Doctor: U.S. needs to prepare for ‘a potential perfect storm' between Omicron variant and winter

Dr. Elizabeth Clayborne, adjunct assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and emergency physician at UM Capital Region Medical Center, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the risks of resurgent coronavirus heading into the winter and what can be done.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: And but I want to bring in Dr. Elizabeth Clayborne now, adjunct assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and emergency physician at UM Capital Region Medical Center. Got all that? All right, doctor, good to have you here. So we got a little taste of what we're probably going to hear President Biden talk about in just a short while. I just would like to get your preliminary thoughts. Do you think that this plan goes far enough? Would you like to see things done differently?

ELIZABETH CLAYBORNE: I think that all the steps that have just been outlined are absolutely necessary. And I want to remember to be very clear that this is a serious time that we could take significant steps backward in our battle against COVID-19. The winter months already were a time that we were expecting to have some surge, just by the nature of people going indoors, the cold, dry air, which makes it more easily transmissible with viruses.

And really, what we're preparing for is a potential perfect storm with the omicron variant now potentially landing on our shores and making COVID-19 more likely to surge because it is potentially more easily transmitted to others. So I think that the steps that Biden has outlined are absolutely needed. And I actually think we probably do need to do a little bit more.

Specifically, you know, I think we kind of got caught off guard with not doing great surveillance. It was our colleagues in South Africa that picked up this variant. It probably has been circulating the globe for some time. And I think that one of the things that I'd like to hear more from our administration is what we're going to do about doing better surveillance so that we can pick up variants in the future before they actually land here and so that we can be prepared ahead of time, instead of always playing the catch up game.

KARINA MITCHELL: And that leads me to my next question, doctor, because I was actually surprised how long it took for the first case to be detected here, much later than in many other countries. It's now been more than 20 countries. I think 23 countries have the latest count. But I want to turn your attention to this new case about this Minnesota man that traveled to New York City, was at the Javits Center, presumably quite a large convention. And he was there between the 19th and the 21st. We're just hearing about this case now. I've done some contact tracing certification through Johns Hopkins myself.

So how effective is contact tracing at this point? Because we're at the timeline where it's about two weeks out from when he was at the convention. You know, is it likely that there's been some sort of community transmission? And then at a time when people are really suffering from COVID fatigue, so a lot of people, if they're even falling sick, aren't going to get tested. So is this something that sort of indicates that maybe the genie is already out of the bottle?

ELIZABETH CLAYBORNE: Yes, I would absolutely say that that's true. I mean, we already know that there are going to be more and more variants of the coronavirus. That is just the nature of what viruses do. They mutate. And if we give them more opportunity to replicate, and that means more people are being infected, then there's going to be more variants in the future. So in addition to surveilling for them, we really have to just focus on the name of the game, which is protecting ourselves against them, which means being vaccinated or getting a booster if you're eligible.

And I think that's why a lot of Biden's plan is really focused on that, with bringing in the family clinics, making sure that we're focusing on the 100 million Americans that are eligible for a booster to get a booster. Because regardless of what variants might spin off in the future, we need to have some layer of protection. And so if-- the focus right now I really think needs to come back to the basics, which is that we have to go back to masking, social distancing, being very careful with travel, and encouraging people who are not vaccinated to get vaccinated.

This is a dangerous game that people continue to play. I mean, there's not going to be any end in sight. This is where most people have agreed this is going to be an endemic, meaning a lifelong virus that we will always have around. And there's no way to protect yourself if you do not vaccinate. So although I think it is absolutely necessary for us to maybe beef up our surveillance, to do a better job with contact tracing, those are all things that really are not as preventive as actually just encouraging people to do the things that prevent them from getting infected and transmitting to others. And that is getting a vaccine and getting a booster.

I will tell you anecdotally, as an emergency physician, I have started to already see in the ER a lot of incidental COVID positive patients, meaning patients who are coming in for other issues. And then we happen to find out that they're COVID positive. That is a little bit alarming to me. That, on top of the fact that we just had immense travel that took place over Thanksgiving, is really building up to an anticipated huge surge in COVID in the winter months. And I know everyone wants to go into the Christmas and holiday season looking forward to seeing their families and loved ones. That is not going to be possible if we do not get this under control.

And I think people need to be mentally prepared that some of their plans might be interrupted and there might be stricter regulations such as the testing after international travel that Biden's administration has pointed to. And that is what we need to do. So I want people to be mentally prepared to grapple with that and understand that it's really in their best interest not just for themselves, but for their family, for the children and our community, and for our entire world, really, to help us get this under better control.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Yeah, doctor, thanks for sharing that, that story of what you're seeing there on the ground in the ER. You know, when you look at the numbers, a little over 59% of this country is fully vaccinated. So we still have a lot of folks who haven't even gotten one shot. Yet the president's plan is going to push for those boosters. Should the focus be on getting those who haven't even been vaccinated with one shot vaccinated? And what about getting more shots into the arms of developing nations? Is that where the focus should be?

ELIZABETH CLAYBORNE: I have always said that it's really important for us to make sure that the vaccine is accessible to underdeveloped countries, countries that do not have as many resources as the United States. That is the area of the world where the majority of these variants are probably going to spin off because they have such huge populations that may be unvaccinated and more likely to develop a variant. That said, we still need to do all these things simultaneously.

We need to encourage our unvaccinated population in the United States to wake up and maybe look at what the risk is right now and choose to get a vaccine and ask the right questions so that they're comfortable with that. We need to encourage our population that's eligible for a booster to get a booster because that's the best way to prepare themselves. And we need to absolutely make the vaccine more accessible to other countries.

I will add that a lot of other countries are battling the same issues that we have in the United States with misinformation. So not only is it an access issue, but a lot of their populations are hesitant to get the vaccine for the same reasons that we have hesitant groups in our country. So, spreading good information, making sure that you're-- making sure that you're getting information from reputable sources like physicians such as myself and people who have really looked at the data, understand what's going on, not necessarily downplaying the concerns of vaccines for those who are really on the fence about that, but making sure that you're giving them the opportunity to ask the right questions so that they can be comfortable getting vaccinated is important in the United States, as well as abroad.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Yeah, accurate information vital. Dr. Elizabeth Clayborne, thanks so much for your time. We appreciate it.