Vaccine mandates: Omicron ‘is disrupting workplaces all over the country,’ doctor says

Dr. Ali Raja, Professor at Harvard Medical School, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss hospital staff shortages, increasing hospitalization rates in regions where COVID cases are not decreasing, vaccine mandates, and testing in schools.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: The Supreme Court blocked vaccine mandates this week for big private businesses but allowed it for health care workers at facilities receiving federal funding. But is it enough to save an industry already under tremendous strain? Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Ali Raja joining us now to discuss this and the latest in the ongoing pandemic.

Doctor, good to see you again. President Biden yesterday promising to deploy military medical teams to six US states as they deal with extreme staffing shortages. Is that enough? What should be, what could be done to alleviate these issues at our area hospitals?

ALI RAJA: Alexis, thanks for asking. It is a start, but it's not nearly enough. We have so many staffing shortages across the country. I've got to tell you, we've had the Massachusetts National Guard here at Mass General for the past few weeks, and they've been so helpful and so great.

But it is just a little bit of help when we need a lot more. The fact is that with Omicron and the number of breakthrough cases that we have with it, even our fully vaccinated and boosted staff is getting sick. And while the symptoms are almost always mild, we need to be out for at least five days. And so that's making it really hard to staff our hospital and our emergency department.

KARINA MITCHELL: How worried are you, doctor, about the influx in hospitalizations? Because as we know, hospitalizations lag cases. And while cases are dropping in some parts of the country, they're still going up in other parts. And that means hospitalizations will continue to go up before they come down.

ALI RAJA: Karina, you're absolutely right. There's a lot of data out there that shows that in some states, overall prevalence of COVID might be plateauing out. But that doesn't mean that the patients who are unvaccinated or the patients who are elderly or have medical comorbidities won't continue to come into hospitals.

And I've got to tell you, our numbers have not plateaued. Right now today at Mass General, we have about 260 patients admitted to the hospital. That number has not plateaued, it has not dropped. So even if we're starting to see some of that plateau in and around Massachusetts, the hospitalizations are still on the rise.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Doctor, I'm sure you've seen the reports that some hospitals are in such dire straits they're calling back COVID-positive personnel who are asymptomatic. I know they put on all the protective gear, but does that make sense right now? And is that truly how bad things are?

ALI RAJA: I think it is reflective, Alexis, of how bad things are. But I still don't think that makes sense. But what I think it is is it's reflective of the desperation that our hospitals and health care systems currently are in a state of, because we need to staff these beds. We have sick patients coming in to ICUs, to medical and surgical floors.

They need nursing, and physician, and other clinician care. But it just doesn't send the right message to staff to say that even when you're still testing positive, come in. Because the biggest and most important thing to our staff is we want to help people get better. We don't want to put them at risk of maybe asymptomatic transmission.

KARINA MITCHELL: Doctor, it also kind of flies in the face right of the federal vaccine mandate for health care workers-- that they do need to be vaccinated. And then, of course, on the flip side of that, the Supreme Court then just blocked President Biden's push to make sure that all big corporations make sure their employees are vaccinated. So I'm wondering, how much confusion on the health care side-- for me on the consumer side trying to navigate it, it's completely overwhelming and confusing. But even on the health care side, doesn't it pose a lot of sort of chaos and just-- it's confusing.

ALI RAJA: It is, Karina. And you're absolutely right. I think that when we all thought that that OSHA mandate would be enforced, it made a lot of sense. It's really disappointing, actually, that it was blocked, because, quite honestly, it was very smart.

It required vaccination, but it allowed for mask-wearing and weekly testing if for some reason you couldn't get or chose not to get vaccinated. So it made a lot of sense. Now with that being blocked yesterday, a lot of health care workers are really puzzled, especially because we know how much Omicron is disrupting workplaces all over the country right now already. And not having that vaccine mandate just doesn't make sense.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Dr. Raja, what about the need for these Omicron targeted shots that vaccine makers say they are now trying to come up with? Is there evidence out there that supports the need for these tailored doses?

ALI RAJA: I don't think so, Alexis, not just yet. Now, the concept of having targeted vaccinations and targeted boosters for specific variants makes sense. But what we've seen with Omicron's actually that the current surge has likely peaked or is peaking. Hospitalizations, as we already talked about, haven't peaked yet. But if this current surge is going down, what we probably need is actually the shot specific for the next variant rather than the one whose peak has likely already come or passed.

KARINA MITCHELL: And then, Dr. Raja, I want to ask you really quickly-- you know, when is it time to pivot and turn this from a pandemic to an endemic? We've already seen some countries in Europe making that push. You know, we've sort of heard it a little bit here and there, but it hasn't been something that has come out of the White House, it's not something that they've really pushed forward on. But when does that happen? When's the right time?

ALI RAJA: Well, Karina, one of the things about a pandemic is that it's not just about the number of cases, but also the potential for overwhelming the health care system. And we are still there. If we could get our country to a point where the vast majority of people had had not just vaccines but also boosters, I think we could get to the point where when there were breakthrough cases, they would have hopefully mild symptoms and we could get along with our lives as normal. But when we're still in a situation where a lot of unvaccinated patients can end up so critically ill and potentially overwhelm the health care system, we're definitely still right in the middle of a pandemic.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: And, doctor, real quickly before we let you go, what is the key to keeping our kids safe in school? We see school attendance way down across the country as parents hold their kids back and they're not sending them in.

ALI RAJA: It is absolutely, without a doubt, testing. I'm fortunate to live in a town where our public school system has a lot of rapid tests available. Both our kids in two separate grades, fourth and second grade yesterday, we got emails that they had a close contact. But they're in a test and stay program, where they'll keep going to school and getting tested every day.

Unfortunately, that's not available at most school districts in the country. But that's what we need is testing.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting