As COVID-19 deaths in the United States bypass 229,000 and positive cases across the country rise above 9 million, Dr. Anthony Fauci has grim news for Americans: “Unless we do something to turn this around, we’re going to have a very difficult, very painful winter.”
The head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases joined Silicon Valley leaders virtually Oct. 30 to disucss the country’s pandemic response thus far.
Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Ahmad Thomas led a one-on-one interview with Fauci at the top of the three-hour forum, for which more than 2,000 member companies, elected officials, start-ups and nonprofits had registered.
“We never got out of the first wave, that’s really the problem — we’re now averaging, on a weekly basis, about than 70,000 cases per day,” Fauci said. “More than 40 states are upticking with increases in cases that will ultimately lead to increases in hospitalizations and, ultimately, increases in deaths.”
Fauci recalled his Senate testimony from June 30 in which he warned that, if the country did not get control over the disease, the country may see 100,000 cases per day. He remembered being “blasted for that,” as critics said Fauci was being alarmist.
“We’re getting close to (100,000 cases per day) right now,” he said.
As the country braces for the colder winter months, Fauci reiterated his concern over many outdoors activities — as approved by the CDC for socially distancing and congregating — will soon move indoors, and that could lead to “problematic situations” for many.
In the Silicon Valley, the risk is slightly lessened due to the warmer climate but there have still been some recent spikes in Santa Clara County. As of Oct. 29, there were 4,213 new cases, leading to a county total of 24,665.
To combat the rise of cases and help to decrease the infection rate, Fauci again shared the five things he believes would drastically alter the future months: universal wearing of masks, physical distancing, avoiding congregated settings and crowds, doing things more outdoors instead of indoors and washing hands.
Status of vaccine
Fauci shared his hope of vaccinations in the near future. Currently, five of six vaccine trials are in advanced Phase 3 trials, with anywhere from 30,000 up to 60,000 volunteers per trial.
“We should be able to get an inkling of whether or not we have a safe vaccine sometime in mid-to-end November, beginning of December,” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic — you can never guarantee when you’re dealing with vaccine development, but I’m optimistic based on preliminary data from the Phase 1 study that we will, in fact, have a safe and effective vaccine.”
Once a trial is confirmed successful, public health officials should be able to begin administering vaccine doses by the end of this year or in the beginning of 2021. Then, there will be major vaccine production and dissemination over the subsequent four to six months of 2021; Fauci said he hopes by the third quarter of 2021, the vast majority of Americans will be vaccinated against the virus, provided people want to get vaccinated.
For those that are skeptical about the vaccination, Fauci said he understands their concerns, alongside the mixed messaging coming from Washington.
“The promise that’s in place is independent of political manipulation,” Fauci said. “I will be very open with the American public about my impression of whether this will be safe and effective.”
On the local front
Fauci and Thomas later were joined by panel of local experts, including Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody and former Santa Clara and San Benito Counties Health Officer Dr. Marty Fenstersheib to discuss COVID-19 reaction on the local, regional, and state levels.
“Locally, one of our great priorities has been to enable in-person learning for kids,” Cody said. “We know that the distance learning has helped to magnify and accelerate educational inequities; however, we also know that there is great concern, rightly so, from teachers and staff about the risk of coming together for in-person learning.”
Cody said Santa Clara County’s guidelines require younger students to stay in small, stable cohorts and limit the mixing of outside activity. For older students, it’s more important for them to remain physically distanced and masked in congregated settings.
Fauci said across the country there are different levels of infection that would require discussions about infection rates, infection response and infection mitigation.
“We do know children can get infected and do get infected — they certainly, statistically, don’t get as seriously ill or even ill at all … but they certainly can transmit infection,” Fauci said. “Having said that, the program and the approach that Dr. Cody outlined makes absolutely perfect sense to me, where you are in California.”
Fenstersheib spoke to the balance of economic issues in relation to the pandemic, emphasizing the “risk reduction policy” the business community has focused on.
“It’s a struggle, it’s a balance, but we can’t open businesses until our infection rate is down — which it is, and we want to keep it there. We don’t want to go backwards where we would have to shut down businesses again,” he said. “It’s a community-wide issue, and we have to all work together to make everyone else safe.”
Looking forward, the biggest logistical issues for distributing vaccines across Silicon Valley will be the storage and handling requirements, number of vaccinations per person, and distributing the priority populations.
“You can’t just assume local clinics are able to adequately administer the vaccine without the proper training and equipment,” Fauci said.
Cody reiterated those points, stating that at the local level: “We don’t know which vaccine it’s going to be, but we need to plan for those local logistics — we have those plans well underway.”
Fenstersheib said in Santa Clara County many communities of color are distrusting of the government, which leads to greater concern for vaccine dissemination.
“We’re very concerned about getting the messages out about the eventual safety of the vaccine,” he said. “The people in these communities that are hardest hit will be able to take advantage of the vaccine and be assured and comfortable.”
Thomas said the SVLG will continue to have regular meetings with Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, and will host COVID-19 roundtables with local leaders to discuss ongoing steps for progress.
The full forum will be available virtually on the SVLG website and YouTube Nov. 2.
Contact Grace Stetson at [email protected] and follow her @grace_m_stetson on Twitter.