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With less societal masking, how to avoid catching COVID

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We're now a couple years into a global exercise in risk assessment - first, a new virus more dangerous to some than others with no tailored treatment or vaccine; then vaccine and lightning-fast progress on therapeutics but also new variants and subvariants of the virus with all of their individual differences in transmission and severity. And masks - don't get me started on masks. They are all caught up in partisan politics and now going through the judicial wringer - all that to say, it is a good time for a level set. And for that, we have Dr. Carlos del Rio. He's a distinguished epidemiologist at Emory School of Medicine, and he joins us now from Atlanta.

Dr. del Rio, welcome to the program.

CARLOS DEL RIO: Ayesha, delighted to be with you.

RASCOE: So let's start with BA.2. The estimate from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that this omicron subvariant accounts for 85% of COVID-19 cases here in the U.S. What do we need to know about it?

DEL RIO: Well, you know, what we need to know is that - one thing we've learned with COVID is delta was more transmissible than alpha, and omicron is more transmissible than delta. And now this new subvariant of omicron - BA.2 - is even more transmissible than omicron. Chances are, we're all going to get infected. This is highly transmissible. And for that matter, the good news is that the vaccines are still very effective in preventing you from getting sick or ending in the hospital or dying from COVID.

RASCOE: So obviously, big news that came out in the past week is that the mask mandate on public transportation has been removed for now. Should we expect cases to rise because of that?

DEL RIO: Well, cases were going to rise irregardless (ph) - right? - because most people were not wearing mask in most places.

RASCOE: A lot of people, though, feel like they have been taking precautions, will say they are frustrated because they feel like other people haven't taken it seriously. What do you say to those people who are just so frustrated right now?

DEL RIO: My advice is, you know, if you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. But make sure you're using the right mask - a high-quality, well-fitted mask like a N95 or a KN95 is the best mask you can use. And what I remind people is, as a physician, I take care of people in the hospital with COVID and with tuberculosis and with other infectious diseases, you know, that - which are transmitted through a repertory route. But I wear a well-fitted N95 mask when I see those patients. And as a result of that, I - you know, I've yet to get infected. So my recommendation - if you think you want to wear a mask, wear the right mask.

RASCOE: You know, now if you test positive, you can go get therapeutics. But there is a question about, how easy is it for me to do that?

DEL RIO: Therapeutics used to be not very available when they first came out, but now they're fairly available. There's a website that tells you exactly how many doses are in each drugstore; you can go down to the zip code. If you develop symptoms, get tested right away. And if you test positive, start the drugs right away. You have to do them within five days of diagnosis. But - and you need to have access to somebody, right? And a lot of our patients, a lot of our, you know, minority patients, a lot of our uninsured patients don't have that access, and they need to go to an urgent care center; they need to go to an ER. And if that visit is going to cost you, you know, a hundred, $200, you're not going to do that. So we need to address that.

RASCOE: And, you know, speaking of people that need, you know, care the most, what is the delay? And for all those parents out there, like me, with a children or a child under the age of 5, what is the delay with the vaccine?

DEL RIO: Well, first of all, there was a delay in doing the clinical trials - right? - because kids are not small adults. They have different metabolism. They have different needs. But those tests, those studies have been completed both for the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine. I was a little taken aback, to be honest with you. I have a lot of respect for Dr. Fauci. But I read in the paper that the FDA is ready to look at the Moderna data, but he said we should delay this until the Pfizer data is ready so they can approve both at the same time. I tend to disagree. I think we need to accelerate this process. And my feeling is that hopefully by the summer, we should have vaccines for kids under 5.

RASCOE: Right now, you know, as we talked about earlier, like, the people have to do these different risk assessments, right? How differently are you living your life now versus how you were living it in, say, April 2020?

DEL RIO: I am now traveling. I am going to restaurants. I'm going to concerts. I'm doing many things that I wasn't doing April of 2020. But I'm vaccinated and boosted. I'm confident that if I get infected, you know, I'm not going to die; I'm not going to get critically ill. And I also know that if I develop symptoms, I can be tested and start myself on therapy and therefore prevent - you know, prevent developing disease.

RASCOE: What do you say to those people who are like, I don't want to catch COVID because I'm scared of long-term effects?

DEL RIO: If you are diagnosed with COVID, get diagnosed, get treated right away because even though we don't have the clinical data, my experience as an infectious disease physician, understanding the pathogenesis of the disease suggests to me that the risk of developing long COVID is going to be significantly decreased by getting treated.

RASCOE: That's Carlos del Rio of Emory School of Medicine. Dr. del Rio, thank you so much.

DEL RIO: A pleasure to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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