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U.S. COVID-19 cases and deaths decline

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The U.S. has reported its lowest daily infection rate since October, but more contagious variants of the coronavirus are spreading. CBS News' Errol Barnett spoke with Dr. Jerry Abraham, director of vaccine programs at Kedren Health, about what we need to do to stay on this downward trend.

Video Transcript

- Some hopeful trends we can report right now in the coronavirus pandemic. The US has reported its lowest daily infection rate since October. Johns Hopkins is reporting nearly 54,000 cases as of Tuesday morning. That is a stark contrast from the more than 200,000 daily cases we saw just last month. Deaths are also down. The US reported just under 1,000 deaths on Monday.

But the lower numbers don't mean we're out of the woods just yet. Joining us now to talk more about this is the director of vaccine programs at Kedren Health, Dr. Jerry Abraham. Doctor, great to have you with us. Of course, we're speaking with an optimistic tone because we're seeing a downward trend in cases right now. But we are seeing a rise in the variants of COVID-19, also delays of the vaccine rollout. So how do you assess this moment and what we need to do to keep it on a positive trajectory?

JERRY ABRAHAM: Sure. First, thank you for having me. And I'll say, I really appreciate you're focusing on the positivity and the optimism. I wish y'all were here at Kedren right now and feel the positive energy and optimism that we have. We believe that getting everybody vaccinated is the solution to overcoming this epidemic, this pandemic.

But yes, of course, you know, the downward trend is very exciting. I have a feeling that that is attributable to people actually adhering to the guidance and the public health recommendations-- wearing masks, socially distancing, you know, taking this very seriously. And so we really appreciate everyone playing their part, including, when it's your turn, you roll up your sleeve and you get that shot. And that's how we're going to get closer to that 70% herd immunity that then we'll really be able to bend that curve entirely.

To your point about the variants, though, you know, what we're seeing with Pfizer and Moderna, both are effective against the existing variants. And that's what all evidence currently points to. As we saw in South Africa with the AstraZeneca rollout, there were some concerns about that mutant or that variant. And they have been holding on that. But currently, there is no reason to believe that Pfizer, Moderna, and of course, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that's in development and expected to be presented to the FDA shortly will all be affected. So right now, recommendation is when it's your turn, roll up your sleeve, get your shot, and get excited.

- Well, it's good to see positivity and excitement from the folks on the front lines. I know that your role, in so many different ways, exhausted and doing the best you can. But we also want to be realists. As we've reported before, there's concern about inequity, specifically in Black and Latino communities. According to the LA Times, though, you fought to change that in South LA. Can you just expand on that a bit more, the model you created to ensure that things were being distributed more equally?

JERRY ABRAHAM: Sure, thank you for allowing us to share our story. This is what we've been doing since the 1960s, since the dawn of the Watts Riots here in South LA when African-Americans didn't really have a place to go for mental health care. That's how we started here at Kedren Health as an acute psychiatric hospital. That's what we did when COVID hit back in March of 2020, and we realized we had to help with the testing. So we started doing city and county testing.

And most recently in December, when Pfizer and Moderna received their emergency use authorization, we knew we had to be here as a resource, a pillar in this community, to make sure that Black and Brown healthcare workers had access to this lifesaving essential medicine, this COVID-19 vaccine. And we knew we weren't going to stop there.

We knew that as soon as seniors were eligible, that we would be that place where, when they had nowhere else to turn because they're not part of large health systems, because they're shut out often because of the disparities in healthcare that exist today, because of some of the medicalization of racism that has been around for decades, we really wanted to be there as a resource.

We also wanted to make sure that Black and Brown vaccine hesitancy was addressed and that everyone knew that this wasn't a Tuskegee situation. It wasn't Henrietta Lacks. This was no social experiment. But rather, this was a vaccine that is theirs. And when it is their turn, they should line up and get it. And that's what we're doing here every day.

To your point, we made it very sure that people knew that those living in dense housing, those living where there's lots of COVID, like here in South LA, they are priority. They are first in line when they come to Kedren, and we make sure they get their shot.

We also knew that we weren't going to allow barriers, like not having the internet, not having cell phone, not having email, not having transportation, not having documentation status in this country. Those were not legitimate barriers. Grandma, who is at home and vulnerable and cannot leave because she's homebound, that's not a barrier for her not getting vaccinated. And so those are the types of obstacles that we've overcome.

And we've found solutions. We've put people over data. But getting data in is critical. We've continued to vaccinate at high volumes where we're doing it equitably and making sure that the data is reported accurately back to the state and to the federal government.

But really, ultimately, the main message here is more vaccines, more hands to administer them, and more resources and funding. And if we do that, we can easily vaccinate one million people here in the first 100 days of the Biden administration. And that's our commitment. But we just need more vaccines now.

- I did a story in Ohio recently of a Black security guard at a hospital who was reluctant to get the vaccine, even though he was there first in line because of his job. He was convinced by his father, who is immunocompromised. You know, the whole family had doubts for the reasons you've outlined. And that communication eventually led to him deciding to get the vaccine. So that direct communication you're speaking about to address concerns in Brown communities really is key. Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci said he believes we'll see a vaccine for first graders by the fall. What more can you tell us on what that would mean?

JERRY ABRAHAM: Yeah, first, I just want to say about that story you brought up about by the security guard, that's exactly what we do here at Kedren. That's why we're so good at it. We engage people. We educate them. We answer their real questions about how scary this vaccine is. And if we answer all those questions and there's no real medical contraindication, they roll up their sleeve and they get this shot.

As far as what Dr. Fauci announced, you know, this past week in terms of first graders, elementary school children perhaps having access to a vaccine come this fall, that is where we're at. We're seeing in development, you know, the Pfizer vaccine. There's a test right now for 11 to 15-year-olds, efficacy trials.

So it looks like all points indicate that by the next school season, there very well may be an opportunity to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the regular vaccine administration schedule for children. And that will help all of us get back to school. The faster we all get vaccinated, the faster we get back to work, the faster we get back to school, the faster we get back to loving our loved ones, hugging and kissing, and going on with our best lives that we possibly can.

- Which track, though, would you recommend in order to do this as quick as possible? Because there could either be a focus on vaccinating adults, or staying ahead of the other variants and putting resources in the adaptations vaccinations for those strains would need.

JERRY ABRAHAM: It's really a complicated question. It's not either or, but all. We have to do everything to get to 70%. What we know even with the variants-- what we've seen with the vaccines is, like, cases in nursing homes have dropped dramatically. What we've seen is that it has impacted severity, hospitalization rates, and fatality. So I say get what we have out as quick as possible. And that's the commitment Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are making in terms of increasing production. And hopefully, the Defense Production Act and the Biden administration will be able to help with that tremendously.

But of course, watching the science very closely, seeing what our NIH and the CDC are discovering, working with our partners at the World Health Organization and others around the world to stay ahead-- and make sure that our because we're building these technologies and platforms, this new vaccine, it will be easier for us to augment and modify and respond to new variants in real-time.

And so, I think that's really one exciting piece of the science story, is that we're not going back to the drawing board. We're going to take what already works and make it better. So that's what I would say, is all of it. More vaccines today, but let's stay ahead of the curve and make sure that we're modifying our vaccine technologies so that they will best combat any variants that are emerging.

- And a better place to be and wondering which is the best route to take, which is the fastest track, at least we have those options. Dr. Jerry Abraham doing amazing work there in LA, thanks so much for your time today.

JERRY ABRAHAM: Thank you so much for having us.