U.S. tops 21M COVID cases, deaths surpass 361k

Dean of Brown University School of Public Health Dr. Ashish K. Jha joined Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the surge in COVID-19 cases and how the U.S. can prevent the death toll from climbing even higher.

Video Transcript

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- 45 minutes until the closing bell and some of the latest statistics here in the United States regarding the pandemic. We have more than 369,000 of our countrymen dead. We have more than 21 million who have contracted COVID-19. Let's talk about this by inviting into the stream Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, along with Anjalee Khemlani, who is the correspondent who covers these things for us. And Dr. Jha, I'm reading different things, especially this note from Brown University that the next month, I mean, until mid to late February because of these new variants and the slow degree to which the vaccines are being rolled out, it's only going to get worse with the potential for another-- how many dead? Do you know the number offhand?

ASHISH JHA: There are a couple of different estimates. We think, certainly by the end of February, looking at 100,000 to 150,000 additional deaths from where we are. We're over 350,000. We could be, as we get into early March, be pushing 500,000, half a million Americans dying from this disease. It's pretty awful, and we're-- we're not doing any of the things that we need to be doing to get on top of this thing.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Jha, I know that you've warned about really this strain, the UK strain, as well as the South Africa strain and what that could mean. While we already heard experts say that mid-January is when we're expecting the peak for right now and you're talking about March, yet another sort of surge, I guess, is anticipated, as well as a call for mass-- so put it all together for us. What are we facing right now since this new strain has come about?

ASHISH JHA: Yeah, yeah, so a couple of things. I mean, you know, if we were speaking a month ago I was much more optimistic, partly because I believed in the targets of the Operation Warp Speed, that 20 million Americans would be vaccinated by the end of December and 50 million would be vaccinated by the end of January. That actually would have made an enormous difference. But that obviously not only has not happened, it's not going to happen by the end of January.

And two other things have happened. One is that we are starting to see the surge emerging from the holiday season in terms of number of infections. And we know that infections are followed by hospitalizations and followed by deaths. So the horrible death number from yesterday reflects infections that happened well before the holidays. We've got bad numbers to go still.

And then this variant is quite bad. It probably represents about 1% of infections in the US right now. All the models suggest that it will become the predominant source of infections by early March. And exponential growth is a really bad thing. A virus that's 50% more contagious is a really bad thing. That's what we're looking at right now.

And of course, our country is distracted by an insurrection and a federal government that is doing very, very little to help us get through this time. Put it all together, I remain optimistic about the long run. I still think April, May, June will be much, much better. But boy, the next couple months are looking about as bad as I had possibly envisioned it could.

I know that, you know, in the discussions about this we've talked about the vaccines as well, you know, whether or not they are going to be effective in blocking these two strains. It looks like some companies are saying that it's very likely. What are we waiting for in order to really have the final word on that?

ASHISH JHA: Yeah, so we need testing of that, right? And so what needs to happen is a couple of things. We could do a lot of laboratory testing, where you take, for instance, the antibodies of people who have been vaccinated and see if it neutralizes the new variant. Ultimately the proof is in clinical data that actually comes from people who have been vaccinated, looking to see how they deal with the new variant.

It is going to take us a little bit of time to sort it all out, but all the evidence so far suggests that the vaccines will be effective against the new variant from the UK, the B117, and probably the South Africa variant. But there's a little bit of like we're pushing our luck here. Because, you know, the more we let this virus spread, the more we're giving the virus options to mutate or chances to mutate. One of the many insane things about the let the infection run crowd was basically it was the, hey, let the virus mutate crowd. It was deeply irresponsible, and we're seeing some of the effects of that. Part of the reason there's so many mutations is because we're giving the virus so many opportunities to infect people and mutate.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: And looking really quickly ahead, we know that testing is still sort of an issue. We're not sure if many of the tests are going to capture these strains. And we're looking forward to, as you mentioned, the political background. Do we expect any change, any shift in that right now, and what can be done to make sure that we're capturing these strains?

ASHISH JHA: Yeah. So there are two different types of issues on testing. First of all, there's genomic sequencing. That's the figuring out which strain you've been infected with.

We do a small number in this country. Part of the reason this strain was identified first in the UK is because they sequence a large portion of their infected patients. We don't. We've got to start doing it.

We have like lots of genome sequencers. We've got a lot of technical capacity. It's not like we're a poor, technologically backward country. We just haven't done what we need to do. So that's one part of it.

The second is we need to get widespread testing available to Americans so that if they find themselves infected they can avoid going out into crowds and avoid doing things that are going to spread the virus. All of that needs to happen. I know that the new incoming leadership of the CDC understands this-- Dr. Wilonsky. The Biden team understands this. It's just going to take them a little while to get this all ramped up and going. And I don't think any of us has much faith right now that we're going to see anything out of the federal government over the next couple of weeks.

- Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. Thank you for joining us. Anjalee Khemlani, as always, keeping us up to speed on COVID-19 and the pandemic.