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AARP Coronavirus Tele-Town Halls

Experts answer your questions related to COVID-19

Bill Walsh: Hello. I am AARP Vice President Bill Walsh, and I want to welcome you to this important discussion about the coronavirus. Before we begin, if you'd like to hear this telephone town hall in Spanish, press *0 on your telephone keypad now.

(Español)

Bill Walsh: AARP, a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization has been working to promote the health and well-being of older Americans for more than 60 years. In face of the global coronavirus pandemic, AARP is providing information and resources to help older adults and those caring for them. As we begin 2022, the omicron variant is surging. The U.S. is averaging more than half a million new COVID cases a day, and on Monday saw more than 1 million new infections. While the omicron variant appears to be less severe than previous variants, hospital emergency rooms are once again filling up and COVID deaths have risen since the start of the New Year. And there is growing frustration over a national shortage of COVID tests, major travel disruptions, and shifting health and safety guidelines. Today, we'll hear from an impressive panel of experts about these issues and more.

If you've participated in one of our tele-town halls in the past, you know this is similar to a radio talk show, and you have the opportunity to ask your question live. For those of you joining us on the phone, if you'd like to ask a question about the coronavirus pandemic, press *3 on your telephone keypad to be connected with an AARP staff member who will note your name and question and place you in a queue to ask that question live. If you're joining on Facebook or YouTube, you can post your question in the comments.

Hello, if you're just joining, I'm Bill Walsh with AARP, and I want to welcome you to this important decision about the global coronavirus pandemic. We're talking with leading experts and taking your questions live.

We have some outstanding guests joining us today, including a COVID-19 Task Force officer and a leading epidemiologist. We'll also be joined by my AARP colleague Jesse Salinas, who will help facilitate your calls today. This event is being recorded, and you can access the recording at aarp.org/coronavirus 24 hours after we wrap up.

Now I would like to welcome our special guests. First is David Kessler, M.D. Dr. Kessler is the chief science officer for the COVID-19 Task Force at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He's also the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Welcome to the program, Dr. Kessler.

David Kessler: My pleasure.

Bill Walsh: All right. I'd also like to welcome Katie Passaretti, M.D., vice president and enterprise chief epidemiologist with Atrium Health. Welcome back to the program, Dr. Passaretti.

Katie Passaretti: Thank you so much. Pleasure to be here.

Bill Walsh: All right. Great to have you both. So let's get started with you, Dr. Kessler. On Monday, the U.S. reported more than 1.35 million new COVID infections as a result of the omicron surge. What do we need to know about omicron, and how likely is it to cause severe illness? And who is the most vulnerable?

David Kessler: It's clearly different than anything we've seen before. It's different than we saw with the prototype virus, different than alpha, and different than delta. Very different clinical characteristics. Greatly more transmissible. You know, cases are everywhere, but everything we have seen, first in South Africa, then in European countries, the U.K., and now data that we're seeing in the United States really indicates that there's less hospitalizations per case. And less, once you're in the hospital, less chance of ending up on a ventilator requiring mechanical ventilation, and likely less death. Now the problem is that there's so many more cases that our hospitals are really crushed. So I think that, again, Dr. Passaretti can discuss it, but you know the curve is very different. I mean, it is a straight line up, and we're starting, just starting, we'll say in some cities, maybe it's plateauing. We certainly know that in South Africa, there was a steep drop, and in cities like London we're seeing that to follow. So hopefully, certainly in the middle Atlantic, maybe, you know, we're at the peak. I really do hope this comes down. There is no doubt, and when you look at who's in the ICU, it's really two types of people. Those who are unvaccinated, and those who are vaccinated who have certain what was called comorbidities or high risk factors. They are still more vulnerable to omicron, a very different type of virus than we've seen.

Bill Walsh: You anticipated my next question, which is about what we can expect from omicron here in the United States given the experience in South Africa and Britain. If we follow that same trend, which is to say omicron, you know, leaves as quickly as it comes, does that mean the nation will return to normal? What will it mean for people?

David Kessler: You know I think that we have to see. I think one thing about this virus is that it's very humbling. There's a lot we do not know. I do think this is going to come down. It's not going to come down in just one peak. I mean, you know, this country is very large, very diverse, and I think we're going to have multiple peaks. Even in South Africa. You know, when I looked at the data with our South African colleagues over the weekend, it seems to have come down dramatically, but there's still some residual, and I don't think we know what's next. The only thing we know is every time we've gotten a curve down, there's always something around the corner. I mean, I would be, you know really just burying my head in the sand if I didn't, you know, didn't be concerned that out there somewhere with the great deal of transmission, replication of this virus — and it's also mixing, you know, there's some, a little residual delta — somewhere because of all that replication of that virus, it keeps on replicating, that there's going to be new mutations, new combinations, and we have to see whether any of those combinations can compete against omicron and whatever immunity omicron leaves in its wake.

Bill Walsh: OK, thanks for that, Dr. Kessler. Let me turn to you, Dr. Passaretti. Why are vaccinated people getting COVID-19? If the highly contagious omicron variant eludes vaccines, then what are the benefits of vaccinations, and are there other steps that vaccinated people should be taking to protect themselves?

Katie Passaretti: Yeah, so first I'll just say, I completely agree with Dr. Kessler. I think hopefully we're nearing the peak and we'll start to come down. I will kind of reiterate a comment he made in there, just, you know, as someone that's seeing patients in the hospital and, you know, experiencing the surge that I worry a little bit about the message that omicron is less severe so that we don't have to worry about it as much, because given the tremendous number of cases, we're still very much feeling the impact on hospitalizations with higher numbers than ever before. So, at the individual level, absolutely less, you know, seems, early data suggests that it's less severe, but that's still translates with, as you said over 1.35 million cases to a lot of hospitalizations and a lot of burden on our health care system. As far as the question about vaccinated individuals, so omicron has, you know, we've seen different variants over time and they've all changed slightly from the initial strain of COVID. So omicron has had a number of mutations and some of those impact what's called immune evasiveness — the ability for vaccines to prevent infection and also the ability of prior infection to protect that individual. So we're seeing higher numbers of reinfection with people that were maybe infected a year ago, six months ago, that kind of thing. And we're seeing more vaccine breakthrough cases. The good news mixed in all that is that the vaccines continue to be protective against what we need them most to do, which is protect against hospitalization and severe disease. So there is absolutely still a benefit to getting vaccinated. You know, it's the difference between a mild cold and ending up in the ICU. As Dr. Kessler said, you know, the people that are still, even with omicron, having more severe disease, are the unvaccinated people with weaker immune systems. So vaccines absolutely are beneficial at preventing that severe disease, which is really what we most want them to do. And I would say, you know, that vaccinate, the initial vaccine series is important, but we're also, we've also seen data that getting the booster on top of that, we know we have plenty of opportunities across the country for improving booster uptake rates, and that that can add an additional level of protection. So if you're not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you're vaccinated and eligible for a booster, go ahead and get it. While we're in this time of large amount of transmission in our communities and our country, the other things that can protect us and kind of tamp down that spread are the same things that have been recommended throughout the pandemic. If you're sick, stay home. Don't go to your workplace. Don't go out to a public gathering and expose other people. Wearing masks, good quality masks, medical masks, or N95s provide, you know, protection, what we call source control from spreading to other people. And, you know, that's especially important when you're in indoor settings with larger groups of people. So vaccinate, boost, wear a mask when you're out and about, particularly in indoor settings with people whose vaccine status you don't know. And please, please stay home if you're sick.

Bill Walsh: OK, let me do a quick follow-up on that. You know it seems like the three approved vaccines have become household names here in the United States, but I was wondering if you can give us a high-level review of those approved vaccines and the boosters, as well as the antivirals and treatments. Those have been in the news a lot recently. So what's available now, and who are they most effective for?

Katie Passaretti: Sure, Dr. Kessler, did you want to add something?

David Kessler: I just wanted to add one thing, one plea, for all AARP members. Please urge your grandkids, if they're older than 5, or your kids who have kids that are older than 5, to also get vaccinated. You know, we've done a great job with vaccinating, and my hat’s off to AARP on the work on individuals over 65, over 75, and those who are at risk. We still, we're only about 28 percent of kids between 5 and 11 who are vaccinated. So to the extent that grandparents can use their influence and serve as models so that we get school-age children vaccinated, really would appreciate that.

Bill Walsh: Thanks for that, Dr. Kessler. Yeah, go ahead.

