to be now affecting the western mountain region. The concern there is that these are locales and geographies that don’t have the same density of hospitals and doctors as you do in the northeast or the Metropolitan South or California.

And so, you know, New York was completely overwhelmed, but at the same time, we have many, many hospitals in the New York City metropolitan area. That’s really not the case where the disease is now surging. And so, you know, that means that critical patients have fewer critical beds that they can be slotted to. That makes me very nervous.

Additionally, this continues to ravage the most disenfranchised populations. And so we’re seeing rises in the western mountain region prison system. And that’s also very concerning. These are people who really can’t advocate for themselves and can’t seek care anywhere.

AKIKO FUJITA: And I wonder if we can pull up a chart here, because we have some data from the Harvard School of Public Health, the TH Chan School of Public Health, that sort of compared where we have seen this latest surge in areas that lean more Republican and that lean more Democratic.

And not to politicize the issue, but I am curious if you think there is a correlation here. Because there have been concerns about the mask wearing and the messaging coming from the president in some of these areas where he has a stronghold. We haven’t seen the strictest measures in place. Can you speak to that data?

STEVEN MCDONALD: Sure, absolutely. So, you know, to the extent of public health measures have become politicized, it really should be no surprise that we see that the spread of the disease is also– runs along political lines. And so when you have a Republican president telling Republican supporters that mask wearing is not necessary, even after he’s had coronavirus from a maskless event, it’s no surprise that we see surges in Republican areas.

Hopefully, moments like yesterday with Chris Christie saying, this is serious. I am a Republican. Please wear a mask. Hopefully with more messaging like that, we will make this less of a political issue and more of just a general public health issue.

AKIKO FUJITA: But some of these areas that we are seeing an uptick– you pointed to the Mountain West. But rural areas in particular have become a big concern because they don’t have the hospitals and the staffing in place, too. How does that change the way we respond to this more recent surge? What are you hearing from doctors in the field?

STEVEN MCDONALD: So, you know, people are acknowledging that the hospitalization rate is increasing. So as soon as– you see first the rise in cases, then the rise in hospitalizations, then the rise in deaths. So, you know, the fact that we’re already seeing a rise in hospitalizations, these systems are going to be overwhelmed very quickly, potentially more quickly than New York. And so, unfortunately, I think the rise in the death rate will be soon to follow.

AKIKO FUJITA: Are we in a better position now because of the information that’s out there on this virus, but also the treatment that’s available? How significant have the improvements been on that front?

STEVEN MCDONALD: Significant. I mean, when I started treating coronavirus back in March and April, we didn’t know dexamethasone was as effective as it is. In fact, we thought it might even be harmful. So I think the physicians treating the disease are absolutely better equipped in this moment. And we also are protecting our elderly and immunocompromised individuals more effectively than we were back in March and April.

That said, as long as people continue to flout mask wearing, as long as young people continue to congregate in education in all institutions, this will continue to percolate and in high numbers.

AKIKO FUJITA: And how realistic do you think it is to expect another more strict shutdown? I mean, you know, I ask this because we’ve been watching a lot of what’s playing out in Europe with the disturbing uptick there. We’ve heard a number of countries, like France and the UK, talk about potentially reinforcing some of these restrictions.

Is that pretty much an unrealistic option in the US right now? How do you control this most recent surge if you don’t have the strictest tool as an option?

STEVEN MCDONALD: Sure. So lockdowns, obviously, depend on who is in power, because they’re the individuals who are enforcing that law. I think as long as we have the current leadership in place and as long as governors are being left to make these decisions– in some cases, like, Florida mayors are being left to make these decisions– as long as that’s the way the system’s working, I wouldn’t expect shutdowns anytime soon. That said, we’ll see. If a Biden presidency were to happen, this could change very quickly.

AKIKO FUJITA: Dr. Steven McDonald, emergency medicine physician there in New York, appreciate your time today.


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