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‘We can’t have countries lingering at 10%' COVID-19 vaccination, Columbia professor explains

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Columbia University professor Meg Fitzgerald speaks with Yahoo Finance Live about the uncertainty surrounding Omicron, the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of travel bans, the demand for booster shots, global vaccination rates, and the strained U.S. health care system.

Video transcript

- Definitely. That's a good point. Let's talk about the health care system, the public health system, and the backdrop for all of this. Meg Fitzgerald is with us. She's a private equity investor, author of Ascending Davos, and a health care policy professor at Columbia University.

Meg, it's always great to see you. I want to start, first of all actually, by asking you about the early reaction to the Omicron variant. Because what I have been wondering here is, have we learned any lessons globally over the past 18 months and are we applying them correctly to the emergence of this new variant? In other words, things like travel bans, which haven't proved particularly effective in the past, are something that we are now seeing governments impose. Do you think that we're doing a good job globally so far?

MEGHAN FITZGERALD: No, probably not globally but I think certainly in the US. I was elated this weekend to see a sense of calm, concern but calm. We know that the mutation on the spike protein and the speed through which this variant is ripping through South Africa is concerning, but we were very quick to say we don't know whether it would cause a more severe disease. And so we kind of took a pause here, at least in the US, and I think some lessons were learned. I don't think it was the right call and somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction to shut down travel to Africa, especially when the variant has already escaped the continent.

So lessons in some areas, not so much globally. And as we talked about on this show back in April-- and by the way, we're not in April in the US with regard to the virus, but we certainly are in Africa. 10% of that population is vaccinated, so closing down borders does not help them get through the virus. And as we've spoken before, we all don't get through this unless countries like Africa and other places get through it.

- Meg, I think part of the bull thesis on stocks is that our health care system can just address any variants that comes up. But as we come up against the latest mask mandate, which may push health professionals-- many-- out of the market or out of the services that they perform, how big a risk is that to us fighting any new variants?

MEGHAN FITZGERALD: I think it's one of the largest risks that we have in the health care system. There's labor shortages across the industry. I don't know one company that is not grappling with labor shortages. Even in the field of nursing, the highest level of exodus is happening in nurses that have been on the job less than a year. So I think we have a lot of data to collect on this variant and what it means for the system. But suffice to say, if we don't have staff to kind of take care of patients-- sick and ones that are healthy, that have been pushing off surgery and normal procedures-- we're going to have a lot to deal with in the next few years that go beyond just this six months.

- Meg, what's very interesting about this whole story is that a lot of this has to do with vaccination rates in other countries as well. Right? Here in the United States, we're already debating whether or not we're vaccinated enough, let alone a lot of these third world countries that might be the next epicenter for future variants as well. So how important is WHO policy? Because it seems like a lot of the fixation, at least here in the United States, is on what's happening domestically. Of course, that might just be Americentric policy just broadly. But how important is a global voice on all of this in getting global vaccination efforts up?

MEGHAN FITZGERALD: I think it's really important. You've got places in the world that are 10%. You've got other places that are north of 70%. It's definitely driven by economics and those that have access to good care and medicine. So we can't have countries lingering at 10% and expect not to see a variant. Right? So I think the WHO is trying their hardest to say, can we get everybody up to 70%? Other places are looking for 90%.

And as we saw with what's happening in the US, we quickly had to recalculate what exactly is a full dose to make sure that everybody is now going to get their booster. Because we know, after one and two doses, your immunity wanes and it comes right back up with the booster. So I think global policy is really important. I just wish we were doing more to help countries like Africa on the ground. It's important to note, they do now have quite a bit of vaccine.

What they're grappling with is logistics and infrastructure. You're asking people to walk to get a vaccine or take a bus or miss work. They don't have cold chain capabilities. So in South Africa, they have about five months of vaccine supply. And the worry right now is that that vaccine supply is going to go bad, that it's dated, it expires, or it doesn't remain cold. So I think we always have to think through the solution. Just because you dump vaccines somewhere doesn't mean that there's health care infrastructure to adopt it or be able to push it out.

- Meg, let me go back to the vax mandate and those potential labor shortages. If we do get this rush of folks leaving the health care profession, where are the new people to come in? I'm not a doctor. I can't go to my local hospital and help the cause here. Where do these people come from?

MEGHAN FITZGERALD: I think let's hear it for the trade degree. Let's target people in high school, people that are out of work, and help support them to get two-year degrees to get into the health care system. The Biden administration allocated quite a bit of funding to do this. And I think we have to let people know it's OK to get a two-year degree and that you can have a long career.

Right now, we're putting a Band-Aid on it by using staffing agencies, trying to bring in staff from outside the United States. Some places were paying four times the rate, and that means staff is leaving their own hospital-- the job hop-- and make more money. That's a short-term solution. I think we need to look at health care as an important place to work. We need to think about degrees that support that, and we need to fund community colleges so people find this of interest-- and also, by the way, affordable. Not everybody has $200,000 to go to college.

- Yeah. Definitely not. And I also wonder about not just the on-the-ground health care workers but also public health workers as well and people setting policies around the country in what is really-- to say it's not unified is an understatement. Right? So I also wonder about the talent pool there and the willingness to work in a unified manner to attack these problems.

MEGHAN FITZGERALD: Yeah, for sure. Listen, you look at Israel, they're largely on one EHR system. Here, in the United States, we have 40 to 50. So we're not unified in data. Therefore, we're not sharing information real-time. So I think, aside from the workforce being more unified, we're really asking them to do things manually. And it would be a lot better if we could share data real-time.

I also think this pandemic put public health on the map, in good and bad ways-- but mostly good ways. I think people now see the importance of the job. It used to be something where we spent $0.10 or less on the dollar towards public health. And I think the private and public sector-- certainly, some of my folks in private equity are seeing that it's really important to invest in this, because it affects all of health care. And it also affects the returns on all of their investments, to make sure that you have a solid infrastructure, good surveillance, and that you're taking care of all the people-- a population and not just individuals.

- Meg, really good point. Thanks for being here. Good to see you. Meg Fitzgerald is a private equity investor, author of Ascending Davos, and a health care policy professor at Columbia University. Appreciate it. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we're going to refocus on the effect of Omicron potentially on the markets and how it could be affecting JPMorgan's Asset Management division's outlook. Meera Pandit will be joining us next.

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