PROVIDENCE – The FDA is expected to soon authorize use of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for adolescents 12 to 15 years old, a development that pandemic expert Dr. Ashish Jha on Tuesday greeted with enthusiasm for its anticipated effect on the general population -- and prospects for fully reopening high schools in the fall.
“It’s really helpful,” Jha said. “It’s big.”
When adolescents in that age group begin getting shots, Jha said, “they add to population immunity. Right now, we have about 44 percent of Americans who have gotten at least one shot. These twelve to fifteen-year-olds represent another about four or five percent of the population -- about 16 million. Let’s say half of them get vaccinated in the next month or so. That will cause another dampening effect on lowering infection rates across the country.”
During Tuesday’s taping of the 28th episode of the “COVID: What Comes Next” podcast, Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, said “we had schools open this past year and it was always the high schools that were the hardest hit…”
Come summer’s end, Jha said “every high-schooler who wants a vaccine will be vaccinated. Every teacher in a high school and staff in a high school who wants to be vaccinated already is vaccinated. There just is no explanation anymore and no medical and public-health reason that high schools cannot be open 100%, full-time normal this fall.”
On another topic, Jha took a nuanced view of a recent report in The New York Times that cited experts who maintain reaching herd immunity is unlikely in the U.S.
“I think it's mostly right, but maybe I'm a little more optimistic,” Jha said. “This is not about the level of immunity in America. This is about level of immunity in your state or in your city… It's really about what's happening in your community.”
He added: “And I actually am more optimistic than the Times article about whether we'll get to 80% immunity. Because remember, there are a lot of people have been infected as well who have not gotten the vaccine. And so we've got to count their immunity.”
Regarding a recent study in the journal Nature that found that 73,000 people in America who were infected by COVID-19 but were not sick enough to be hospitalized had a 60% higher rate of death than non-infected people, Jha said:
“What it seems to me is something that I have been saying for a long time, which is we should not be cavalier with this virus. We should not kind of work with the assumption that ‘hey, if it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger.’ In fact, not at all. We know there are long-term complications. We know a lot of people have long-term symptoms.”
Jha also addressed the prospect that the federal government in the next weeks will lift the emergency use authorization label from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. No longer “experimental,” as some who decline to be vaccinated have asserted, the vaccines could be become more appealing to people who hesitate to get the shots.
“I believe you're going to see both Moderna and Pfizer get what's called a full license probably sometime this summer,” Jha said. “It could be as early as next month, but certainly, before the end of the summer. In my mind, I already know that the evidence here has been so rigorous that they're well above the bar on full license.
“And if that helps some people feel better, that'll be great. But what I've been saying to people is, ‘don't worry about the designation. Look at the underlying evidence and data. We have so much safety data on so many people.’ ”
During taping of the podcast, available exclusively from The Providence Journal and the USA TODAY NETWORK, Jha answered an audience question from a woman in Raleigh, N.C., who asked: “Can you explain ‘asymptotic?’ I understand you don’t have symptoms, but how would you know when you are no longer contagious? Unless you are being tested regularly, you don’t know you could be infecting others. Are you asymptotic for a few days or weeks or longer?”
Jha’s answer: “We know that a lot of spread happens when people are asymptomatic, but the majority of that is for people who are really pre-symptomatic. So let me explain what I mean. Let's say I got infected today, which is unlikely since I've been vaccinated, but let's say I was unvaccinated and I got infected today.
“In about three, four days, I would potentially become contagious, but may not have symptoms. For a couple of days I'd been walking around, totally feeling fine like I'm normal -- but I could be spreading the virus. This is why the virus spreads so efficiently in pre-symptomatic people.”
This weekly podcast is hosted by G. Wayne Miller, health reporter for The Providence Journal.