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COVID testing remains 'troublesome' in various areas of the U.S., doctor explains

Emergency medicine physician Dr. Hilary Fairbrother joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss COVID-19 transmission, testing, travel restrictions amid the spread of Omicron variant, and vaccine mandates.

Video transcript

- Beginning today, all travelers entering the US, regardless of vaccination status or nationality, must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within one day of their departing flight. Also today we learned New York City has become the first city in the nation to mandate COVID vaccines for all private employers.

Joining us now to talk about that and more is Dr. Hilary Fairbrother, an emergency medicine physician in Houston, Texas. Dr. Fairbrother, it's good to see you again. I want to get to those new travel restrictions in a moment. But first, we'd like to know what you are seeing in your ER there in Houston. And are you seeing a rise in cases of omicron?

HILARY FAIRBROTHER: So, you know, that's always tough, because we never really are looking at the exact variant of the vast majority of our patients that we see in the emergency department. I would say that we have kind of a base level of patients with COVID-19. I have seen an increase in some patients coming in to see if they have it, or feeling sick. Certainly no increase in the rate of transmission or number of new cases across the city of Houston.

And you know, like I said, it's a baseline level. It's not as low as it was early in the summer. And that's what I think-- we were all disappointed is, we didn't get back down to the low that we saw in April and May of this year. So just a kind of underlying rate of positivity and patients sick with this virus.

- I want to ask you, Doctor, why are we seeing this surge in cases now? Is it partly because we are suddenly testing more? And are you surprised at the rate of testing, that it's taken so long to get people to get home kits to be able to be tested? That was one of President Biden's mandates in his five-point action plan to help speed up vaccination and help mitigate the spread of this omicron variant.

HILARY FAIRBROTHER: I know that the at-home testing has been a hurdle for the United States, whereas other countries have-- with, you know, that are developed as we are-- have been much more aggressive about testing, recurrent testing.

And I know that some populations in our country, and some groups, are doing it at a much higher level. My friends in Los Angeles, their children are tested weekly for COVID. That's certainly not going on here in the state of Texas. So I think we've just seen a lot of variability, as we've seen different states use their resources in different ways in combating this virus.

But overall, when you look at this heterogeneous approach to a complex virus, it's been challenging for us as a nation to be really coherent in our use of testing in this population. So I would say it's been troublesome, and I am very happy that we have seen increased testing. I do think that this is the key to decreasing transmission, is people having easy access to a test when they start feeling like they have symptoms, and they need to know whether they have this virus.

- So Doctor, on these travel restrictions that went into place today for international travelers into the US, so the President stopped short of actually mandating that people quarantine once they land here. They do have to take a test, though. But I guess my question is, is that rapid test enough? I know that it's certainly not foolproof. And do you think that that test might ultimately just dissuade people from taking an international trip right now, just because of the hassle that's going to cause? And might that, in and of itself, help with transmission?

HILARY FAIRBROTHER: So travel restrictions rarely solve our problem. And there's actually some decent scientific data that shows that every travel restriction is kind of too little, too late to prevent the eventual spread of this virus and the various variants that we all are dealing with, omicron just being the newest of the series of variants.

What I do think that travel restrictions do is they buy us a little bit of time. And right now I know with omicron as an explicit example, this is important. We need to know whether our vaccine is offering protection against this new variant, and really, like what some of the characteristics of this new variant are.

And while a travel restriction is rather draconian, and certainly has negative effects-- and I know that no one wanted to do this for South Africa or any other nation-- it really does buy us some time. And I do think that a lot of countries do behaviors like this to buy them some time, to help slow the spread of virus coming in from people visiting the country. So I don't think that it has no merit.

And I understand when people say, well, it doesn't really stop anything. We have omicron in 15 states across the US, and honestly I'm sure it's more than that. We just haven't been sequencing the variants in the virus. So I think that it does work to slow things down and to slow the spread. I hope that people are still traveling, even though they have to have a test. I have to tell you, a lot of places, if you want to travel there, are requiring this kind of behavior.

So I don't think-- I'm not a behavior analysis for travel-- but I don't think that people are going to cancel an expensive trip to the United States based on having to have a test. I think in many areas of the world, testing is very robust and very available. And so people have kind of committed to this new normal of testing before they travel. And I think it's rational for us to demand similar behaviors as people are coming into the United States.

- And Doctor, I want to ask you really quickly. States have been so varied in their approaches to how they're trying to mitigate the spread of this virus. New York City has been quite proactive in that way. And the mayor just announced that kids 5 to 11 must be vaccinated to get into a restaurant. And maybe even more importantly, private sector workers must have a vaccine for them to be able to go into the office, that mandate being December 27th. Do you agree with that? And is that a good way of making sure we do try and mitigate community spread?

HILARY FAIRBROTHER: I think vaccine mandates are unpopular for many different reasons. And I don't love them. I really do wish that everyone in this country would go get vaccinated by their own free will. Unfortunately, we are not seeing that happen.

And certainly with delta we saw that the consequences and the deaths of COVID were really isolated to people who were unvaccinated, with very, very few exceptions, especially now that, keeping in mind that we have the booster, and the evidence behind what people's risks are after they're boostered, this is a disease. And this is a disease that is killing people who are unvaccinated and who are unboostered. And that is really heartbreaking to me.

And I understand why densely populated areas are saying that people who are entering public areas, where there are a lot of people, and they can be vaccinated, are being made to be vaccinated. And I think that if you look at economies and businesses and communities that are requiring vaccination, or are achieving very high vaccination rates voluntarily, they are paying far less of a price for COVID than communities where vaccination is not as high.

And I think that using methods to force people's hand and really encourage vaccination, whether that's giving financial reward for getting vaccinated, or, like New York City is doing, where they are saying people in the private sector now need to be vaccinated to go to work, I think that-- I would love for this to not be the case. I would love for people to do this all by free will, but people are not. And our communities continue to pay this price.

And I think a lot of cities and a lot of groups are really just-- they've had enough with dealing with COVID. And so they are looking at other measures, and some of those measures decrease individual liberties. And that's too bad, and sad, but I can understand why those communities are taking those actions.

- Well, thank you for that thoughtful answer. Dr. Hilary Fairbrother, good to have you on the show.

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