Katie Passaretti: Absolutely. Couldn't emphasize that more as well. So really now everyone over the age of 5 is eligible to get vaccinated. So as much work as we can do to encourage that, vaccines are an ongoing debate. So encouraging our friends, our family members, our communities to get vaccinated. There's been some new recommendations specifically surrounding boosters over the past couple of weeks to a month. So now anyone 12 and up, if they got either Moderna or the Pfizer vaccine for their initial series, can get a booster if they're more than five months out from that second dose. So, you know, previously it was six months, now it's five months, so that opens the door to more boosters, more opportunities to protect people. In addition, if people are immunocompromised, so a weakened immune system because of a transplant, or medications, chemotherapy, those individuals, what's considered fully vaccinated for them is three doses initially. And they can get even a fourth dose specifically for immunocompromised. That's their booster five months after they got the third dose. So please, you know, know when you're eligible for a booster, get your vaccine. Again, additional levels of protection. As far as treatments, you know, there's been a ton of evolution of treatments over the past month or so. And with omicron, some of our old treatments don't work as well, and we've had to kind of shift how we kind of treat patients with COVID, particularly those that aren't sick enough to end up in the hospital. So many have heard of, and maybe have received in the past, monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID. And that's particularly important for people that are over the age of 65 and have high risk conditions. Unfortunately, with omicron, several of the monoclonal antibodies that we've used in the past are not as useful. So there's a new medication, a new monoclonal antibody called Sotrovimab, that is the best choice for omicron and really what is being given now that we know the vast, vast, vast majority of cases of COVID in our country are due to omicron. But, with that, we have a limited supply. So, you know, definitely talk to your physician about whether you meet the high-risk criteria, age criteria to get that Sotrovimab, which is an infusion medication. In addition, there are two by-mouth medications that have been approved over the past month or so. One called Paxlovid, and one called Molnupiravir. Again, these are by-mouth medications that really are most effective when given very early in symptom onset to those that are high risk of illness. So over 65, multiple medical problems, weakened immune system, those are the groups that benefit from this. And, you know, unfortunately, what you heard me say with the monoclonal antibodies applies here as well. The supply of these medications is being ramped up, but right now there is a limited supply. So it's important, if you have symptoms, especially if you're in a high-risk group, attempt to get tested quickly, and then talk to your physician about what treatment options would be available to you, and know that all of these medications are most useful if they're given relatively early, less than five to seven days in your onset of symptoms.

Bill Walsh: OK, that's a lot of information. For a summary of a lot of those updates our listeners can check out the latest at aarp.org/coronavirus. Go there, and you'll see frequently asked questions and regular updates about the coronavirus, as well as some of the information that Dr. Passaretti just provided. But before we do, I want to bring in my AARP colleague, Bill Sweeney. Bill is the senior vice president of government affairs at AARP. Welcome to the program, Bill.

Bill Sweeney: Thanks. It's a delight to be here with you.

Bill Walsh: All right. So in addition to sharing the most current coronavirus updates, we like to take a few minutes to update our listeners on issues facing Congress in a segment we call Fighting for You. Bill, what can you share about legislation impacting older adults?

Bill Sweeney: Well, on the advocacy front, AARP's number one priority is making sure Congress lowers prescription drug prices. You know, this year an estimated 18 million Americans were unable to afford a prescription due to the high cost. And the U.S. pays three times more than other countries for the exact same brand-name drugs. So we believe this is unacceptable and we are urging the U.S. Senate to act.

Bill Walsh: So I believe you're referring there to the historic prescription drug relief in the Build Back Better Act currently pending in the Senate. What are those provisions and what does AARP want to see happen?

Bill Sweeney: Well, number one, we want Medicare to be allowed to negotiate for lower drug prices. More than 80 percent of voters of all parties support this change, and it would save seniors and Medicare billions of dollars. In addition, the big pharmaceutical companies would be penalized if they increase prices faster than the rate of inflation. And there'll be a new annual cap on what seniors enrolled in Medicare Part D would pay out of pocket for prescriptions as well as a monthly cap on copays for insulin. These are not just cost-saving measures, but lifesaving ones. We've never been closer to seeing prescription drug price relief passed, and we're urging the Senate to see this through. Older Americans really just can't afford to wait any longer.

Bill Walsh: Is there something our listeners can do to help?

Bill Sweeney: Definitely. If you want to help, you can raise your voice, contact your senators and your members of Congress, and urge them to pass prescription drug relief. This week, AARP members have signed petitions, sent thousands of emails and made important phone calls to Capitol Hill. The message is simple and it's clear: Ask Congress to lower drug prices now.

Bill Walsh: OK. It's a critical time. Now we know nearly 1 in 10 nursing home residents have died from the coronavirus. This is a national tragedy. What's AARP doing to protect the vulnerable nursing home residents?

Bill Sweeney: Well, we believe the failure to protect the nursing home community is nothing less than a national disgrace. AARP is urging elected officials at the federal and the state levels to ensure that public funds provided to nursing homes are being used for vaccines, for boosters, testing, proper staffing, and to improve the health and the safety of nursing home residents. The pandemic brought to light problems that have plagued nursing homes for decades, including the staffing problems and shortages, poor infection control practices, a lack of transparency or accountability. AARP will continue to push for these long-overdue, long-term reforms in the nursing home industry.

Bill Walsh: OK, and like the rest of the country, many nursing homes are seeing new surges of infection rates, especially with omicron and the cold winter months. For listeners who may have a family member in a nursing home, what do you suggest?

Bill Sweeney: Well, if you do have a loved one in a nursing home, please advocate for their safety. They need you right now to be an advocate for them. Most nursing home residents were vaccinated in early 2021, and they're now eligible for booster shots. Don't take for granted that your loved one has received theirs. It's really important that you contact the facility directly, ask for their vaccination and booster rates among both staff and residents. And make sure your family member receives their booster shot as soon as possible. Nursing home residents are the most vulnerable among us. We need to make sure that they're protected.

Bill Walsh: OK, Bill. Great advice, and thanks so much for the update. All right. It's now time to address your questions about the coronavirus with Dr. David Kessler and Dr. Katie Passaretti.

Bill Walsh: I'd now like to bring in my AARP colleague Jesse Salinas to help facilitate your calls today. Welcome, Jesse.

Jesse Salinas: So good to be here today, Bill.

Bill Walsh: All right, Jesse. Who do we have first on the line?

Jesse Salinas: Our first call is going to be Rose from Wisconsin.

Bill Walsh: Hey, Rose. Welcome to the program. Go ahead with your question.

Rose: Hi there. I'm getting confused. So far, I'm COVID free. I've been fully vaccinated, have my booster. Should I be figuring out if I need to get a COVID test, how do I do it? And which ones should I try to get? And I'm just really wondering about this.

Bill Walsh: All right. How are you feeling? It sounds like we may have lost her. OK. Dr. Passaretti? Do you want to answer that question for Rose?

Katie Passaretti: Sure. You know, it is, I will admittedly say at least in my area, and I know many areas of the country, testing access is a bit limited, and there is longer time to get your results than we've seen previously because of the huge volume of cases. You know, I do think the most important thing is, you know, for the AARP members who really are at a higher risk due to age, if you have symptoms, getting tested is important. The two types of tests out there are the home tests, what are called antigen tests. If you can get your hands on those, they perform best when you have symptoms. So those are a decent option. Or if there is availability to get a PCR test in your area, usually those are done in larger labs, get sent off, you get the results and right now it's taking several days to come back. That's the other option. So certainly if you're at high risk and having symptoms, get tested so we can talk to your doctor about potential treatments to make sure you're as protected as you can. The other time where it is recommended to get tested is if you had a known exposure. So if you had someone in your household turn positive a couple of days after your exposure to them, then attempting to get tested is important. Absolutely challenges right now, and Dr. Kessler may have other kind of comments on that, but you know, really trying at least for when you have symptoms, getting tested so we can get you treated if treatment is available is still very important.

Bill Walsh: OK, thanks so much, Dr. Passaretti. Jesse, let's take another call.

Jesse Salinas: Yep, our next call is going to be from Harriet in New York.

Bill Walsh: Harriet, welcome to our program. Go ahead with your question.

Harriet: Thank you. I have two great-grandchildren, and the parents are my grandchildren, and they want me to come this weekend to stay over. I'm alone and they have not been, they did not get the shots. I have had all the shots, the booster, the flu shot, and I am in a quandary. Do I go, do I not go? Can you help me?

Bill Walsh: That's a great question. A question I think in a lot of people's minds. Dr. Kessler, do you want to weigh in on that? Maybe Dr. Passaretti, you have something to say on it too.

David Kessler: Sure. Let's just go, I just want to make sure I understand the facts and I hear it. So Harriet's vaccinated and she's boosted, correct?

Bill Walsh: Correct.

David Kessler: And she's wants to go to family members who have children and younger adults. And did I hear that they are not vaccinated, and they are not boosted?

Bill Walsh: Yes, I believe so. So she's in a quandary about that.

David Kessler: Right. So, you know, so I think that, you know, there are a number of options. Look, we're at the stage where certain things are absolutely critical, very important in life. And if things are important, and you gotta do it, and it can't be delayed, then you find a way to do it. I mean, we choose which risks  we take. Saying that, to be honest, Harriet said she was in New York, if you can get me a couple of more weeks, I would appreciate it, because I think the curve is still pretty high on omicron, and I'd like to see that the viral amount in the community is down. And you know Dr. [Janet] Woodcock [acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration] said something, you know, it was a little bit you know, caught everyone's attention: “Everyone's going to get omicron.” Well, I really would prefer not everyone get omicron, because I think it does have, you know, it's going to affect different people, but there's a lot of omicron out there. And my guess is I prefer that you can wear a mask, you can wear N95s, you can test everybody. So there are ways to make things work. There's a lot of virus out there and if you have some doubt, see if you can put it off for a couple of weeks. Let's get to spring.

Bill Walsh: All right. Thanks for that, Dr. Kessler. Jesse, let's take another caller.

Jesse Salinas: Yeah, Bill, our next question is going to be from Patricia in Arizona.

Bill Walsh: Hey, Patricia. Welcome to the program. Go ahead with your question.

