Welcome to Episode 38 of “COVID: What comes next,” an exclusive weekly Providence Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK podcast featuring Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health and an internationally respected expert on pandemic response and preparedness
PROVIDENCE – With the CDC expected this week to grant approval of the Pfizer vaccine for children age 5 to 11, polls show that some parents and guardians are hesitant about their youngsters getting the shots – and some have said they will refuse.
Dr. Ashish Jha’s message to them?
“You can listen to what I have to say, but more importantly, look at what I'm doing.”
What he is doing, the Brown University School of Public Health dean revealed on Tuesday, is having his nine-year-old son get inoculated.
“The first possible day that the vaccine is available, he's getting the shot,” Jha said.
Needless to say, Jha and his wife are not subjecting their child to something untested. Science stands behind their decision.
“I have looked very, very carefully at the data and for my nine-year-old who's healthy, the benefits of the vaccines way outweigh any risks of the vaccines,” Jha said.
“The vaccine has been given to almost 4 billion people, including tens and tens of millions of kids around the world. The vaccines are exceedingly safe. And so between the global experience of vaccinations and the long-term effects of COVID, this is not a close call. This is a ‘gotta do this.’ It's the right thing to do for your kids.”
Some 80,000 Rhode Island residents belong to this youngest group. The state Health Department has been preparing for weeks for the CDC’s anticipated approval, which could come as soon as the end of the day Tuesday.
“We are working to ensure that vaccine is available to this population in Rhode Island very promptly after the CDC makes their announcement,” public information officer Joseph Wendelken told The Journal. After the CDC ruling, he said, “we will be making an announcement about when eligibility gets expanded in Rhode Island.”
On another issue during Tuesday’s taping of the “COVID: What Comes Next” podcast, Jha said that in Rhode Island and New England, “infection numbers are pretty stable, at a low-ish level -- not high, not tiny,” unlike last year at this time, when cooling autumn weather forced people indoors, where the coronavirus spreads easily, and the region experienced a surge.
The Health Department on Nov. 2, 2020, reported 214 Rhode Island residents hospitalized, with 26 in ICU; new cases totaled 429; and there were six deaths. Those numbers reported on this Tuesday, a year later, were 95, 11, 224, and two, respectively.
COVID-19 this year, Jha said, is “running up against a wall of vaccinated people, so we're not seeing those outbreaks… We're essentially at a stalemate, with the virus at a relatively low level.”
Still, he added, “I don't want to be too kind of ‘rosy-colored glasses’ on this. Could I see outbreaks in New England over the next couple of months? Absolutely. Could we see hospitalizations rise? Yes, but I think we have so much vaccination here, so many people vaccinated, that I don't see large outbreaks in our future and I don't see anything like last winter.”
Not necessarily so for other parts of the U.S., however, Jha said.
“It's not just getting cold in New England, it’s also getting cold in the Midwest and the Great Plains states, and those places I’m more worried about infection,” he said. “I some places like Montana, North Dakota, infection numbers are really quite high and that's because they just don't have the same level of vaccinations. And one has to be worried about those states for the next couple of months.”
During the taking, Jha also discussed the new Merck COVID medication, molnupiravir, saying “I am very optimistic this pill is going to end up becoming an important part of our tool set” in the fight against coronavirus disease. But he said it is no substitute for vaccination.
And Jha went into detail about the CDC’s recent recommendation on booster shots.
On Oct. 21, the agency declared that “eligible individuals may choose which vaccine they receive as a booster dose. Some people may have a preference for the vaccine type that they originally received, and others may prefer to get a different booster. CDC’s recommendations now allow for this type of mix and match dosing for booster shots.”
Three vaccines are available in the U.S.: the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna products, and the one-shot Johnson & Johnson, or J&J.
Said Jha: “If you got the J&J, you need a second shot no matter who you are… Whether you call it a booster or you just call it a second shot in the series is up to you but you need a second shot and it doesn't matter which second shot. If you got a J&J, you can get a Moderna, a Pfizer or another J&J, and I think you're fine.
“If you had a Moderna or Pfizer and you're in any kind of a high-risk group -- if you're older, chronically ill, high exposure -- you should get that booster. And here again, it doesn't matter which booster you get.”
Also Tuesday, Jha stressed the importance of providing vaccines to people on all parts of the planet, not just more privileged nations. Variants have arisen in parts of the world where vaccination rates were low, Jha said, and those have spread globally. New variants could arise in similar fashion.
This is the 38th episode of the “COVID: What Comes Next” podcast, available exclusively from The Providence Journal and the USA TODAY NETWORK. It is hosted by G. Wayne Miller, health reporter for The Providence Journal.