The U.S. is “entering the worst phase of all” in terms of the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Hotez.
Hotez, who is a professor and co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, told U.S. News in a webinar as part of the Healthcare of Tomorrow virtual event series on Monday that the pandemic’s intensity “is just beyond anything that I could have ever imagined.”
“Unfortunately, the worst may still be yet to come,” Hotez said.
Combating the virus is a topic that Hotez said can make him emotional “because I feel it’s so important.” Citing a model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Hotez said that more than 150,000 more Americans could “needlessly” die from the virus in the coming weeks and months.
“For me, the emphasis now is doing everything we can to save lives,” Hotez said. Those efforts include wearing masks and social distancing, he said.
But the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine lamented that people still aren’t getting the message. This has become apparent as the U.S. breaks grim record after grim record, topping 11 million cases of the virus and nearly 247,000 deaths – more than any country in the world. Infections, deaths and hospitalizations are all on the rise as the holiday season quickly approaches.
View video from the U.S. News & World Report webinar “Healthcare of Tomorrow: A Conversation With Dr. Peter Hotez.”
Hotez said he recently called up his oldest daughter and told her not to come to Texas for Thanksgiving, explaining that it’s too risky.
“There is a sadness there,” he said. “I think more and more conversations are going to have to happen like this now across the country to say, ‘this is not the year to have a big Thanksgiving celebration or a Christmas celebration.’ There will be many Christmases and Thanksgivings to come if we can just get everyone through the other side.”
World Braces For Another Wave of Coronavirus
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel: vaccines.
Pfizer and Moderna have both announced that their COVID-19 vaccines are at least 90% effective.
While Hotez cautioned that the companies have not released the data behind their press releases, he said both vaccine candidates are looking “really promising.”
Hotez predicted that a “significant percentage” of the population could be vaccinated by the spring. He also encouraged people to take whatever vaccine is available and not to wait for a specific vaccine.
“Get what you can because every day you walk around without virus-neutralizing antibodies in your system is a day when you could get (COVID-19) and get very sick,” he said.
Hotez and his Baylor colleagues announced Monday that a low-cost vaccine they’ve been helping develop has begun a clinical trial in India and that results should be available by February.
Politics and anti-science rhetoric have interfered with the coronavirus response, Hotez said. He encouraged people to drop the political allegiances and the defiance of science when it comes to taking steps to prevent the spread of the virus.
“This is not a time for this. Just save your life and your family member’s life. We’re not asking you to do this forever. It’s just a short period of time. Think how terrible you’ll feel if you lose a mother, father, brother or sister over the next few weeks knowing that all we needed to do is get them to the other side, to get them vaccinated. Then they’ll have a normal lifespan.”
The U.S. coronavirus response has been hampered by a lack of leadership from the federal government, according to Hotez.
“It was a failed strategy,” Hotez said. “We needed a well-crafted, coordinated federal plan with directives to the states, preferably led by the Centers for Disease Control (and Prevention) to depoliticize it, that identified to every state what they needed to do to save lives. And we just didn’t have that.”
When asked about the future administration of President-elect Joe Biden, Hotez said that while the government could have an approved vaccine by then, Biden will still face challenges.
“The hard part is going to be still making Americans understand that the vaccines are not perfect, as good as they are,” Hotez said, adding that “there still could be a lot of virus circulating, even after vaccines come out.”
For that reason, “we’re still going to need masks and social distancing to some extent, and that’s going to be a tough message,” he said.
Biden will have to convince Republican governors and local leaders to take on this messaging as well.
“We’re going to have to figure out a way to bridge this horrible divide that’s tearing our country apart and bring people together over this,” Hotez said.