Patricia: Hi. Thank you. I tested positive for COVID December 21, and you know, hibernated, whatever, for 12 days and no one in my family got it. And I test every week. I get a PCR test for a study I'm in about COVID, and I continue to test positive. I've had three positive COVID tests since December 21. My only symptoms are kind of fatigue in the afternoon. And I mean, I don't feel completely myself, but I'm not, you know, I don't have a fever, I don't have the severe aches, et cetera, and I'm just concerned about being around other people. My whole family is around me all the time. They did not get COVID through any of this. How safe is this for me to just continue? I wear a KN94 wherever I go, always have. Still got it. I'm also vaccinated, boosted, and I have a flu shot.

Bill Walsh: OK. Let's ask Dr. Passaretti her views on this. Do you have any suggestions for Patricia, Dr. Passaretti?

Katie Passaretti: Yeah, absolutely. Really good question, so thank you for asking it. You know, the type of tests that are used to diagnose COVID can stay positive for some time. We actually tell people not to retest, unless they have new symptoms, for about three months after you test positive for that reason. So I think if you're vaccinated and boosted, that improves your odds of clearing out the virus. I would say if your fevers are gone for more than a day or two, and your symptoms are overall improved, it's very, very unlikely that you would spread to anyone else. The only group I will kind of caveat is if — I didn't hear you say — but if you have a weakened immune system, you know, on chemotherapy, those people can maybe carry virus for a longer period of time, but you being vaccinated, boosted, and as long as you've stuck with your isolation frame, I think it's low risk.

Bill Walsh: OK, thanks so much for that. Jesse. Let's take another question.

Jesse Salinas: OK, Bill, we're getting a lot of questions on Facebook today. And a number of them are asking about if you've gotten your third shot sometime in the end of August or late in the third or fourth quarter, and now, you know, when do I get a fourth shot? Am I supposed to be thinking about a fourth shot? I know you talked about this earlier, but can you clarify?

Bill Walsh: Dr. Kessler, can you help us with that question?

David Kessler: Yeah, the answer is: collecting a lot of data, no decisions yet, no reason to jump. We're definitely going to need a fourth shot. Or we're not going to need a fourth shot. The hope among the best immunologists is that three shots, spaced out — the two primary series and then one a number of months down — really can mature the immune system. So we're working on that question. We've not called for a fourth shot. Colleagues and friends and patients who asked me, I said, hold it. We're not ready. You should be well protected with the booster. But saying that, we've got a lot of work to do. It may be that we need annual shots, depending on what emerges after omicron. We may need something that makes sure that we have coverage there. But not ready to make any decisions on the fourth boost. Let’s make sure everybody gets, with regard to the mRNAs, their three shots. That's the main focus right now.

Bill Walsh: OK. Very good. Thanks so much for that, Dr. Kessler. And thanks for all of those questions.

Bill Walsh: Dr. Passaretti, I'd like to pose another question to you about omicron. You know, is this, you know, we talked about, is it peaking? If it does peak, what does it mean for the country? We know that omicron is highly contagious, but it's a less virulent strain of COVID-19. And I guess I'm wondering if this signals a transition from a pandemic to an endemic, such as seasonal flu, or are there more serious variants potentially lurking out there?

Katie Passaretti: Yeah. So I'm going to quote Dr. Kessler in what he said earlier on that this virus continuously keeps us humble. I think certainly the hope is that omicron becoming a little bit less severe, more transmissible may be kind of morphing into acting more like our common cold and less at risk for severe disease and crowding our hospitals and whatnot, which is where we ultimately think we're going to end up, that endemic state, where there are cases and they kind of come and go, but it's not overwhelming to our health care system in the vast majority of people causes a mild cold. So, you know, the hope certainly is with this transition in the virus, we're headed that way. Having said that, you know, COVID virus has thrown us a number of curveballs over the past two and a half years, and there's always the risk that we could be faced with yet another variant that has different characteristics in a completely different way. So I think that's the hope but only time will tell if we're truly getting close to the end.

Bill Walsh: OK, thanks for that, Dr. Passaretti. And I'd like to turn back to you, Dr. Kessler. You know, it's been mentioned a couple of times so far in the program about the supply shortages in COVID tests around the country. What's contributing to that shortage and what's being done to increase supply? We're wondering also when will the home kits and PCR tests become more widely available?

David Kessler: So there's different kinds as Dr. Passaretti said, different kinds of tests. There actually is not a shortage of the PCR tests. Where the shortage is, is of the home tests, you know, getting them. And so the laboratory tests, you know, the ones you either send off or you go into a pharmacy, and they send off, enormous capacity to do that. The president announced today, even another 500 million, so that brings it to a billion, these are the home tests, the rapid tests, the antigen tests, all called the same thing. So we are investing more in those tests and should have more shortly.

Bill Walsh: Well, let me put a finer point on that. When do you expect consumers will begin to start seeing those antigen tests available in pharmacies and elsewhere?

David Kessler: I think Dr. Passaretti wanted to get in here.

Katie Passaretti: Oh, sorry. I was just going to say, there's plenty of PCR tests, but your ability, the places that have spots to actually do the test can be a challenge, so just be aware of that when you're scheduling. And I'll just put a tiny, tiny plug in for people not to utilize our emergency rooms — which are slammed right now with patients sick with COVID and other things — as the place you go to get tested. It’s really important to use the medical care settings for the purpose they're intended. So I get that there are challenges with testing, but just please try to protect our emergency rooms for sick people that need that level of care.

Bill Walsh: Yeah, that's great. And Dr. Kessler, I just asked when consumers might start seeing those new home test available.

David Kessler: End of this month, this new increased supply should start, and then emerge even greater over the following weeks.

Bill Walsh: OK, thanks very much, both of you, for those comments. Let's turn back to our phone lines to take more of your questions with Dr. David Kessler and Dr. Katie Passaretti.   Jesse, who do we have on next?

Jesse Salinas: Yep. I'm going to take one from Facebook. This is from Edward, and he says, "We've been reusing our masks after cooking them at 170 degrees for 30 minutes in the oven. Is this a good idea?"

Bill Walsh: Dr. Kessler, maybe you can address that. I think there's been some recent guidance on cloth masks as well.

David Kessler: Yeah, so we'll just talk a little about masks. There's no doubt that masks vary in the degree of protection, right, and they range, because there's a lot of confusion. And just from a filtration protection point of view, there's N95s that are most protective from filtration, then you go to the KN95s, and then you go to these surgical masks, and then you go to these cloth masks. I mean, I think the thing that is most important is to use the highest-quality masks that you can tolerate, or that fits well. I mean, you know, I can use an N95   when I'm going in and out for short periods of time. Put me into an N95 for hours, and I'm pretty uncomfortable. So I think it's important to use the highest-quality mask that you can tolerate. But with regard to cooking them in the oven, I'm not sure exactly what masks we're talking about. I would stay away from cooking masks. I don't know exactly what it does to the chemicals, et cetera, in there. No doubt that masks can be reused. You know, I reuse my masks, my N95s, repeatedly. You try to use them until they get dirty, they get stained. I know Dr. Passaretti, wants to comment.

Katie Passaretti: No, I completely agree with everything you said. You know, if it gets kind of not fitting your face well or moist or dirty, throw it out. But otherwise I do the same for kind of public use, different for health care obviously.

David Kessler: Right.

Bill Walsh: And Dr. Kessler, I understand the president announced just today that the administration would be sending masks to Americans. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

David Kessler: Yeah, I think there are more to come next week. You'll remember, we already did that with more procedure masks, but I think there is an intent to send high-quality masks to people, and I think there'll be further announcements on that next week.

Bill Walsh: Fantastic. Thanks so much for that. Jesse, who do we have on next?

Jesse Salinas: You have our next question is going to come from Donald, from Arizona.

Bill Walsh: Hey, Donald, welcome to our program. Go ahead with your question.

Donald: Thank you. I'm calling about Medicare recipients and whether or not they are or will be reimbursed for the cost of acquiring the home test, the PCR test? I know the home tests are not readily available to all, but we have acquired four of them; two for my wife, and two for myself. But going forward, I've seen no information regarding reimbursement other than private insurance companies and Medicaid recipients.

Bill Walsh: OK, well, that's a great question, Donald. Let's ask Dr. Kessler about Medicare reimbursement for those in-home tests.

David Kessler: As I understand it, I'm not a reimbursement expert, but as I understand it there's now a requirement that insurance companies need to cover eight, I think it's eight, home tests a month. But I'm sure, Bill, your experts may even know those requirements even better than I do.

Bill Walsh: Yeah, Dr. Passaretti, I don't know if you have any insight on that. I'll ask our staff to do a little research and see if we can get an answer before the end of the program.

Katie Passaretti: Yeah, sorry, not so much my gig either.

Bill Walsh: OK, well, that's fine. Donald, stay with us, and we'll try to get you an answer. Jesse, in the meantime let's go back to the phones.

Jesse Salinas: Yep. I've got one more from Facebook. This is from Katie. She says, "Do vaccinated and boosted people need to wear masks when visiting each other indoors?"

Bill Walsh: Hmm, Dr. Passaretti?

