Got COVID questions? We did, too. So this week, "Skimm This" talked to US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy about what to call the latest spike in COVID-19 infections, how bad things might get before they get better, whether employers should be mandating employee vaccines — and what is and isn’t a HIPAA violation.
Here’s our conversation with Dr. Murthy. You can also hear it on this week’s episode of "Skimm This" at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday. Follow the show wherever you listen so you don’t miss it. And scroll down to the bottom to read through Dr. Murthy’s lightning-round answers.
Right now COVID-19 cases are rising around the country. We’re curious what our audience should be bracing for?
“I will say one of the hardest things to do during this pandemic has been to make predictions. There's a long, long list of people who have been proven wrong many times in their attempts to model this virus. But I think one thing we can relatively safely say is that we are still on the upward portion of the trajectory of this latest surge.
“We will likely see cases continue to go up for days more, and likely for several weeks. When they peak, and at what level it will peak, we're not sure. But what we've consistently seen is that there is a lag between cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. And usually when you see cases go up, a few weeks later you see hospitalizations go up, and a couple of weeks after that you see deaths go up. So I think we have to recognize that we will likely hear numbers that will be really concerning over the next few weeks.
“But here's one thing I think that's reassuring: What we should feel better about is that the hospitalizations and deaths will likely not surge to the same degree that we saw in January of this year. The reason is that we've got so many people fully vaccinated – 165 million people in this country. And we know now, very clearly from the data, that if you're fully vaccinated your chances of dying from COVID or being hospitalized due to COVID are dramatically lowered.
“And even your chance of getting infected is low. If you do have a breakthrough infection, it will likely be mild or even asymptomatic. So all pointing to the fact that the vaccine continues to be our pathway out of this pandemic.”
Last year, we described the COVID outbreak in different phases. So for example, when we were coming down from the initial peak, we were warned to be really careful, because we were going to see a 'second wave.' And now we're seeing this rise in cases, but we don't really have a name to describe what's going on. Is there a name for this phase of the outbreak in the U.S.?
“That's a great question. We think of this as the delta wave. But I'll tell you two things.
“One is I recognize just how exhausting this is. We hoped there would be just one wave, and then there was another wave, and then another wave in January, and now we're dealing with the delta wave. And look, for all of those out there, especially parents like me, and others who are thinking, ‘What am I supposed to do with my kids? How am I supposed to manage work? What's going to happen with going back to work? Are we going to be working from home again?’ – I understand how exhausting it is.
“But the second thing I want to say is that we are actually at a very different place now than we were last year when we were dealing with the [other] waves. And the critical difference is that we have the vaccine[s] now, which we didn't have last year. And so if you are fully vaccinated, you have more confidence that your health is protected, and you also have greater confidence that your family members who are vaccinated are protected as well.
“That’s the reason I got my mom and dad vaccinated, made sure my grandmother was vaccinated, made sure that my wife got vaccinated. And as soon as the vaccine is available for my two little kids, who are three and four, we will get them vaccinated too.
“So I know this is tough. I know we're being asked to hold on a bit longer. But we are actually able to do more in our lives right now because we are fully vaccinated. And that represents a big step forward that I don't want us to lose sight of, because we have made a lot of progress.”
Another side of the frustration we're seeing comes from those who’ve felt like they've done everything right. They were the ones who were wearing their masks. They're the ones who've gotten vaccinated, and they feel like a lot of the rules and the guidance we're hearing are really built around people who, frankly, broke the rules.
So how do you tackle the challenge of developing guidance and rules when it's people breaking the rules who are actually driving this part of the pandemic outbreak?
“Well, I gotta tell you, I've heard this from so many people in the last few days who have said, ‘Hey, I'm doing everything I'm supposed to, why do I have to pay the price in terms of these restrictions when other folks aren't getting vaccinated?’ And look, I get that, because the truth is, if we had more people in our country vaccinated, we may not be seeing the kind of surge we're seeing right now, we may not have to necessarily put masks back on in public indoor spaces, we may feel even better about our kids going to school in the fall.
“And that's why with pandemic responses, you realize really quickly this is more than about individual responsibility. This is about collective responsibility. It's about recognizing [how] the decisions we make don't just affect us. They affect other people too.
“And that's one of the reasons why it's so important when we talk to people, that we [say] it in those terms — that you're getting vaccinated not just for yourself, you're doing it so that other kids who are too young to get vaccinated are shielded from the virus. You're doing it so that kids can not only go back to school but can stay in school. You're doing it so healthcare workers who are just utterly exhausted and burned out after a year and a half of this pandemic have some semblance of relief because [when] more people are protected caseloads are going to come down.
“This is a real moment for our country, where we have to make a decision. Are we 300 million-plus individuals who are looking out for ourselves? Or are we one nation that recognizes that our health and our future are interdependent, and the decisions we make affect other people? I hope it's the latter because that is what's going to get us through this pandemic.”
In the last week, we've seen a lot of employers, including governments, mandating that employees be vaccinated. Now New York City is going to require proof of vaccination to go to restaurants and work out in gyms. Are you glad to see this shift in policy? Is this something you've been cheerleading quietly on the sidelines for?
“I certainly think it's very reasonable for organizations to move toward these kinds of vaccine requirements, and for one simple reason: if you're [going to your] school, hospital, or workplace, you’ll want a safe place for people to come, work, and learn. And many institutions are recognizing that the best way to make sure that the workplace is safe and the tools are safe is to make sure that people are vaccinated. And that's why I think you're seeing this larger movement.
“We have a history in healthcare settings of mandating and requiring vaccinations because we are [trying] to protect our patients. So I think this is a move in the right direction. I think it's going to help improve our vaccination rates. I think that ultimately you're going to see more organizations putting these kinds of requirements in place, because we all want to bring this pandemic to an end, and getting the vaccination rate up is the best way to do that.”
Unlike other countries, the US doesn't have a federal digital system to track who's vaccinated and who's not. We're hearing you might need one app to go to a restaurant in New York City, another in upstate New York, maybe another in New Jersey. Does it give you some unease that we are trying to do a vaccine mandate system built on a pen-and-paper system?
“Well, that's an important question. And there has been, thankfully, a lot of evolution in recent months in the private sector to build vaccine verification-type systems. And I think we're going to see that accelerate significantly as more institutions move toward a vaccine requirement for their workplace or for their school.
“I do think that that's going to continue to get better and more reliable. But yes, that's taking a little time, and there are going to be some pain points in that learning curve. But I think the bottom line is that these requirements are ultimately going to be helpful, and I think they're going to help bump up our vaccination rates.
“And it's not just getting the vax rates up. I hear from people all the time who say, 'I want to know that the workplace is safe. I want to know if people are vaccinated, and if they're not vaccinated, I want to know what precautions my workplace is taking to prevent me from being exposed or bringing infection home and inadvertently transmitting it to my young child, who's not vaccinated.'
"So these are the types of reasonable questions I think folks are going to ask, and that's why I think we're just going to see more and more of these requirements. "
Have you lost your vaccination card?
“I almost misplaced it twice, and thankfully my family helped me find it. So I'm in a good place now, but it was close.”
If we ask if you’re vaccinated, is it a violation of your HIPAA rights?
What's the thing you want to do the most when the pandemic is over?
“I want to go visit my family and friends across the country and in India.”
What are the odds that a vaccine for kids under 12 will be approved during the next school year?
“I think the odds are high.”
Is hand sanitizer always going to smell like funky old tequila, or are we going to go back to it smelling nice again?
“I think there's a real business opportunity there for any entrepreneurs who are looking for a market opportunity: a pleasant-smelling hand sanitizer.”
Finally — August, peak of summer, are you going to outdoor dine or indoor dine with your family this month?
“I'm probably going to do some outdoor dining. I've got two small kids at home who are not vaccinated. So I tend to be cautious about indoor settings. I wear masks when I'm indoors, and if I've got to take my mask off a lot, then I try to avoid settings like that.”
Skimm'd by Luke Vargas, Bridget Armstrong, Kamini Ramdeen, and Karell Roxas
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