By Heather M. Butts, JD, MPH, MA
Dr. Cameron Webb, JD, MD is a senior policy advisor for COVID-19 Equity on the White House COVID-19 Response Team. He spoke with the Amsterdam News for a Q&A about the current state of COVID-19, protecting yourself and family during the holidays, and RSV. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
AmNews: Where are we now with respect to COVID-19?
Well you know we’re at a really interesting and important moment in the pandemic response. If you look around the country, cases, hospitalizations, deaths are down significantly from where they were previously, almost to the point where people are lulled into a sense that this is over and I think what they may be forgetting is how we got here. We got here because we made at home tests widely available so people could know whether or not they had COVID-19 and they could prevent themselves from spreading it to other folks is how we got here because people were able to wear masks and we had the community levels and they knew when the threat was higher in their community and they needed to mask up.
We got here because of vaccines and because we had such a really successful vaccination campaign for the primary series of vaccinations. Now, what’s happened over the last year is that, over time, we know that immunity wanes. The same is true with other vaccines. It’s just that over time your body has less of a robust response and so that’s why boosters are so important.
AmNews: What should people do to protect themselves and their loved ones over the holidays?
We’re just in time for this fall winter season. We’ve got these new updated vaccines. We’ve got again the tools we need to keep hospitalizations [down]…over 32 million folks have gotten those vaccines already and so it’s good news you know it’s certainly making progress but…we want to continue to push that number upwards particularly with the holidays coming but people gathering with each other whether it’s for Thanksgiving or…in December for the winter holidays …it’s a really important time for everybody to be as protected as possible…we know we’ve got what we need to have success, the question is if everybody’s going to stay tuned in enough to make sure they take advantage of those tools.
If you have any symptoms whatsoever, even if you have one test that came back negative, if you’ve got symptoms, take that higher level of precaution to keep your loved ones safe. So that’s…cold or flu kind of symptoms. It’s not worth it to…expose other people because we do know that for some folks, their first and sometimes their second test may be negative very early on in the course of an illness with COVID but it becomes positive later, so again if you just wake up on [the holiday] morning, have some symptoms, don’t show up. Tell your Auntie to make you a plate.
The next thing is, even beyond that, testing is a really important part so make sure that you’ve got tests with you and available. I’ve been encouraging folks, telling them if you’re going to a big family gathering of some sort, encourage everybody to just do a COVID test that morning before they show up for the meal, and the reason is that gives you that peace of mind that even those asymptomatic infections, we may be able to keep track of…peace of mind that everybody who showed up for dinner was at least negative this morning right and that’s good news.
You can go to COVID.GOV, put in the county where you’re going and say okay, I’m going to need to bring a mask just like you put in the county where you’’re going and check the weather and you [say] I’m going to need to bring an umbrella, same thing right it’s making sure you’ve got the appropriate protection for the place where you’re headed that is an important part of the considerations for people.
AmNews: What is RSV and why is it so dangerous to children and other vulnerable populations?
RSV is Respiratory Syncytial Virus. It’s something that we see every season, so every cold and flu season. It’s one of those upper respiratory infections that’s pretty commonplace. I think what we’re seeing this year both with RSV and our early indications with influenza is that these past couple years the benefit of masking is that fewer people have these infections.
In addition to fewer people having COVID-19 than otherwise would have, there’s less masking this year and so you’re seeing these viruses come back. In fact they’re running into folks who haven’t seen this in a couple years and so they’re running into folks who don’t have any built up immunity from it and that’s why we’re seeing higher levels.
It’s important for a few reasons. It can cause people to get pretty sick, but also it can fill up hospitals. We’re seeing that in our pediatric hospitals full of kids with RSV it really affects the youngest in the population and the oldest in the population. From our standpoint…not going out if you’re sick, making sure you’re being courteous and thoughtful of others with any symptoms you may have, hand washing, I’m going to say that again, hand washing is something we haven’t talked about that enough in the last year or so because we developed these other tools and people stopped focusing on the the 20 seconds of washing your hands—well you know that regular hand washing is so important for limiting the spread of these other viral upper respiratory infections, there’s a lot that we can do to keep people safe.
For additional resources around COVID-19 please visit www1.nyc.gov/site/coronavirus/index.page or call 311. New Yorkers can find locations of where to pick up free rapid tests by calling 311 or by visiting: www.nychealthandhospitals.org/covid-19-testing-sites/ and can schedule an at-home test by calling 929-298-9400 between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. seven days a week. COVID-19 testing and vaccination resources can also be accessed on the AmNews COVID-19 page: www.amsterdamnews.com/covid/