Katie Passaretti: Yeah. So I think it all comes down you know, we talked a little bit earlier about your kind of risk-benefit ratio. We do see people that are vaccinated having mild cases and people with boosters, although at lower numbers, getting mild cases of COVID. I think, you know, it depends, me as a health care worker, if I'm with anyone outside of my household indoors, I wear a mask because me, taking me out of the workforce right now, when we're already stretched thin can be, you know, would be additionally challenging. Or if you live with someone that is high risk or you're high risk yourself, then it may make sense, but it's all kind of levels of risk. What you're willing to accept, how important that interaction is. I think, you know, certainly you're setting yourself up for success by both individuals being vaccinated and boosted. And, you know, if you're low risk and not going home to someone that's a transplant recipient or something like that, then maybe, maybe lower risk. But certainly, you know, where I say for sure, regardless of, you know, vaccine status, booster status, if you're in crowded indoor spaces, you know, the more people there, the more crowded the space, you know, the more variability in there. And then it just gets increasingly tricky.

Bill Walsh: OK, thanks very much for that, Dr. Passaretti. And Donald had asked a moment ago about Medicare covering the cost of at-home tests. We've got some information from medicare.gov, which is the program's website. And it says that Medicare does not pay for over-the-counter COVID-19 tests at this point. People with original Medicare can pick up free at-home tests from community health centers and Medicare certified health clinics. Some of the Medicare Advantage plans may pay for those at home or over-the-counter tests. So thanks to our staff for getting that answer. Jesse, let's go back to our callers. Who do we have up next?

Jesse Salinas: Let's bring on Elaine from Texas.

Bill Walsh: Hey Elaine, welcome to our program. Go ahead with your question.

Jesse Salinas: Yeah, I wanted to know, my son-in-law and I got our three shots. I went with him each time, and two weeks ago he came down with COVID anyway after the three shots, and he doesn't go out hardly at all. I mean, he really doesn't, you know, go out there where he can get it. So it was, it was upsetting to see that he got COVID anyway. Why does that happen?

Bill Walsh: Right. I mean, these are breakthrough infections and Dr. Passaretti, we're seeing a lot of these, right. What can you tell our listeners about breakthrough infections and what they can expect?

Katie Passaretti: Yeah, absolutely. You know, the transmissibility of omicron, how easily it is spread, gives little wiggle room to kind of preventing people from getting infected. What I said earlier and what I would kind of reiterate, vaccines and boosters are very good at preventing severe disease, but with the volume of cases that are going on, and the volume of spread in our community right now, we are seeing breakthrough infections. The good news, it is frustrating, and you know, you're like, I'm doing everything I should. I should be protected. But the good news is that those cases are milder and less likely to end your son or you up in the hospital with more severe COVID. So again, vaccines and boosters, very, very good at preventing severe disease. We are going to see breakthrough cases due to the nature of the mutations in omicron and how this particular strain acts, but rest assured that the prevention of severe disease, which is again, the most important thing remain strong with vaccines and boosters.

Bill Walsh: OK, thanks so much, Dr. Passaretti. Jesse, who do we have next on the line?

Jesse Salinas: The next one we're going to bring on Cheryl from Ohio.

Bill Walsh: Hey, Cheryl. Welcome to our program today. What's your question?

Cheryl: Well, I didn't have the vaccination and neither has one of my brothers. And what I said I would do is when he had it, I would get it. But he has no intention of getting it, and I started thinking that I would get it after a year, after a year of it being in … like last year, it just started last year. I had a whole year for this vaccine to be out here and be safe for everybody. That's the way I was looking at it. Now I am 66, just turned 66 this year. And I don't know if that's considered high risk, but I do have multiple sclerosis, and I just wanted to know if I get the vaccine, which one was first? I know the three that are out there. I'm not thinking about Johnson & Johnson, so which was the best between the Pfizer and the other one?

Bill Walsh: Moderna?

Cheryl: Yeah. You have to do two of those.

Bill Walsh: So it sounds like you're, you're beginning to think about getting the vaccine now. Have you decided for sure?

Cheryl: I haven't decided for sure. My doctor wants me to do it. She's done it. One of my brothers has done it. And I'm just trying to keep that in consideration because of the omicron coming out also, along with that delta, too.

Bill Walsh: Sure. Well, Cheryl, let's ask our, let's ask our experts about that and see what they have to say. Dr. Kessler, do you want to weigh in on that? First, on whether Cheryl should get vaccinated, and if she should choose one vaccine over another?

David Kessler: You know, I think it's great that she's on the verge of doing it. I can only support that decision just very strongly. I think we can tell Cheryl that there are hundreds of millions of people who've gotten this safely, so her waiting a year, she can be absolutely certain, you know, that this is among the safest vaccines we have. I'd urge Cheryl to go get it sooner rather than later, because there's a lot of virus out there and I'd want her to be protected. Whichever vaccine they have available where you walk in or where you go, I would take it. That's the most important thing. Moderna, Pfizer, you know, Dr. Passaretti and I could probably spend the next hour talking about little differences between the two. Not going to make a difference to you, Cheryl, just go get whatever is available, but do me a favor, your decision to go get it is a smart one. And let's get it done in the next couple of days. It makes a big, big, big difference whether you end up in the hospital or not. So great decision.

Bill Walsh: All right. Thank you, Dr. Kessler, and thanks Cheryl for calling in. Go ahead and get your brother, make sure you get, your brother gets vaccinated too in the process. Jesse, let's go back to the phones. Who do we have next?

Jesse Salinas: Yep. We're going to take a question from Anna in South Carolina.

Bill Walsh: All right. Hey, Anna, welcome to our program. Go ahead with your question.

Anna: Hi, my question is, you have COVID, and I need the isolation process explained. Are you isolating from the day you went and got your test, isolating from the date you got results, and then the process moving forward from that. It's very confusing.

Bill Walsh: Dr. Kessler, would you want to help Anna out with this? There have been some changes in recommendations recently, haven't there?

David Kessler: Correct. But I think that usually, Dr. Passaretti can correct me, I think generally we count from the day of onset of symptoms, and right now what CDC is recommending is isolation. If you test positive for five days and then there are tests available, but if you test positive where you have symptoms or fever, you know stay in isolation for another five days. But if you have no fever and no symptoms and test negative, then feel free to go about. But make sure you wear high quality masks for at least the next five days. Dr. Passaretti may want to correct me and see if I got that right.

Katie Passaretti: No, you got it completely right. So it starts from date of symptom onset, five days, at least. And then if you're improved from a symptom standpoint, all the way better. You can come out and wear a mask. If you do take a test, then it depends on that test, but a test isn't mandatory. You shouldn't feel like you have to track one down to decide whether you can come out or not.

Bill Walsh: OK, thanks for you both for that. Jesse, let's go back to the phone lines. Who do we have up next?

Jesse Salinas: Yep. We're going to take another question. This is going to be from Wynonna in Missouri.

Bill Walsh: Hey, Wynonna, welcome to our program. Go ahead with your question.

Wynonna: Thank you. Well, I've had COVID, and I've gotten over it. I didn't have any symptoms of it. The reason why I went and got tested is because my granddaughter’s boyfriend got it. That's the way I got it. So that's why I went to be tested. And then when I went, I was positive. And then what I was wondering, OK, I'm negative now. So and I've had both flu shot, I had Moderna; I had both shots from Moderna, and I had my flu shot, but I didn't get my booster, like I said, but I wasn't sick at all. But what I want to know, when can I get my booster since I just tested negative. Do I have to wait? I've been told I'm supposed to wait three months before I can take the booster. Is that right?

Bill Walsh: Yeah, let's get an answer. Dr. Passaretti, can you help Wynonna?

Katie Passaretti: Yeah, sure, Wynonna. It's a really good question, and one we get a lot. So you actually don't have to wait three months after COVID to get your, you know, if you're unvaccinated, get your vaccine or to get your booster. Really the minimum amount of time that we say to wait is until you're feeling better, and for you, awesome, you didn't have any symptoms with your infection and the time frame when you're infectious to other people. So you don't want to go get a shot while you're still infectious and could spread to other people. But once you're beyond that time frame, you can consider going ahead and getting the booster. So there's no need to wait three months. Certainly, you may have some short-term protection from infection for a period of time, but there's no harm in getting it as long as you're cleared from isolation or you're told you're no longer at risk of infecting other people. So as long as you're feeling better and out of isolation, you can get the booster. I typically tell people not to wait much longer than three or four months, because then your risk of getting a second infection with COVID tends to go up a little bit.

Bill Walsh: OK, thanks doctor, for that. Jesse, let's take another question.

Jesse Salinas: Yep, let's do Carmen from New York.

Bill Walsh: Hey Carmen, Welcome to the program. Go ahead with your question, Carmen.

Carmen: OK, my question is for my brother-in-law, who lives in Harris County, Texas. And they have very high rates of omicron there. And he had Guillain-Barré syndrome. But he was told by his doctors he cannot get the vaccine. And I don’t know, I don't feel that that's safe. I think that is there anything you can do for people with this syndrome? He would love the vaccine, but you know, what do you do when you're told....

Bill Walsh: Yeah. Yeah. Well, let's ask our doctors. I'm not sure if Dr. Passaretti could answer this one, or Dr. Kessler? Dr. Passaretti, why don't you jump in first?

