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Omicron: Military medical team helping New Jersey amid coronavirus wave

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University Hospital CEO and former NJDOH Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss how 25 military personnel are helping with staff shortages.

Video Transcript

EMILY MCCORMICK: We want to stick with the topic of the virus now with Dr. Shereef Elnahal, University Hospital CEO and Former Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health. Dr. Elnahal, thank you so much for joining us this afternoon.

The University Hospital in Newark was one of several across the US to receive federal staffing support during this latest COVID wave. Can you tell us more about where things stand now in terms of your staffing and capacity situation, and how this federal staffing support has helped with that?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. So we're very grateful for 25 women and men in uniform who arrived just last week and within 48 hours got to work in our hardest impacted areas of the hospital-- our emergency room, our ICUs, and really across the hospital when it comes to the two physicians we have the honor of working with as well.

And so they're really working in the places that have been hit hardest. We're down to about 250 or so people out due to all reasons, including COVID and issues related to COVID like daycares closing, schools closing temporarily because of staffing issues, and other problems. But that is down from about a 350 as recently as about 10 to 14 days ago.

And so we are seeing an improvement as cases recede in staffing. But these military folks are extraordinarily helpful. And they still have a lot of work to do with both COVID and non-COVID patients across our hospital.

ADAM SHAPIRO: When we talk about these variants, and I know they're calling this latest Stealth, but there are variants all the time of all kinds of viruses. And even with COVID, not all of the variants grab on, right? They don't become what we saw with Omicron and what we saw prior to that with Delta. So what's it going to look like for us to finally let go of this fear every time there is a headline that says, Stealth Variant, or sub-Stealth Variant? What's it going to take?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Well, I think Anjalee was right in identifying this concept of immune evasion as the key question here. Because the Omicron variant has spread so far and wide in the United States already, you can argue pretty strongly that a large portion of the population has immunity conferred by the Omicron variant, which does also protect, according to laboratory studies, against previous variants.

And so the main question will be for this sub-variant and any future variants is, how much does it evade the immunity conferred by previous variants and vaccination? And so far, there's not too much of a reason to believe, knock on wood, of course, that the Omicron-related immunity that people get when they contract the illness would not be protective against this variant. It's very similar.

Again, it's a sub-variant to Omicron. And so hopefully that won't mean yet another surge this soon after Omicron. I think that's what most epidemiologists are expecting. But only time will tell because the data will tell all in the coming weeks.

EMILY MCCORMICK: In terms of the vaccination situation, as of today, some 10 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered globally. But of course, we've been seeing developed nations have much higher rates of vaccinations than developing nations. I'm wondering, what does this unequal distribution suggest about the path forward for the pandemic globally? And does that change in any way the calculus and the projections about when we might get to a state of COVID being endemic rather than a pandemic?

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Yeah, it's a really critical issue. I worry about the three billion people across the world who have not yet had a single dose of any type of vaccine. We don't know the degree to which Omicron or any variant of COVID-19 has penetrated these populations, which means that this is a largely non-immune population. And in that population, you have a much higher likelihood that future variants will form.

Remember the story around the Omicron variant-- very likely started in an under-vaccinated country despite their best efforts, because they didn't get, frankly, enough of a supply of vaccines early on and had distribution issues. And of course, these are countries that also have higher incidence of other infectious diseases that actually cause lower functioning immune systems.

And the theory is an immunocompromised person or people is where the Omicron variant came from. And so the baseline disparities in public health contribute to this, but also the fact that, again, three billion-plus people have not yet had an even single dose. And so I do think the entire Western world and developed world, certainly, should focus on this squarely if we want to avoid yet another surge of this disease.

ADAM SHAPIRO: How do we focus on that squarely? Because, I mean, we did see shipments of vaccine to some of these spots, but it clearly wasn't sufficient.

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: Yeah, you did see shipments. I think the United States has been leading the pack here and contributing doses across the world. But it's not just distribution. It's not just the supply, rather, it's also distribution within these countries. And so I think we have to think hard about how to improve the in-country distribution systems and actually provide assistance-- technical assistance, resources, everything in between-- to actually help with administration.

Remember that administration is a logistical task. That's difficult. It took the United States a little bit of time to figure out. We're a very rich country comparatively. Imagine what those infrastructures look like in the developing world. And these are all human beings who are susceptible to this virus. And so I think we have to think more broadly, other than just vaccine supply here, and think about how we're actually going to be delivering these shots in arms across the world.

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