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The holiday’s caused a lot of deaths: Dr. Michael Saag on rising COVID-19 death toll

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Dr. Michael Saag, Associate Dean for Global Health at University of Alabama at Birmingham joins the Yahoo Finance Live panel to discuss the latest on the COVID-19 virus and COVID vaccine news.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: An overwhelming majority of states across the US now reporting a big spike in COVID-19 deaths as we inch closer to that 400,000 number. Joe Biden, meanwhile, as he prepares to take the oath of office tomorrow, rolling out his plan to accelerate the vaccination process, as we've seen so many states struggling on that front. Let's bring in Dr. Michael Saag. He is associate dean for global health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Saag, it's always good to talk to you.

Let's talk first about what you're experiencing on the ground there. You said that you are kind of dealing with a triple wave. It's the holiday gatherings before you even recovered from the Thanksgiving gatherings. And you've seen a significant spike in activity there. Walk me through what you have witnessed over the last several weeks.

MICHAEL SAAG: Right, well, deaths, certainly, did not take a holiday. In fact, the holidays are causing a lot of deaths. And what I'm finding is that we're all seeing numbers on the screen that tells us the case loads and all that. But living it every day as a health-care provider, and I'm working mostly in the outpatient setting, it really is on the verge of being overwhelming. We're getting through it. We're trying to keep our head above water.

But to me, the most disturbing thing as a physician is that I'm literally having to change what I do in my daily practice where, for example, if I was thinking about sending someone to the emergency room, I think twice and three times about other alternatives because the ERs are so overwhelmed. And over time, that's going to take its toll. We're getting through it. It's just a big challenge.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and the other big challenge out there, too, as we're seeing all the struggles in terms of care in hospitals, is also the vaccine rollout, too, which seems to have stalled, at least in terms of the current supply and states grappling to try and get that out. As you watch all that play out, obviously, the tradeoffs here in terms of vaccination rate and case counts rising seem to be moving in the right direction, when you think about maybe five vaccinations for every new case of coronavirus. But where do you put us right now in terms of getting ahead to getting most Americans vaccinated here by the timelines people want, perhaps seeing 30% the current trajectory by March?

MICHAEL SAAG: I think we're headed in the right direction. I'd say we're at a bit of a transition point. We've gotten enough attention on the notice that the stockpiles are out, but production is picking up. And there's going to be increased attention in a major way, both in terms of funding to the states, which they didn't have before to distribute, and a big surge, a big push from the population to get vaccinated. That's a good thing.

What I'm really heartened by, as we've just talked about a second ago, is the cases are exploding. But, as you said, the vaccines are starting to have an impact. The health-care workers, most of us have been vaccinated. Our employee health referrals are coming down dramatically now because of that.

And we're using monoclonal antibody a lot in the outpatient setting. Remember, that's the Regeneron and Lilly products that President Trump got Regeneron. And it shortens, of course, dramatically, especially in people over the age of 65. And that keeps people out of the hospital and gets them well a lot faster. So we're excited about that.

AKIKO FUJITA: Doctor, let's talk about what the President-elect Biden has now laid out in terms of how to speed up the vaccine. He's talked about establishing these mobile vaccination sites, going beyond the pharmacies themselves. Do you think that will accelerate it? Does it complicate the process? How does that address the bottleneck that's been happening over the last several weeks?

MICHAEL SAAG: As long as it's well organized and well thought out and we can track who gets vaccinated and who doesn't, I think we'll be OK. What I'm excited about is the fact that there's a lot of attention being paid to this by the upcoming administration. You're hearing about it daily from them. I think that the task force that's been put together is superb. The plan, at least what I've seen of it so far, seems logical and a great approach.

And, as I said earlier, funding is following. And that makes a big difference. The health departments, which have been under siege trying to get the vaccines out, do that without additional personnel. They are using the same people who help keep track of STIs and sewage treatment plants. And they're having to now turn their attention. Giving more funding to them will enable them to hire people and get us out of this mess.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, a lot of people making quite a bit around the fact that states are grappling with very little federal support. But when you think about maybe what the incoming administration has planned there, some people, including Alex Azar, have noted hitting a million vaccines in terms of distribution a day wouldn't necessarily be all that impressive of a goal, considering on Friday, we saw more than a million vaccinated just in that single day. So if you extrapolate, it wouldn't necessarily be a big ramp up.

Do you think that maybe the Biden administration, by setting that 100 million vaccinations in the first 100 days, might be sandbagging the number a little bit? Would you expect it to potentially increase in the next couple of weeks once they take office?

MICHAEL SAAG: Yeah, I'd take 2 million vaccinations a day. That'd be great. So maybe there is setting a bar for lower expectations. And if we exceed it, fantastic. That'd be great. Our goal is to get as many Americans vaccinated as soon as possible. That's how we bring the end to this.

And remember, lurking in the background are these variants that are emerging. So far, they still are neutralized by the antibodies created by the vaccine. But it's a little bit of a cat-and-mouse game. We've got to stay in front of it. And that means vaccinating a lot of folks before these variants have a chance to mutate to a point where maybe the vaccines won't work. So we need all hands on deck in any way we can.

AKIKO FUJITA: The concerns about those variants have led to the incoming Biden administration to essentially say we are going to hold the line here on travel restrictions for those travelers coming in from Europe. Is that the right call when the variant's already in the country?

MICHAEL SAAG: The variant is in the country. It's not even clear if it came from outside, because there's pathway's when these viruses replicate that are just kind of common. So it's possible that a variant emerged in Great Britain and simultaneously in Colorado. That's possible. But nonetheless, I think whatever we can do to keep the variants at bay while we vaccinate people is really essential.

And remember, it's more than just Europe. South Africa has a strain that appears to be even more mutated in the sense of avoiding neutralization by monoclonal antibody, and Brazil as well. So what we need to do is buckle down. Get the vaccines out. Try to get people to do all the things they can do in terms of staying safe. And in the meantime, I think the travel restrictions for now make some sense to me.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and variants being the operative word there, plural, as we continue to learn more and more about those from around the world, including here in the US. But Dr. Michael Saag, associate dean for global health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, always love having you on, man. Be well and good luck out there.

MICHAEL SAAG: Thanks. Thanks so much, Zack.