Katie Passaretti: Sure, so you know, certainly I wouldn't kind of assume, you know, your, your brother-in-law's doctor knows that medical situation the best, but a history of Guillain-Barré is not a strict contraindication to going ahead and getting vaccinated. So I think, you know, first your family member can go ahead and consider getting vaccinated for that extra protection, you know, weighing the risk of the, you know, the omicron circulating in his area, and you know what infection might do to him. There are, as we kind of talked about earlier, potential treatments for higher-risk individuals, unvaccinated individuals, if he chooses to not get vaccinated, but you know, mostly I would say, you know, even with a history of Guillain-Barré, you can consider proceeding with one of the mRNA vaccines and getting that protection against future COVID infection.

Bill Walsh: So either Moderna or Pfizer would be the best option in that case.

Katie Passaretti: I mean in general Johnson & Johnson isn't our first line anymore. In general we recommend Pfizer and Moderna.

Bill Walsh: OK. Fantastic. Dr. Kessler, did you want to add anything to that?

David Kessler: No, I think that Dr. Passaretti got it exactly right. Obviously check with your doctor, but the best expertise is Guillain-Barré is not a contraindication to getting the vaccine. The earlier call, you know, raised the question that, you know, again, I think Dr. Passaretti got it exactly right, when should you, if you've gotten COVID, when should you get your boost? And, you know, I was talking to Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, Dr. [Rochelle] Walensky about that question, so Dr. Fauci said, you know, we don't have great data to be able to answer that. I mean, I think there may be an advantage of waiting. I mean, and again, I agree 100 percent with Dr. Passaretti. You want to do it within three to four months. But there may be an advantage of waiting about a month because you really do want to allow —the immune system really works by maturation of response. So you give it a little time to be able to have that maturation. But again, you know, that's why we're practicing medicine, and there are sometimes there are not perfect data. But, you know, my sense is if you've had COVID recently and you're due for a boost, you know, sometime between a month and three months probably makes sense.

Bill Walsh: OK, thanks so much, Dr. Kessler, and I think we're going to have to leave it at that. We are at the top of the hour. This has been a really informative discussion and thanks to both of our experts for being with us and providing all of the updates. And thank you, our AARP members, volunteers, and listeners for participating in this discussion today. AARP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization and has been working to promote the health and well-being of older Americans for more than 60 years. In the face of this crisis, we're providing information and resources to help older adults and those caring for them protect themselves from the virus, prevent its spread to others, while taking care of themselves. All of the resources referenced today, including a recording of the Q&A event, can be found at aarp.org/coronavirus beginning tomorrow, January 14. Go there if your question was not addressed, and you'll find the latest updates as well as information created specifically for older adults and family caregivers. We hope you learned something that can help keep you and your loved ones healthy. Please join us again January 27, at 1 p.m. Eastern Time for another live coronavirus Q&A event. We hope you can join us then. In the meantime, stay safe, thank you, and have a good day. This concludes our call.

[00:00:00] Bill Walsh: Hello. I am AARP Vice President Bill Walsh, and I want to welcome you to this important discussion about the coronavirus. Before we begin, if you'd like to hear this telephone town hall in Spanish, press *0 on your telephone keypad now.

[00:00:14] [Español]

[00:00:20] AARP, a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization has been working to promote the health and well-being of older Americans for more than 60 years. In face of the global coronavirus pandemic, AARP is providing information and resources to help older adults and those caring for them. As we begin 2022, the omicron variant is surging. The U.S. is averaging more than half a million new COVID cases a day, and on Monday saw more than 1 million new infections. While the omicron variant appears to be less severe than previous variants, hospital emergency rooms are once again filling up and COVID deaths have risen since the start of the New Year. And there is growing frustration over a national shortage of COVID tests, major travel disruptions, and shifting health and safety guidelines. Today, we'll hear from an impressive panel of experts about these issues and more.

[00:01:20] If you've participated in one of our tele-town halls in the past, you know this is similar to a radio talk show, and you have the opportunity to ask your question live. For those of you joining us on the phone, if you'd like to ask a question about the coronavirus pandemic, press *3 on your telephone keypad to be connected with an AARP staff member who will note your name and question and place you in a queue to ask that question live. If you're joining on Facebook or YouTube, you can post your question in the comments.

[00:01:50] Hello, if you're just joining, I'm Bill Walsh with AARP, and I want to welcome you to this important decision about the global coronavirus pandemic. We're talking with leading experts and taking your questions live.

[00:02:11] We have some outstanding guests joining us today, including a COVID-19 Task Force officer and a leading epidemiologist. We'll also be joined by my AARP colleague Jesse Salinas, who will help facilitate your calls today. This event is being recorded, and you can access the recording at aarp.org/coronavirus 24 hours after we wrap up.

[00:02:51] Now I would like to welcome our special guests. First is David Kessler, M.D. Dr. Kessler is the chief science officer for the COVID-19 Task Force at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He's also the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Welcome to the program, Dr. Kessler.

[00:03:10] David Kessler: My pleasure.

[00:03:11] Bill Walsh: All right. I'd also like to welcome Katie Passaretti, M.D., vice president and enterprise chief epidemiologist with Atrium Health. Welcome back to the program, Dr. Passaretti.

[00:03:24] Katie Passaretti: Thank you so much. Pleasure to be here.

[00:03:26] Bill Walsh: All right. Great to have you both. So let's get started with you, Dr. Kessler. On Monday, the U.S. reported more than 1.35 million new COVID infections as a result of the omicron surge. What do we need to know about omicron, and how likely is it to cause severe illness? And who is the most vulnerable?

[00:03:59] David Kessler: It's clearly different than anything we've seen before. It's different than we saw with the prototype virus, different than alpha, and different than delta. Very different clinical characteristics. Greatly more transmissible. You know, cases are everywhere, but everything we have seen, first in South Africa, then in European countries, the U.K., and now data that we're seeing in the United States really indicates that there's less hospitalizations per case. And less, once you're in the hospital, less chance of ending up on a ventilator requiring mechanical ventilation, and likely less death. Now the problem is that there's so many more cases that our hospitals are really crushed. So I think that, again, Dr. Passaretti can discuss it, but you know the curve is very different. I mean, it is a straight line up, and we're starting, just starting, we'll say in some cities, maybe it's plateauing. We certainly know that in South Africa, there was a steep drop, and in cities like London we're seeing that to follow. So hopefully, certainly in the middle Atlantic, maybe, you know, we're at the peak. I really do hope this comes down. There is no doubt, and when you look at who's in the ICU, it's really two types of people. Those who are unvaccinated, and those who are vaccinated who have certain what was called comorbidities or high risk factors. They are still more vulnerable to omicron, a very different type of virus than we've seen.

[00:06:28] Bill Walsh: You anticipated my next question, which is about what we can expect from omicron here in the United States given the experience in South Africa and Britain. If we follow that same trend, which is to say omicron, you know, leaves as quickly as it comes, does that mean the nation will return to normal? What will it mean for people?

[00:06:56] David Kessler: You know I think that we have to see. I think one thing about this virus is that it's very humbling. There's a lot we do not know. I do think this is going to come down. It's not going to come down in just one peak. I mean, you know, this country is very large, very diverse, and I think we're going to have multiple peaks. Even in South Africa. You know, when I looked at the data with our South African colleagues over the weekend, it seems to have come down dramatically, but there's still some residual, and I don't think we know what's next. The only thing we know is every time we've gotten a curve down, there's always something around the corner. I mean, I would be, you know really just burying my head in the sand if I didn't, you know, didn't be concerned that out there somewhere with the great deal of transmission, replication of this virus — and it's also mixing, you know, there's some, a little residual delta — somewhere because of all that replication of that virus, it keeps on replicating, that there's going to be new mutations, new combinations, and we have to see whether any of those combinations can compete against omicron and whatever immunity omicron leaves in its wake.

[00:08:32] Bill Walsh: OK, thanks for that, Dr. Kessler. Let me turn to you, Dr. Passaretti. Why are vaccinated people getting COVID-19? If the highly contagious omicron variant eludes vaccines, then what are the benefits of vaccinations, and are there other steps that vaccinated people should be taking to protect themselves?

[00:08:53] Katie Passaretti: Yeah, so first I'll just say, I completely agree with Dr. Kessler. I think hopefully we're nearing the peak and we'll start to come down. I will kind of reiterate a comment he made in there, just, you know, as someone that's seeing patients in the hospital and, you know, experiencing the surge that I worry a little bit about the message that omicron is less severe so that we don't have to worry about it as much, because given the tremendous number of cases, we're still very much feeling the impact on hospitalizations with higher numbers than ever before. So, at the individual level, absolutely less, you know, seems, early data suggests that it's less severe, but that's still translates with, as you said over 1.35 million cases to a lot of hospitalizations and a lot of burden on our health care system. As far as the question about vaccinated individuals, so omicron has, you know, we've seen different variants over time and they've all changed slightly from the initial strain of COVID. So omicron has had a number of mutations and some of those impact what's called immune evasiveness — the ability for vaccines to prevent infection and also the ability of prior infection to protect that individual. So we're seeing higher numbers of reinfection with people that were maybe infected a year ago, six months ago, that kind of thing. And we're seeing more vaccine breakthrough cases. The good news mixed in all that is that the vaccines continue to be protective against what we need them most to do, which is protect against hospitalization and severe disease. So there is absolutely still a benefit to getting vaccinated. You know, it's the difference between a mild cold and ending up in the ICU. As Dr. Kessler said, you know, the people that are still, even with omicron, having more severe disease, are the unvaccinated people with weaker immune systems. So vaccines absolutely are beneficial at preventing that severe disease, which is really what we most want them to do. And I would say, you know, that vaccinate, the initial vaccine series is important, but we're also, we've also seen data that getting the booster on top of that, we know we have plenty of opportunities across the country for improving booster uptake rates, and that that can add an additional level of protection. So if you're not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you're vaccinated and eligible for a booster, go ahead and get it. While we're in this time of large amount of transmission in our communities and our country, the other things that can protect us and kind of tamp down that spread are the same things that have been recommended throughout the pandemic. If you're sick, stay home. Don't go to your workplace. Don't go out to a public gathering and expose other people. Wearing masks, good quality masks, medical masks, or N95s provide, you know, protection, what we call source control from spreading to other people. And, you know, that's especially important when you're in indoor settings with larger groups of people. So vaccinate, boost, wear a mask when you're out and about, particularly in indoor settings with people whose vaccine status you don't know. And please, please stay home if you're sick.

