COVID-19: The Omicron hit to rural areas will be ‘a couple of weeks delayed,’ doctor says

Dr. Stella Safo, NYC-based HIV primary care physician, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the threat any COVID variant poses to individuals who are unvaccinated or have pre-existing conditions, not giving into already developing post-pandemic attitudes, and comments on President Biden's most recent at-home testing purchase.

Video Transcript


- Welcome back to Yahoo Finance. President Biden announcing just a short time ago the deployment of six teams of medical military personnel to hospitals in key parts of the country to help combat the COVID deluge. That as hospitals continue to be overwhelmed. Take a listen to what he had to say.

JOE BIDEN: Today, I'm announcing our next deployment of six additional federal medical teams, a total of more than 120 military medical personnel to six hard-hit states, Michigan New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island.

- I want to bring in, now, Dr. Stella Safo, an NYC based HIV primary care physician. Doctor, thanks for being here today. The average hospital now is showing that 1,000 hospitals are reporting daily critical staffing shortages. New York City is the epicenter. I'm wondering what are you seeing and hearing on the ground about the strain that hospital staff are feeling?

STELLA SAFO: So we knew this was coming, in part because at the end of December we saw the testing lines that wrapped around the blocks. And all of us in public health and clinical medicine said this is going to end up showing up in the hospitals even though we've been hearing Omicron doesn't make you sick.

We have to remember, we're a country that has over 35% of individuals who are not vaccinated. And any variant of COVID, unfortunately in the unvaccinated, is severe. And so we are starting to see that these numbers are going up. And what I'm seeing is hospital staff that normally work in the ambulatory centers are being redeployed to inpatient centers.

So if you're trying to see your doctor at the outpatient center that you'd normally go to, they may not be available because they've been called in to take care of sick patients. And so this is affecting really all lines of medical care at this point.

- Doctor, I want to talk about what we're seeing in the UK, and whether or not you think we might start seeing it here in the US. Because Omicron's cases, they're saying, may have peaked in the UK. Hospitalizations in England are starting to fall.

Do you think that the US is far behind? And I know we're in the thick of it right now. But do you believe that we are near the peak, and dare I say, perhaps closer to the end of this pandemic?

STELLA SAFO: I think we have a very wide geographical area and a span. Right? We're almost the entire North American continent. And so I think what's going to happen is some areas are going to peak. I think New York is peaking and plateauing. And hopefully in a couple of weeks we'll start to see those numbers come down, while other areas start to take off.

And so as a collective, as an entire United States, we're going to feel like we're in this a bit longer because especially different areas in the Midwest and the South rural areas are going to be getting hit by Omicron probably a couple of weeks delayed than some of the sites that the president has deployed additional services to. So I think we're going to be in this, unfortunately, in what feels a little bit longer than South Africa, and what feels longer than we're seeing in the UK.

- But I wonder, Doctor, there are more European countries, like for example, the UK, Spain as well, that are pushing for this now to be termed more of an endemic, something that we're just going to have to live with and sort of deal with that. Is that something that we should be doing, there should be a bigger push in this country to move in that direction?

STELLA SAFO: We've already moved in that direction. The messaging that we're getting, that is kind of like the letter ripped messaging that I think our federal government has really relayed and conveyed is already suggesting that people should just kind of resign themselves to getting COVID.

But I want to remind you and our viewers, and remind all of us, that the US unfortunately also carries quite a bit of chronic illness. And so folks who have renal disease, diabetes, hypertension, all those individuals are still at risk for some complications with COVID. And so when we talk kind of cavalierly about, you know, everyone will get COVID. Yes, many people would get COVID. Not everyone will get COVID, even if they're vaccinated, and be OK.

There are people that I work with, people that I know, who have compromised immune systems who have gotten all three vaccines, whose immune systems are still compromised enough that if they got COVID, they'd be really sick. Those individuals cannot afford to kind of be cavalier about, well, I'll get COVID at some point and that's it. Because they could get COVID and die.

And so I think there's a real fear that many people have, still, of what this means for certain high risk populations. And I think we really have to be sensitive to that, at a point where I think we can still control the spread through things like masking and really being mindful about what kind of things that we have opened that are non-essential where people are getting infected currently.

- Doctor, something else that President Biden talked about today was procuring another half billion COVID-19 tests to offer for free to people in the US. That's on top of the other 500 million he had promised. We really haven't seen this come to fruition yet.

But is that enough, I guess is my question, a billion free COVID-19 tests? Maybe it's a starting point. But is it enough to really make a difference and make a dent in our fight against Omicron?

STELLA SAFO: I think you've said it. I think it's a starting point. We shouldn't, I think, underestimate COVID. Every single time we've thought that we're getting ahead in some way, COVID kind of forces us to respect it all over again.

And one of the things that I think the COVID strategy requires of us is it requires us to be multifaceted. So testing is one strategy. But testing doesn't mean anything if you test and you have COVID and you go right back to work because you're asymptomatic and Omicron is mild and everyone says we'll get it anyway.

So testing is really important. And I'm so glad to see the administration help us get access to tests if it also comes with people changing their behaviors, that once you test positive, you're isolating for at least seven days. Despite the five day kind of recommendation, quite a few folks remain infectious even at that time. And so you're isolating for a period of time. You're wearing high grade masks.

We have to kind of understand that there's no one solution that'll take us out of this battle that we're in with COVID, but rather multiple. And I think testing is one of them, and we have to pair it with other things that we know have been helpful.

- I wanted to ask you, where do you stand on whether kids should be involved in remote learning as opposed to in-person learning right now as cases surge? I know the government says we want to keep schools open. Parents need to be able to get to their jobs.

But we are seeing kids and students that are testing three, four, or five times, and they say they are feeling a lot of stress. And they worry about being in big classrooms, in big schools, and bringing home the virus to maybe elderly grandparents, moms who are pregnant. And they're feeling that stress. Where do you stand on that?

STELLA SAFO: That's absolutely right. I think the stress on this generation is just really incredible and is something that we're not even talking about just yet because we're still in this crisis. I think it absolutely has to be a hybrid response. One of the things that we talked about earlier is that Omicron moves fairly quickly. And so instead of kind of being in this for months, we're anticipating that we'll see this peak over a few weeks.

And so I think that we really have to be, in that case, open to the reality that if you are asking for remote learning, you're not asking for remote learning for four months. You're maybe asking for it for two months while your area is in a particularly bad portion of COVID spread with rates of over 30% to 40% community transmission.

I think that has to be something that we entertain because it will probably do better for us in the long term than being so strident that kids have to be back in person, when kids are back in person with teachers that can't be there because they're sick. And kids are back in person and are super stressed in a way where are they even learning at this point.

- Yep, I agree with that. All right. We will have to leave it there. Doctor Stella Safo, New York City based HIV primary care physician. Thanks for stopping by today.