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Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, blasted President Joe Biden's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic during a CNN interview on Tuesday, saying that the administration has "dropped the ball."
"And so you saw President Biden yesterday acknowledging pretty bluntly they need to do better when it comes to testing, because we are seeing this nationwide shortage of those rapid at home tests. It's very difficult to just walk into a store and get one,"
CNN's Kaitlan Collins said. "And what we're hearing from officials like Dr. Fauci is that they believe they're going to have this solved by mid-January, in a few weeks. But how critical is the window that we're missing right now for testing?"
"I think it is incredibly critical,"
Jha responded. "And I cannot believe this is where we are almost two years into the pandemic. Everybody saw it coming. We knew we needed more tests. I think the administration had dropped the ball on this. They focused a lot on vaccines, which is terrific. Vaccines are a really, really important part of this, but did not pay enough attention to testing. And I think it has been really costly in this holiday season."
TRANSCRIPT PROVIDED VIA CNN:
DR. ASHISH JHA, DEAN, BROWN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: First of all, good morning, thanks for having me back. Yes, I do think it was long overdue. I've been actually calling for a shortening of the isolation period for a while now, really for two reasons. One is the evidence suggests most of the spreading that people do happens for a couple of days before they have symptoms and two to three days after they have symptoms. So waiting five days is really reasonable.
And second is asking people to be isolated longer than they need to be is hugely burdensome to them. And so I think this CDC move is exactly right. And if people follow what CDC has laid out, it will still keep people safe and let them get out of isolation more quickly.
AVLON: And, Doctor, you made the point that this is about incentive structures, and if there is a more reasonable window rooted in sound science, then that will increase people's ability or instinct to participate. We see the distinction between asymptomatic cases and symptomatic, but what about for folks who have vaccinated versus unvaccinated? Should there be a distinction there?
JHA: I think there is. Even though I applaud the CDC's decision, this is not exactly how I would have done it. I actually think they should have done this a bit differently for vaccinated versus unvaccinated, because we know vaccinated people, when they have a breakthrough infection shed for a much shorter period of time, so this is really reasonable for vaccinated people. I think they could have made that distinction, and I wish they had.
COLLINS: I do think it's surprising they did not make that distinction or recommend that people get a rapid test at the end of those five days as these discussions were going on behind the scenes. I do want to note something you noted earlier, 10 days of isolation was a lot, especially if you're a single parent or if you're relying on hourly wages. So do you think this is going to make people more willing to actually follow the guidance?
JHA: I hope so. I hope so. Look, anytime you put a really high burden on people to do something, they're less likely to do it. So if you are an hourly wage worker and you feel reasonably fine, maybe you have mild symptoms, you're much less likely to get tested if you know that a positive result will mean 10 days of not being able to work, of being isolated. Five days feels more reasonable to a lot of people. And I think as long as it is the right thing to do from a science and public health point of view, I think that's what we should be doing, I think it will make a difference.
AVLON: Doctor, we're seeing a fivefold increase in pediatric hospitalizations in New York City. So do you expect cases to spike after the break when kids return to school? And if so, do you think some communities, no one wants to do this, but do you think some communities should consider delaying opening schools in person by a week or so?
JHA: Yes, so what we know is that most kids get infected from their families and people around them. So I don't think that schools are the major source of spread. A lot of this spread that's happening right now is because kids are spending time at home, with older siblings, with parents, grandparents, uncles, friends. That's how a lot of the spread is happening. I have seen no evidence of getting kids back into school will somehow cause infections to go up further, so I actually think kids should get back to school. And we now know how to keep kids and teachers and staff safe in schools, so I would like to have everybody back as soon as they're able to get back.
AVLON: That's great.
COLLINS: And part of that aspect of keeping kids in school, keeping teachers in school, is testing. And so you saw President Biden yesterday acknowledging pretty bluntly they need to do better when it comes to testing, because we are seeing this nationwide shortage of those rapid at home tests. It's very difficult to just walk into a store and get one.
[08:10:01] And what we're hearing from officials like Dr. Fauci is that they believe they're going to have this solved by mid-January, in a few weeks. But how critical is the window that we're missing right now for testing?
JHA: I think it is incredibly critical. And I cannot believe this is where we are almost two years into the pandemic. Everybody saw it coming. We knew we needed more tests. I think the administration had dropped the ball on this. They focused a lot on vaccines, which is terrific. Vaccines are a really, really important part of this, but did not pay enough attention to testing. And I think it has been really costly in this holiday season.
I hope we fix it in January and February, but we're going to have to have a real effort to make sure there's plentiful, cheap, ubiquitous testing everywhere in the country. That's where we should be in this pandemic right now.
AVLON: Certainly, you make a good point. Vaccines have got to come first, but without testing, you're flying blind. So two questions about testing. Do you have any concerns about the efficacy of these rapid tests for the Omicron variant? And then how often should people ideally be taking the at-home test if they can get them, once they go about their normal lives?
JHA: Two great questions. All the data so far suggests the rapid tests work just fine against the Omicron variant. Obviously, the different companies are also testing it out, but the preliminary data suggests it should work just fine. So I'm not super concerned.
In terms of how often you should be testing your set of, it really depends on who you are and what kind of life you have. And I think, for instance, people should test before they get together for the holidays or for a New Year's Eve party. I think if you're in a high risk situation, high risk work, maybe testing a couple of times a week just to make sure you're not infected and walking into a nursing home infected, that kind of thing can make a big difference. And, of course, if you have the mildest of symptoms, you should get tested because that's a good way of identifying the disease early. So lots of different context, and that's why we need really tens of millions of these tests widely available every day for people to use.
COLLINS: One quick question for you, going abroad for a moment, you're seeing in Italy where there is concern about new cases. They're imposing an outdoor mask mandate, hoping to curb the surge there, saying that unless you're playing a sport, you have to wear a mask when you're engaging in outdoor public activity. Do you think that is something that is appropriate in a time like this, where we are in this pandemic when it comes to vaccines and treatments and testing?
JHA: I don't, and here's why. We have not seen much evidence that there is spread in the outdoor setting. Theoretically it can happen, and I'm sure it has happened, but it is pretty infrequent. And what I want to do is make sure that if we're going to ask people to change behavior, we focus on the high risk situations. Outdoors is not particularly risky. Indoor large gatherings, absolutely essential people wear masks. I want to focus our attention on those much riskier situations and not get distracted by things that I don't think are going to make a big difference.
AVLON: Fascinating. Dr. Ashish Jha, thank you for your insights as always.
COLLINS: Thank you.
JHA: Thank you.
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