[00:12:21] Bill Walsh: OK, let me do a quick follow-up on that. You know it seems like the three approved vaccines have become household names here in the United States, but I was wondering if you can give us a high-level review of those approved vaccines and the boosters, as well as the antivirals and treatments. Those have been in the news a lot recently. So what's available now, and who are they most effective for?

[00:12:45] Katie Passaretti: Sure, Dr. Kessler, did you want to add something?

[00:12:48] David Kessler: I just wanted to add one thing, one plea, for all AARP members. Please urge your grandkids, if they're older than 5, or your kids who have kids that are older than 5, to also get vaccinated. You know, we've done a great job with vaccinating, and my hat’s off to AARP on the work on individuals over 65, over 75, and those who are at risk. We still, we're only about 28 percent of kids between 5 and 11 who are vaccinated. So to the extent that grandparents can use their influence and serve as models so that we get school-age children vaccinated, really would appreciate that.

[00:13:40] Bill Walsh: Thanks for that, Dr. Kessler. Yeah, go ahead.

[00:13:43] Katie Passaretti: Absolutely. Couldn't emphasize that more as well. So really now everyone over the age of 5 is eligible to get vaccinated. So as much work as we can do to encourage that, vaccines are an ongoing debate. So encouraging our friends, our family members, our communities to get vaccinated. There's been some new recommendations specifically surrounding boosters over the past couple of weeks to a month. So now anyone 12 and up, if they got either Moderna or the Pfizer vaccine for their initial series, can get a booster if they're more than five months out from that second dose. So, you know, previously it was six months, now it's five months, so that opens the door to more boosters, more opportunities to protect people. In addition, if people are immunocompromised, so a weakened immune system because of a transplant, or medications, chemotherapy, those individuals, what's considered fully vaccinated for them is three doses initially. And they can get even a fourth dose specifically for immunocompromised. That's their booster five months after they got the third dose. So please, you know, know when you're eligible for a booster, get your vaccine. Again, additional levels of protection. As far as treatments, you know, there's been a ton of evolution of treatments over the past month or so. And with omicron, some of our old treatments don't work as well, and we've had to kind of shift how we kind of treat patients with COVID, particularly those that aren't sick enough to end up in the hospital. So many have heard of, and maybe have received in the past, monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID. And that's particularly important for people that are over the age of 65 and have high risk conditions. Unfortunately, with omicron, several of the monoclonal antibodies that we've used in the past are not as useful. So there's a new medication, a new monoclonal antibody called Sotrovimab, that is the best choice for omicron and really what is being given now that we know the vast, vast, vast majority of cases of COVID in our country are due to omicron. But, with that, we have a limited supply. So, you know, definitely talk to your physician about whether you meet the high-risk criteria, age criteria to get that Sotrovimab, which is an infusion medication. In addition, there are two by-mouth medications that have been approved over the past month or so. One called Paxlovid, and one called Molnupiravir. Again, these are by-mouth medications that really are most effective when given very early in symptom onset to those that are high risk of illness. So over 65, multiple medical problems, weakened immune system, those are the groups that benefit from this. And, you know, unfortunately, what you heard me say with the monoclonal antibodies applies here as well. The supply of these medications is being ramped up, but right now there is a limited supply. So it's important, if you have symptoms, especially if you're in a high-risk group, attempt to get tested quickly, and then talk to your physician about what treatment options would be available to you, and know that all of these medications are most useful if they're given relatively early, less than five to seven days in your onset of symptoms.

[00:17:30] Bill Walsh: OK, that's a lot of information. For a summary of a lot of those updates our listeners can check out the latest at aarp.org/coronavirus. Go there, and you'll see frequently asked questions and regular updates about the coronavirus, as well as some of the information that Dr. Passaretti just provided. But before we do, I want to bring in my AARP colleague, Bill Sweeney. Bill is the senior vice president of government affairs at AARP. Welcome to the program, Bill.

[00:18:14] Bill Sweeney: Thanks. It's a delight to be here with you.

[00:18:16] Bill Walsh: All right. So in addition to sharing the most current coronavirus updates, we like to take a few minutes to update our listeners on issues facing Congress in a segment we call Fighting for You. Bill, what can you share about legislation impacting older adults?

[00:18:34] Bill Sweeney: Well, on the advocacy front, AARP's number one priority is making sure Congress lowers prescription drug prices. You know, this year an estimated 18 million Americans were unable to afford a prescription due to the high cost. And the U.S. pays three times more than other countries for the exact same brand-name drugs. So we believe this is unacceptable and we are urging the U.S. Senate to act.

[00:19:00] Bill Walsh: So I believe you're referring there to the historic prescription drug relief in the Build Back Better Act currently pending in the Senate. What are those provisions and what does AARP want to see happen?

[00:19:14] Bill Sweeney: Well, number one, we want Medicare to be allowed to negotiate for lower drug prices. More than 80 percent of voters of all parties support this change, and it would save seniors and Medicare billions of dollars. In addition, the big pharmaceutical companies would be penalized if they increase prices faster than the rate of inflation. And there'll be a new annual cap on what seniors enrolled in Medicare Part D would pay out of pocket for prescriptions as well as a monthly cap on copays for insulin. These are not just cost-saving measures, but lifesaving ones. We've never been closer to seeing prescription drug price relief passed, and we're urging the Senate to see this through. Older Americans really just can't afford to wait any longer.

[00:20:03] Bill Walsh: Is there something our listeners can do to help?

[00:20:08] Bill Sweeney: Definitely. If you want to help, you can raise your voice, contact your senators and your members of Congress, and urge them to pass prescription drug relief. This week, AARP members have signed petitions, sent thousands of emails and made important phone calls to Capitol Hill. The message is simple and it's clear: Ask Congress to lower drug prices now.

[00:20:31] Bill Walsh: OK. It's a critical time. Now we know nearly 1 in 10 nursing home residents have died from the coronavirus. This is a national tragedy. What's AARP doing to protect the vulnerable nursing home residents?

[00:20:47] Bill Sweeney: Well, we believe the failure to protect the nursing home community is nothing less than a national disgrace. AARP is urging elected officials at the federal and the state levels to ensure that public funds provided to nursing homes are being used for vaccines, for boosters, testing, proper staffing, and to improve the health and the safety of nursing home residents. The pandemic brought to light problems that have plagued nursing homes for decades, including the staffing problems and shortages, poor infection control practices, a lack of transparency or accountability. AARP will continue to push for these long-overdue, long-term reforms in the nursing home industry.

[00:21:30] Bill Walsh: OK, and like the rest of the country, many nursing homes are seeing new surges of infection rates, especially with omicron and the cold winter months. For listeners who may have a family member in a nursing home, what do you suggest?

[00:21:45] Bill Sweeney: Well, if you do have a loved one in a nursing home, please advocate for their safety. They need you right now to be an advocate for them. Most nursing home residents were vaccinated in early 2021, and they're now eligible for booster shots. Don't take for granted that your loved one has received theirs. It's really important that you contact the facility directly, ask for their vaccination and booster rates among both staff and residents. And make sure your family member receives their booster shot as soon as possible. Nursing home residents are the most vulnerable among us. We need to make sure that they're protected.

[00:22:19] Bill Walsh: OK, Bill. Great advice, and thanks so much for the update. All right. It's now time to address your questions about the coronavirus with Dr. David Kessler and Dr. Katie Passaretti.

[00:22:53] I'd now like to bring in my AARP colleague Jesse Salinas to help facilitate your calls today. Welcome, Jesse.

[00:23:00] Jesse Salinas: So good to be here today, Bill.

[00:23:02] Bill Walsh: All right, Jesse. Who do we have first on the line?

[00:23:05] Jesse Salinas: Our first call is going to be Rose from Wisconsin.

[00:23:09] Bill Walsh: Hey, Rose. Welcome to the program. Go ahead with your question.

[00:23:13] Rose: Hi there. I'm getting confused. So far, I'm COVID free. I've been fully vaccinated, have my booster. Should I be figuring out if I need to get a COVID test, how do I do it? And which ones should I try to get? And I'm just really wondering about this.

[00:23:33] Bill Walsh: All right. How are you feeling? It sounds like we may have lost her. OK. Dr. Passaretti? Do you want to answer that question for Rose?

[00:23:44] Katie Passaretti: Sure. You know, it is, I will admittedly say at least in my area, and I know many areas of the country, testing access is a bit limited, and there is longer time to get your results than we've seen previously because of the huge volume of cases. You know, I do think the most important thing is, you know, for the AARP members who really are at a higher risk due to age, if you have symptoms, getting tested is important. The two types of tests out there are the home tests, what are called antigen tests. If you can get your hands on those, they perform best when you have symptoms. So those are a decent option. Or if there is availability to get a PCR test in your area, usually those are done in larger labs, get sent off, you get the results and right now it's taking several days to come back. That's the other option. So certainly if you're at high risk and having symptoms, get tested so we can talk to your doctor about potential treatments to make sure you're as protected as you can. The other time where it is recommended to get tested is if you had a known exposure. So if you had someone in your household turn positive a couple of days after your exposure to them, then attempting to get tested is important. Absolutely challenges right now, and Dr. Kessler may have other kind of comments on that, but you know, really trying at least for when you have symptoms, getting tested so we can get you treated if treatment is available is still very important.

[00:25:26] Bill Walsh: OK, thanks so much, Dr. Passaretti. Jesse, let's take another call.

[00:25:30] Jesse Salinas: Yep, our next call is going to be from Harriet in New York.

[00:25:37] Bill Walsh: Harriet, welcome to our program. Go ahead with your question.

[00:25:40] Harriet: Thank you. I have two great-grandchildren, and the parents are my grandchildren, and they want me to come this weekend to stay over. I'm alone and they have not been, they did not get the shots. I have had all the shots, the booster, the flu shot, and I am in a quandary. Do I go, do I not go? Can you help me?

[00:26:09] Bill Walsh: That's a great question. A question I think in a lot of people's minds. Dr. Kessler, do you want to weigh in on that? Maybe Dr. Passaretti, you have something to say on it too.

[00:26:18] David Kessler: Sure. Let's just go, I just want to make sure I understand the facts and I hear it. So Harriet's vaccinated and she's boosted, correct?

[00:26:27] Bill Walsh: Correct.

[00:26:29] David Kessler: And she's wants to go to family members who have children and younger adults. And did I hear that they are not vaccinated, and they are not boosted?

[00:26:42] Bill Walsh: Yes, I believe so. So she's in a quandary about that.

[00:26:46] David Kessler: Right. So, you know, so I think that, you know, there are a number of options. Look, we're at the stage where certain things are absolutely critical, very important in life. And if things are important, and you gotta do it, and it can't be delayed, then you find a way to do it. I mean, we choose which risks we take. Saying that, to be honest, Harriet said she was in New York, if you can get me a couple of more weeks, I would appreciate it, because I think the curve is still pretty high on omicron, and I'd like to see that the viral amount in the community is down. And you know Dr. [Janet] Woodcock [acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration] said something, you know, it was a little bit you know, caught everyone's attention: “Everyone's going to get omicron.” Well, I really would prefer not everyone get omicron, because I think it does have, you know, it's going to affect different people, but there's a lot of omicron out there. And my guess is I prefer that you can wear a mask, you can wear N95s, you can test everybody. So there are ways to make things work. There's a lot of virus out there and if you have some doubt, see if you can put it off for a couple of weeks. Let's get to spring.

[00:28:14] Bill Walsh: All right. Thanks for that, Dr. Kessler. Jesse, let's take another caller.

[00:28:20] Jesse Salinas: Yeah, Bill, our next question is going to be from Patricia in Arizona.

[00:28:25] Bill Walsh: Hey, Patricia. Welcome to the program. Go ahead with your question.

[00:28:29] Patricia: Hi. Thank you. I tested positive for COVID December 21, and you know, hibernated, whatever, for 12 days and no one in my family got it. And I test every week. I get a PCR test for a study I'm in about COVID, and I continue to test positive. I've had three positive COVID tests since December 21. My only symptoms are kind of fatigue in the afternoon. And I mean, I don't feel completely myself, but I'm not, you know, I don't have a fever, I don't have the severe aches, et cetera, and I'm just concerned about being around other people. My whole family is around me all the time. They did not get COVID through any of this. How safe is this for me to just continue? I wear a KN94 wherever I go, always have. Still got it. I'm also vaccinated, boosted, and I have a flu shot.

[00:29:32] Bill Walsh: OK. Let's ask Dr. Passaretti her views on this. Do you have any suggestions for Patricia, Dr. Passaretti?

[00:29:39] Katie Passaretti: Yeah, absolutely. Really good question, so thank you for asking it. You know, the type of tests that are used to diagnose COVID can stay positive for some time. We actually tell people not to retest, unless they have new symptoms, for about three months after you test positive for that reason. So I think if you're vaccinated and boosted, that improves your odds of clearing out the virus. I would say if your fevers are gone for more than a day or two, and your symptoms are overall improved, it's very, very unlikely that you would spread to anyone else. The only group I will kind of caveat is if — I didn't hear you say — but if you have a weakened immune system, you know, on chemotherapy, those people can maybe carry virus for a longer period of time, but you being vaccinated, boosted, and as long as you've stuck with your isolation frame, I think it's low risk.

[00:30:38] Bill Walsh: OK, thanks so much for that. Jesse. Let's take another question.

[00:30:43] Jesse Salinas: OK, Bill, we're getting a lot of questions on Facebook today. And a number of them are asking about if you've gotten your third shot sometime in the end of August or late in the third or fourth quarter, and now, you know, when do I get a fourth shot? Am I supposed to be thinking about a fourth shot? I know you talked about this earlier, but can you clarify?

[00:31:01] Bill Walsh: Dr. Kessler, can you help us with that question?

[00:31:04] David Kessler: Yeah, the answer is: collecting a lot of data, no decisions yet, no reason to jump. We're definitely going to need a fourth shot. Or we're not going to need a fourth shot. The hope among the best immunologists is that three shots, spaced out — the two primary series and then one a number of months down — really can mature the immune system. So we're working on that question. We've not called for a fourth shot. Colleagues and friends and patients who asked me, I said, hold it. We're not ready. You should be well protected with the booster. But saying that, we've got a lot of work to do. It may be that we need annual shots, depending on what emerges after omicron. We may need something that makes sure that we have coverage there. But not ready to make any decisions on the fourth boost. Let’s make sure everybody gets, with regard to the mRNAs, their three shots. That's the main focus right now.

[00:32:24] Bill Walsh: OK. Very good. Thanks so much for that, Dr. Kessler. And thanks for all of those questions.

[00:32:33] Dr. Passaretti, I'd like to pose another question to you about omicron. You know, is this, you know, we talked about, is it peaking? If it does peak, what does it mean for the country? We know that omicron is highly contagious, but it's a less virulent strain of COVID-19. And I guess I'm wondering if this signals a transition from a pandemic to an endemic, such as seasonal flu, or are there more serious variants potentially lurking out there?

[00:33:29] Katie Passaretti: Yeah. So I'm going to quote Dr. Kessler in what he said earlier on that this virus continuously keeps us humble. I think certainly the hope is that omicron becoming a little bit less severe, more transmissible may be kind of morphing into acting more like our common cold and less at risk for severe disease and crowding our hospitals and whatnot, which is where we ultimately think we're going to end up, that endemic state, where there are cases and they kind of come and go, but it's not overwhelming to our health care system in the vast majority of people causes a mild cold. So, you know, the hope certainly is with this transition in the virus, we're headed that way. Having said that, you know, COVID virus has thrown us a number of curveballs over the past two and a half years, and there's always the risk that we could be faced with yet another variant that has different characteristics in a completely different way. So I think that's the hope but only time will tell if we're truly getting close to the end.

[00:34:38] Bill Walsh: OK, thanks for that, Dr. Passaretti. And I'd like to turn back to you, Dr. Kessler. You know, it's been mentioned a couple of times so far in the program about the supply shortages in COVID tests around the country. What's contributing to that shortage and what's being done to increase supply? We're wondering also when will the home kits and PCR tests become more widely available?

[00:35:04] David Kessler: So there's different kinds as Dr. Passaretti said, different kinds of tests. There actually is not a shortage of the PCR tests. Where the shortage is, is of the home tests, you know, getting them. And so the laboratory tests, you know, the ones you either send off or you go into a pharmacy, and they send off, enormous capacity to do that. The president announced today, even another 500 million, so that brings it to a billion, these are the home tests, the rapid tests, the antigen tests, all called the same thing. So we are investing more in those tests and should have more shortly.

[00:36:02] Bill Walsh: Well, let me put a finer point on that. When do you expect consumers will begin to start seeing those antigen tests available in pharmacies and elsewhere?

[00:36:13] David Kessler: I think Dr. Passaretti wanted to get in here.

[00:36:16] Katie Passaretti: Oh, sorry. I was just going to say, there's plenty of PCR tests, but your ability, the places that have spots to actually do the test can be a challenge, so just be aware of that when you're scheduling. And I'll just put a tiny, tiny plug in for people not to utilize our emergency rooms — which are slammed right now with patients sick with COVID and other things — as the place you go to get tested. It’s really important to use the medical care settings for the purpose they're intended. So I get that there are challenges with testing, but just please try to protect our emergency rooms for sick people that need that level of care.

[00:36:58] Bill Walsh: Yeah, that's great. And Dr. Kessler, I just asked when consumers might start seeing those new home test available.

[00:37:08] David Kessler: End of this month, this new increased supply should start, and then emerge even greater over the following weeks.

