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Pandemic Prevention Institute's Dr. Rick Bright discusses our future with COVID

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The year 2020 ended with a lot of hope that vaccines would soon bring the pandemic to an end. 2021 ends with a grim question of how much longer this goes on. As the omicron variant spreads, the CDC is now advising Americans to stay off cruise ships. Pediatric hospital admissions are up a lot. So what do we do now? We reached out to Dr. Rick Bright. He runs the Pandemic Prevention Institute at The Rockefeller Foundation. He's worked in the past at the CDC and also in the Trump administration, which he famously quit over its approach to the pandemic.

This question comes up because so many people around me are reporting positive tests or are worried about positive tests or isolating themselves. This is spreading so quickly. Should those of us who have not had COVID yet just accept that we're going to get it?

RICK BRIGHT: I don't think we need to accept that yet, Steve. I think we know how to prevent ourselves from getting infected with COVID. I do think that if you're really concerned about getting infected, you can stay at home, stay away from crowds and people. You can wear the N95 mask. You can keep yourself distanced from others. So there are a number of things that we can still do. And, certainly, if you do get infected and you're fully vaccinated, then that vaccine is going to help save your life.

INSKEEP: Let's be very clear; the vaccines do seem to be preventing hospitalization, but not in every case do they seem to be preventing infection. Do we have to accept that with omicron there is just a greater likelihood that people who are vaccinated will be infected at some point?

BRIGHT: There is with omicron. The vaccines, remember, were designed to prevent infection from the very first variant of SARS-CoV-2 that we saw coming out of China. And the virus keeps upping its game and changing, and that is putting a greater and greater strain on the vaccine and its ability to prevent infection. However, what we've seen is the vaccine is holding strong and preventing you from getting hospitalized or dying.

INSKEEP: You were very specific about one of your recommendations just now. You didn't say, go on to wear masks if you're around people. You said, wear N95 masks. Is that especially important to wear that high-quality mask now?

BRIGHT: It is especially important, Steve. It has been, actually, throughout the entire pandemic. If you're standing in front of someone who is infected and breathing virus on you and you only have a cloth face covering on, that mask is not going to give you much protection. But if you have a formfitting N95 mask on your face, it is going to block you from inhaling that virus. And if you're infected and you're wearing an N95 mask, it is going to block you from exhaling that virus, infecting other people. So it offers two-way protection, where those cloth masks really are fashion statements.

INSKEEP: Given that an N95 or a rough equivalent is so much better than a cloth mask and given that they're a little bit more expensive than, say, a cloth mask might be, should the administration be shipping out millions of free masks the way it has promised to do with tests?

BRIGHT: They absolutely should. The U.S. government and the taxpayer has paid for this scale-up in production of these masks, so Americans shouldn't have to pay an exorbitant price twice to be able to have those tools that they need to stop the pandemic.

INSKEEP: I think there were a lot of people who were very, very hopeful that this pandemic would be ending this past summer. And then there were people who were very hopeful that it might be ending with the delta wave. Now we have omicron among us. Do we have to adjust our thinking here and just accept that the pandemic is going to be with us for a very long time and the question is how we live normal lives with it?

BRIGHT: There was no one more hopeful of this pandemic ending last summer than me, probably. There are so many of us who are just exhausted, especially our health care workers and frontline workers. However, this virus is going to continue to change, and the reason we're seeing these variants is because we haven't vaccinated enough of the world where these variants are likely to emerge. And so if we really want to stop the virus from changing, we need to take an all-of-us approach and vaccinate the world and build a wall of immunity. Otherwise, we will continually be batting each of these variants. And I'm not sure it's a question of will we learn to live with this virus. I'm more concerned about a variant that will come through and cause a lot more of us to die from this virus.

INSKEEP: You mentioned a moment ago a piece of simple advice. If you test positive, stay home; isolate yourself, which not everybody has been doing. What did you make of the CDC's decision to shorten the recommended isolation time to five days from 10?

BRIGHT: Steve, it's clear the CDC is listening and they understand the challenges. However, they didn't go all the way to also balance the need for public health and to protect people and workers. If they had just said we can shorten the time for isolation and to make sure that you have two consecutive negative rapid antigen tests, then they would do a lot more to assure that workers going back into the workforce are not shedding virus, not infecting others, because if we are sending people back into the workforce too soon, we could infect many more of our colleagues and have many more people out of work than originally before they changed the guidelines.

INSKEEP: I want people to know that you quit the Trump administration over its COVID response in 2020. You have since advised President Biden during his transition to office. Now you've watched what the new administration is doing. Are they making any of the same mistakes?

BRIGHT: I'll have to preface this, Steve, saying it's really hard to get in front of a fast-moving virus. I think the Biden administration started out very strongly and did all the right things to get the vaccination rates up and do all the right messaging to make sure people were aware of this threat.

Where I saw, perhaps, the Biden administration trip is they guided Americans to stop wearing a mask if they're vaccinated, and they're continually relaxing those guidelines that I think are creating a more vulnerable population in the United States. I think if they could change their messaging on the right type of high-quality mask to wear, the N95s, I think if they can ramp up and get tests into the hands of every American, I think if they change the messengers and messages, they can even reach more people to get more people vaccinated. The virus has changed. We need to change. And that is where I think the Biden administration can win if they listen and do so.

INSKEEP: Dr. Rick Bright, thanks so much.

BRIGHT: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.