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Emory University Doctor On How Far We've Come In The Fight Against COVID-19

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It does feel like the U.S. overall is getting closer to containing this pandemic. At San Francisco General Hospital, Dr. Vivek Jain tweeted this past week that it was a truly momentous day because, for the first time since March 5, 2020, they had zero patients with COVID-19 in his hospital after dealing with three deadly surges.

VIVEK JAIN: This was a major milestone in our fight against COVID. And although it was just one day, one moment in time, for us, really, in San Francisco, it was a moment of reflection on all the progress we've been making in the fight against COVID. I would say the hardest times are always when we have patients who have either passed away or have been very sick. We've been fortunate to help a lot of patients recover, so we are doing well in that regard, but we do have a lot of work ahead.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And his hospital is not alone. The number of hospitalized patients is at its lowest point in almost a year across America. Joining us now to talk about that is Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious diseases expert at Emory University in Atlanta. Welcome back to the program.

CARLOS DEL RIO: Happy to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I know we have to be cautious. About 600 people are still dying each day, and there are worries about variants and the slowing pace of vaccination. I know it's not mission accomplished. And we will talk about the challenges ahead both here and globally, but your reaction to the good data you are seeing?

DEL RIO: Oh, it's just simply amazing. I mean, I think we saw this pandemic turn around really quickly, and I think it shows the power of vaccinations. I mean, the vaccines are incredible, and science really has delivered vaccines that we, quite frankly, did not realize how effective they were going to be. We knew from the clinical trials that they would prevent death, they would prevent hospitalizations, but we've learned now that they also prevent you from getting infected and therefore from transmitting to others. So we're seeing a significant drop in cases. We're seeing a significant drop in mortality, in hospitalizations. It feels great. I mean, I tell you, yesterday, I went for the first time in my - in a year and - since March of last year, went to an indoor concert. You know, we wore masks and socially distanced, but it was just amazing to be able to see live music inside a hall.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did that feel?

DEL RIO: It - the smile was in everybody's face; you just couldn't see it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Yeah, the masks. I mean, 60% of U.S. adults have received at least one dose. That means that the virus has less places to circulate, right? The more people who are immunized, meaning literally now immune, the lower the case count. But we are still seeing hot spots around the country, and vaccine rates do vary from place to place. Does that worry you?

DEL RIO: You know, it worries me because we do have areas of the country where vaccination is not where it needs to be, and we have to get more people vaccinated in those areas. And that's where the risk is. The risk is when you have unvaccinated people, and we've seen that with other infectious diseases. We see it, for example, with measles. The moment, you know, measles vaccination rates in a community drop, you can rapidly see an - a spread of an infection in that community. So you're absolutely right.

You know, people talk about this concept of herd immunity - I don't like to talk about herds because we're not herds, we're communities. I like to talk about community immunity. And you want to see your community immunity go up. And the more people in your community that are immunized - and I don't know if your community is your family, the people you hang out with, you know, your church, your school - but the more people - your work - the more people in your community are immunized, the less likely there's virus transmission in that community, and therefore the safer you are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How worried are you about the variants? A new study out today shows that the Indian variant that has been so problematic for the United Kingdom and India is still controllable by the Pfizer vaccine, but only after two shots. One shot gives little protection.

DEL RIO: Well, again, you know, I want to say I'm worried about variants, but I think that the data shows that the currently available vaccines are effective against those variants. So if you're worried about variants, get immunized, get vaccinated.

My biggest concern, Lulu, is not what's happening here, but what's happening around the world. While we are doing great, and, you know, 61% of adults have received at least one dose of vaccine in our country, the rest of the world is nowhere close. There's a huge outbreak happening in India. There's a significant outbreak happening in many Latin American countries. I was talking to colleagues yesterday in Argentina. They were telling me how bad things are there. And, you know, when there is uncontrolled transmission of this virus, like is happening in those countries, the chance of more variants emerging increases dramatically. So I think we, as a country - the U.S. has really - has had to start really doing much more to control the global pandemic because I - we're not going to be safe until everybody's safe globally.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what does that mean? You have called for the Biden administration to donate vaccines to other countries. Is that what you think should happen?

DEL RIO: Well, you know, it needs to be that, but it also needs to be the ability to give other countries like India - like other countries that can produce vaccines - the ability to lift the patents so they can actually produce a vaccine. This is not just giving them a vaccine, but it's also giving them the ability to start manufacturing the vaccines. Places like the Serum Institute of India and other places around the world - Argentina, Mexico - are setting up manufacturing capabilities, and I think we need to have multiple places manufacture vaccines in order to be able to get vaccines to everybody globally.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Turning back here to the United States, I am curious about masks. Do you think the CDC dropped the mask mandate too soon?

DEL RIO: You know, I think the CDC did the right thing based on the science. I think there was a little bit of a problem with the communication about, you know, the implementation. The science is correct. If you're vaccinated, you don't need to mask. The problem is, how do you know who's vaccinated, right? That's the issue. We don't have a way to certify who's vaccinated.

So like yesterday, when I went to the, you know, Woodruff Arts Center Symphony Hall, I don't know who's vaccinated and who's not. And therefore, in an indoor setting where vaccinated and unvaccinated people are mixing, we all need to be masked. Now, if there was a way - some sort of digital passport somewhere to know who's vaccinated and who's not, then you can say, well, everybody's vaccinated here, therefore we can drop our mask mandate. The issue is exactly that. And what I tell people is, if you're going to be in a setting - an indoor setting where vaccinated and unvaccinated people are going to mix, I recommend you continue wearing a mask.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is Dr. Carlos del Rio from Emory University. Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRANDBROTHERS' "EZRA WAS RIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.