Optimism in the Time of Corona
Tanzina Vega: It's not controversial to say that 2020 has been a rough year, and things don't exactly feel like they'll be picking up anytime soon. The coronavirus continues to surge throughout the country as the US surpasses more than 220,000 deaths from COVID-19. Last week alone, 17 states reported record numbers of new cases. Experts are warning that the rising number of cases is likely to get worse as we head closer to the winter and spend more time indoors. Yet, despite the bleakness of the pandemic and the prospect of spending more time apart from family and friends, there is hope that this won't last forever.
Donald McNeil Jr. is a science and health reporter for The New York Times. He recently wrote an article called A Dose of Optimism, as the Pandemic Rages On where he outlines the strides and advancements we have already made fighting the coronavirus since the pandemic began and how this rapid progress may, in fact, indicate the pandemic could be over sooner than we thought. Donald joins me now. Thanks for being with me.
Donald: Hi, Tanzina, how are you?
Tanzina: Why did you write this article? There's so much fear about this, and we're reading now that the United States is anchored into a third wave. Why did you think it was important to go and write this piece?
Donald: I didn't so much go to write it as I was talking in a departmental meeting at The Times about why I was optimistic in the long term. There was this moment of shock among the editor saying, "Donald, you?" Because I've been the the gloomy Cassandra of this thing since January, saying it's going to be really bad. I look, I'm not a Pollyanna, this winter is going to be bad. There's no question about it and people need to be really careful.
As Tony Fauci says, we need to hunker down, but I have high hopes for January, February, and ultimately for this all to be over sometime in the first half of next year, I hope, because I think monoclonal antibodies are going to be approved pretty soon. I think, although there will be very small amounts in the beginning, they can make a difference depending on how they're deployed.
I also see of seven vaccine candidates that are being worked along, some of them have got to work and if only three of them will work, we'll have enough doses for all Americans by sometime next year, and I think people will take them, despite the skepticism now, so long term I'm optimistic.
Tanzina: There's definitely a lot of skepticism about so much of this and partly that's also because our officials, our federal officials have also given mixed messages. We've heard things from the CDC that are different from what the Trump administration is saying and on and on. Broadly speaking, is the United States more effective at combating the coronavirus now than it was in March, particularly when it comes to how doctors and nurses are treating patients?
Donald: Yes, we're more effective in many ways. There's been lots of resistance, we learned that masks work, and frankly, I think the FAA should have immediately issued orders that everybody has to wear a mask on an airplane, or they go on the No Fly List. I think, subways and buses, and everybody-- masks should have become mandatory. They didn't. It's because of the resistance in the country we've been slower than we might have, but we're getting better, more people are wearing masks. Despite what you see at Trump rallies, generally across the country a lot of people, especially older people are wearing them.
Also, if if you get the disease and you end up hospitalized, we're doing better at saving you. We're knowing when to use dexamethasone, knowing when to use Remdesivir, although, that's a little controversial now about how it works, proning people, people are getting the hospitals earlier because they're using pulse oximeters to realize they've got pneumonia. We're doing better just on the front, even better than we did in spring.
Then, we've produced a bunch of vaccine candidates, many more than any other country in the world other than China, and we're taking more time to test ours, which is the ethical thing to do. Some of them have got to work. No vaccine is perfect and no vaccine is without any side effects, but it's a whole lot better than letting the disease wash through.
Tanzina: According to a CNN poll, only 51% of people surveyed said they would get a coronavirus vaccine. Where do you think that skepticism is coming from mainly?
Donald: I think that skepticism is because there's a combination of natural fear of vaccines that's going on in this country, unfortunately, preyed on by the anti-vaxxers lobby. There's the fear that the President was going to rush a vaccine out before it was ready in order to help himself get reelected, and yes, if that happened, I'd be skeptical. I wouldn't take it if it was only, "I'm Donald Trump and I approve this vaccine."
Once we get through the trials, and once serious legitimate doctors who understand vaccinology like Tony Fauci, like Francis Collins, Paul Offit, Peter Hotez, people you're used to seeing on TV talking about this, once they say it's good, I'll be in line, and I think other millions of Americans will. Then assuming nothing goes wrong, and that's assuming nothing goes wrong-- I don't think anything really unexpected will go wrong, because we know a lot more about making vaccines than we used to. The phase one and phase two data and the monkey data all look pretty good.
But assuming nothing goes wrong, once people see that, gee, a lot of my neighbors have gotten this vaccine and nothing terrible is gone wrong for them, and I can either take this vaccine that I'm a little scared of, or I can wear a mask for the next five years and home-school my kids and never go to a movie and never go out to a restaurant and never fly on an airplane, I think a lot of people will get over their skepticism.
