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Slowing the spread of new COVID strains by changing public attitudes toward vaccinations

The data are preliminary so far, but there are concerns that some new COVID strains are more infectious, more deadly, and possibly even more resistant to the vaccines -- and experts stress mass vaccination is crucial to slowing the spread. Dr. Atul Gawande, a staff writer for the New Yorker and a Massachusetts's surgeon leading an inoculation campaign, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The data are preliminary so far, but there are concerns that some of the new COVID strains are more infectious, more deadly, and possibly even more resistant to the vaccines.

    Given that, experts stress mass vaccination is crucial to slowing the spread, because studies show that vaccines can prevent severe disease, hospitalization and death.

    William Brangham has our conversation about what can be done, and changing public attitudes.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, Dr. Atul Gawande leads one of those mass vaccination campaigns in Massachusetts with his company CIC Health. He is a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

    Dr. Gawande is also a staff writer at "The New Yorker" magazine. And for its latest issue, he visited one North Dakota town when it was suffering a terrible COVID outbreak and also a very public fight over the public health protections meant to contain it.

    And he joins me now.

    Dr. Gawande, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    First about this vaccination program you're running, your company, in a sense, was created to step into the breach, initially over testing, now over vaccinations.

    When we look around nationally, some states have done well. Many have really struggled with this. Do you have a good sense as to why this initial stage has faltered so much?

  • Dr. Atul Gawande:

    First of all, everybody was late to planning. This should have been part of the planning process months ago.

    States were coming forward asking for that planning process, but it really didn't get under way until after Thanksgiving. We got involved to enable mass vaccination at Gillette Stadium, Fenway Park, Reggie Lewis Track and Field here in Boston.

    And the challenges really were that the planning only got under way maybe the week before Christmas for enabling this kind of mass scale that we're now hitting.

    So, the good news is, people have had six weeks, eight weeks of getting these operations up and running. We're now past two million vaccinations a day that hit the peak over the weekend. And we are well on our way to reaching 100 million vaccines in arms by 100 days.

    But we have to move even faster because of the mutant strains that are spreading that you mentioned.

  • William Brangham:

    Yes, how concerned are you about those? Because there is a concern both about they might be more contagious. One of them might be perhaps more deadly.

    How — it seems like we really are in this race against time to get the shots before the variants truly spread.

  • Atul Gawande:

    Yes, we have across the world tens of millions of active infections and a very large base of infections here that become a petri dish for lots new mutations.

    And some of those mutations that are emerging and spreading, one from the U.K., one from South Africa, one from Brazil, these are more contagious, and, in some cases, have some less effectiveness with the vaccines.

    I'm very concerned about these. The doubling time, the rate at which you see this virus spreading to double its number is only 10 days. Florida already is at 5 percent of all infections there have the U.K. variant, which we know to be more contagious. That means that, as our counts drop right now for the wild type that had been the dominant one in the U.S., we are seeing a rise in this more contagious version, which means, around March, we can expect real trouble, unless we really double down, not just on vaccines, but on our masks.

  • William Brangham:

    I'd love to turn now to your piece in "The New Yorker," which you focused it in Minot, North Dakota, when that region was going through its worst stretch of the pandemic and they were having this very public, open fight about a mask mandate in town.

    Can you give us a synopsis? What was the debate about? That masks don't work? That the virus isn't such a threat? What was the debate going on there?

  • Atul Gawande:

    It was a fierce debate over both an argument over whether masks work, and then also about whether this was a really serious infection worth attacking or not.

    And then, at a more fundamental level — and I really engaged in discussion with people across the spectrum of opinion — it was — people were riven about the fact that there was pain and suffering among — not just about the public health consequences, which us experts have tended to focus on, but also they their arguments weren't being heard about their jobs being damaged, about not being able to have their kids in schools, and they just wanted to return to normal.

    That fierce debate was had out in a city council that forced the issue. The state would not adopt the mask mandate, but the city council did. And, over time, what you saw throughout North Dakota, which, at that time, had the highest rate of infections, you saw a place change, where mask-wearing reached a high of 89 percent in the state.

    Now, the challenge is, can they keep the foot on the pedal? The mask mandate was repealed just a couple of weeks ago.

  • William Brangham:

    I hear everything you're saying about the importance of recognizing the economic pain caused by some of the shutdowns and restrictions.

    But, I mean, this pandemic, as you well know, is not over by any stretch. People are still going to have to wear masks and not crowd into bars and all those public health measures.

    Going forward, from what you have reported, what is your sense about how we ought to do our messaging about public health better next time, this time?

  • Atul Gawande:

    Well, I think the first thing to understand is, we're not going to get consensus on these issues.

    The question is, can we have an open, respectful debate, hear each other, pay attention to the pain everybody's feeling? You have people who are reluctant to enter back into society as rates fall and participate, and you have reluctance on the other side about taking the measures that we need to, to stop the infection from coming.

    There is a lot of exhaustion. There is a lot of pain. And we are going to be — you know, the debate, the arguments, the anger isn't going to stop. And yet the country, even North Dakota, got past 80 percent wearing of masks. They got the infections down. The debates will be hard and fierce and angry, but our democracy may be frayed.

    What I saw there, though, was, it wasn't broken, that we were able to hold together, have these fights, and then move forward.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Atul Gawande of Brigham and Women's Hospital and "The New Yorker," thank you very much.

  • Atul Gawande:

    Thank you.

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