This is like when I was a kid and polio vaccine came into existence. Things went wrong with the polio vaccine. Some kids died with a bad manufacturing accident, but people were so terrified of polio because they'd gone through it. They'd seen kids in iron lungs, they'd seen kids die, they'd seen kids walking on crutches, that parents line their kids up in droves to get polio vaccine back then. It was a different era, but that was a real disease and this is a real disease. We haven't really faced anything like this since the 1950s.
Tanzina: Are we as Americans getting better at being able to cope with this. What I mean by that, Donald, is that back in February, March, I remember everybody was just scrambling to get groceries and scrambling to even figure out what a mask was and how to make one and where to get one. We've now been in this for about seven months. We're heading into the winter and the fall. I mean, we're in the fall, we're heading into the winter. I, for one, have been slowly stocking up the pantry and trying to make sure that yes, indeed, I have enough toilet paper without hoarding, but making sure we're prepared. Is that part of the reason to be optimistic as well, Donald, that Americans for this phase are, at least, maybe better at preparing?
Donald: Yes, absolutely. I think people who have the sense not to get caught up in the politics of it, and not to make it all about a fight about whether to wear a mask or not because of what it says about who you support for the presidency. People who can avoid that I think have now gotten, just as you said, used to the idea of, "I need so much toilet paper, I need so much food, I can go shopping in a safe way. I do know who I think is safe to hang out with because I know they're being really careful, and who I don't think is safe."
The mistake is when people who drop their guard or think they're immune and go to parties. Actually, small parties is one of the main spreading events, the CDC said this just last week, that people who were holding slumber parties or birthday parties or just cocktail parties, that's where you have-- 90% of them are okay, but the other 10% there's a superspreader event. I know this happened to friends of my girlfriend's son in Brooklyn just recently, that they held a party and I'm glad he didn't go because he's a smart guy, but the seven people from a party got infected and one of them seriously ill.
Most people are being very careful about this, and a few of those-- When people you know get stung and somebody gets sick and somebody gets hurt, you figure out that that was dangerous, and maybe you'll be more sensible next time. I'm hoping that people are learning the lessons now from seeing the disease spread out.
Tanzina: The President of the United States himself has gotten the coronavirus, at least that's what we understand. He has made a big effort to say that it's okay, that people shouldn't be afraid of it. He's given conflicting messages about whether or not to wear a mask in public, and it's essentially downplayed some of the risks here. Is there room to be optimistic if President Trump is reelected?
Donald: I get in trouble at times by commenting on politics, well I'm going to stay a- [crosstalk]
Tanzina: That's okay. If you don't feel comfortable that's fine.
Donald: I will tell you from a medical point of view, the President is dead wrong about not worrying about the virus. He was very sick. He doesn't want to admit that but there's the fact that the doctors gave him Remdesivir and monoclonal antibodies and dexamethasone indicates that something was going seriously wrong. He needed oxygen and that was pretty fast. He got the monoclonal antibodies. That didn't surprise me. He tweeted at one o'clock in the morning that he was infected. I woke up at five because I don't sleep very much, immediately went to my computer and wrote to our White House correspondents, Maggie Haberman, and Peter Baker, "Hey, ask whether or not he gets monoclonal," because if I was his doctor, that's what I would do.
Ethically, you should only get them in the context of a clinical trial but when you're president, you can do things, you can get things that the average Americans can't get. He got a drug that average Americans cannot get. There are only about 50,000 doses of that drug in the whole country right now. People who get the virus are not going to get this, what may be one of the Lazarus drugs.
He could have had a really bad outcome and Chris Christie could have had a really bad outcome. He got the Eli Lilly's drugs, the other ones, the same ones, monoclonal antibodies, and he recovered. That's not going to happen to everybody. They are not enough of them available for everybody. People need to take this seriously.
Tanzina: Is there one thing that you're not so optimistic about that you think people need to do better about or anything that we should really continue to be vigilant other than, of course, the threat of the virus?
Donald: People need to stop being so resistant to the idea of wearing masks when they're indoors and people need to understand that forming in groups indoors is dangerous. Outdoors, okay, the wind blows away the cloud of droplets that comes out of the one person in the room who might be spewing virus. There's very little chance, but indoors, this droplet cloud could hang in the air for many minutes and people inhale little bits of it.
We've seen rooms where between 30 and 50 people were all infected in the same room from one person spreading virus. That church choir episode was an example of that. That's really dangerous and people need to pay attention to that. It's serious. It can happen to you.
Tanzina: Let's hope people remember that as we head into the colder months. Donald McNeil Jr. is a science and health reporter for The New York Times. Donald, thanks so much for sharing your reporting with us.
Donald: Thanks very much for inviting me.
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