[00:37:20] Bill Walsh: OK, thanks very much, both of you, for those comments. Let's turn back to our phone lines to take more of your questions with Dr. David Kessler and Dr. Katie Passaretti. Jesse, who do we have on next?

[00:37:45] Jesse Salinas: Yep. I'm going to take one from Facebook. This is from Edward, and he says, "We've been reusing our masks after cooking them at 170 degrees for 30 minutes in the oven. Is this a good idea?"

[00:37:57] Bill Walsh: Dr. Kessler, maybe you can address that. I think there's been some recent guidance on cloth masks as well.

[00:38:04] David Kessler: Yeah, so we'll just talk a little about masks. There's no doubt that masks vary in the degree of protection, right, and they range, because there's a lot of confusion. And just from a filtration protection point of view, there's N95s that are most protective from filtration, then you go to the KN95s, and then you go to these surgical masks, and then you go to these cloth masks. I mean, I think the thing that is most important is to use the highest-quality masks that you can tolerate, or that fits well. I mean, you know, I can use an N95 when I'm going in and out for short periods of time. Put me into an N95 for hours, and I'm pretty uncomfortable. So I think it's important to use the highest-quality mask that you can tolerate. But with regard to cooking them in the oven, I'm not sure exactly what masks we're talking about. I would stay away from cooking masks. I don't know exactly what it does to the chemicals, et cetera, in there. No doubt that masks can be reused. You know, I reuse my masks, my N95s, repeatedly. You try to use them until they get dirty, they get stained. I know Dr. Passaretti, wants to comment.

[00:39:44] Katie Passaretti: No, I completely agree with everything you said. You know, if it gets kind of not fitting your face well or moist or dirty, throw it out. But otherwise I do the same for kind of public use, different for health care obviously.

[00:39:56] David Kessler: Right.

[00:39:57] Bill Walsh: And Dr. Kessler, I understand the president announced just today that the administration would be sending masks to Americans. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

[00:40:07] David Kessler: Yeah, I think there are more to come next week. You'll remember, we already did that with more procedure masks, but I think there is an intent to send high-quality masks to people, and I think there'll be further announcements on that next week.

[00:40:29] Bill Walsh: Fantastic. Thanks so much for that. Jesse, who do we have on next?

[00:40:34] Jesse Salinas: You have our next question is going to come from Donald, from Arizona.

[00:40:38] Bill Walsh: Hey, Donald, welcome to our program. Go ahead with your question.

[00:40:42] Donald: Thank you. I'm calling about Medicare recipients and whether or not they are or will be reimbursed for the cost of acquiring the home test, the PCR test? I know the home tests are not readily available to all, but we have acquired four of them; two for my wife, and two for myself. But going forward, I've seen no information regarding reimbursement other than private insurance companies and Medicaid recipients.

[00:41:20] Bill Walsh: OK, well, that's a great question, Donald. Let's ask Dr. Kessler about Medicare reimbursement for those in-home tests.

[00:41:29] David Kessler: As I understand it, I'm not a reimbursement expert, but as I understand it there's now a requirement that insurance companies need to cover eight, I think it's eight, home tests a month. But I'm sure, Bill, your experts may even know those requirements even better than I do.

[00:41:55] Bill Walsh: Yeah, Dr. Passaretti, I don't know if you have any insight on that. I'll ask our staff to do a little research and see if we can get an answer before the end of the program.

[00:42:05] Katie Passaretti: Yeah, sorry, not so much my gig either.

[00:42:08] Bill Walsh: OK, well, that's fine. Donald, stay with us, and we'll try to get you an answer. Jesse, in the meantime let's go back to the phones.

[00:42:16] Jesse Salinas: Yep. I've got one more from Facebook. This is from Katie. She says, "Do vaccinated and boosted people need to wear masks when visiting each other indoors?"

[00:42:24] Bill Walsh: Hmm, Dr. Passaretti?

[00:42:27] Katie Passaretti: Yeah. So I think it all comes down you know, we talked a little bit earlier about your kind of risk-benefit ratio. We do see people that are vaccinated having mild cases and people with boosters, although at lower numbers, getting mild cases of COVID. I think, you know, it depends, me as a health care worker, if I'm with anyone outside of my household indoors, I wear a mask because me, taking me out of the workforce right now, when we're already stretched thin can be, you know, would be additionally challenging. Or if you live with someone that is high risk or you're high risk yourself, then it may make sense, but it's all kind of levels of risk. What you're willing to accept, how important that interaction is. I think, you know, certainly you're setting yourself up for success by both individuals being vaccinated and boosted. And, you know, if you're low risk and not going home to someone that's a transplant recipient or something like that, then maybe, maybe lower risk. But certainly, you know, where I say for sure, regardless of, you know, vaccine status, booster status, if you're in crowded indoor spaces, you know, the more people there, the more crowded the space, you know, the more variability in there. And then it just gets increasingly tricky.

[00:43:41] Bill Walsh: OK, thanks very much for that, Dr. Passaretti. And Donald had asked a moment ago about Medicare covering the cost of at-home tests. We've got some information from medicare.gov, which is the program's website. And it says that Medicare does not pay for over-the-counter COVID-19 tests at this point. People with original Medicare can pick up free at-home tests from community health centers and Medicare certified health clinics. Some of the Medicare Advantage plans may pay for those at home or over-the-counter tests. So thanks to our staff for getting that answer. Jesse, let's go back to our callers. Who do we have up next?

[00:44:27] Jesse Salinas: Let's bring on Elaine from Texas.

[00:44:29] Bill Walsh: Hey Elaine, welcome to our program. Go ahead with your question.

[00:44:34] Jesse Salinas: Yeah, I wanted to know, my son-in-law and I got our three shots. I went with him each time, and two weeks ago he came down with COVID anyway after the three shots, and he doesn't go out hardly at all. I mean, he really doesn't, you know, go out there where he can get it. So it was, it was upsetting to see that he got COVID anyway. Why does that happen?

[00:45:01] Bill Walsh: Right. I mean, these are breakthrough infections and Dr. Passaretti, we're seeing a lot of these, right. What can you tell our listeners about breakthrough infections and what they can expect?

[00:45:12] Katie Passaretti: Yeah, absolutely. You know, the transmissibility of omicron, how easily it is spread, gives little wiggle room to kind of preventing people from getting infected. What I said earlier and what I would kind of reiterate, vaccines and boosters are very good at preventing severe disease, but with the volume of cases that are going on, and the volume of spread in our community right now, we are seeing breakthrough infections. The good news, it is frustrating, and you know, you're like, I'm doing everything I should. I should be protected. But the good news is that those cases are milder and less likely to end your son or you up in the hospital with more severe COVID. So again, vaccines and boosters, very, very good at preventing severe disease. We are going to see breakthrough cases due to the nature of the mutations in omicron and how this particular strain acts, but rest assured that the prevention of severe disease, which is again, the most important thing remain strong with vaccines and boosters.

[00:46:27] Bill Walsh: OK, thanks so much, Dr. Passaretti. Jesse, who do we have next on the line?

[00:46:32] Jesse Salinas: The next one we're going to bring on Cheryl from Ohio.

[00:46:36] Bill Walsh: Hey, Cheryl. Welcome to our program today. What's your question?

[00:46:41] Cheryl: Well, I didn't have the vaccination and neither has one of my brothers. And what I said I would do is when he had it, I would get it. But he has no intention of getting it, and I started thinking that I would get it after a year, after a year of it being in … like last year, it just started last year. I had a whole year for this vaccine to be out here and be safe for everybody. That's the way I was looking at it. Now I am 66, just turned 66 this year. And I don't know if that's considered high risk, but I do have multiple sclerosis, and I just wanted to know if I get the vaccine, which one was first? I know the three that are out there. I'm not thinking about Johnson & Johnson, so which was the best between the Pfizer and the other one?

[00:48:03] Bill Walsh: Moderna?

[00:48:03] Cheryl: Yeah. You have to do two of those.

[00:48:08] Bill Walsh: So it sounds like you're, you're beginning to think about getting the vaccine now. Have you decided for sure?

[00:48:15] Cheryl: I haven't decided for sure. My doctor wants me to do it. She's done it. One of my brothers has done it. And I'm just trying to keep that in consideration because of the omicron coming out also, along with that delta, too.

[00:48:33] Bill Walsh: Sure. Well, Cheryl, let's ask our, let's ask our experts about that and see what they have to say. Dr. Kessler, do you want to weigh in on that? First, on whether Cheryl should get vaccinated, and if she should choose one vaccine over another?

[00:48:51] David Kessler: You know, I think it's great that she's on the verge of doing it. I can only support that decision just very strongly. I think we can tell Cheryl that there are hundreds of millions of people who've gotten this safely, so her waiting a year, she can be absolutely certain, you know, that this is among the safest vaccines we have. I'd urge Cheryl to go get it sooner rather than later, because there's a lot of virus out there and I'd want her to be protected. Whichever vaccine they have available where you walk in or where you go, I would take it. That's the most important thing. Moderna, Pfizer, you know, Dr. Passaretti and I could probably spend the next hour talking about little differences between the two. Not going to make a difference to you, Cheryl, just go get whatever is available, but do me a favor, your decision to go get it is a smart one. And let's get it done in the next couple of days. It makes a big, big, big difference whether you end up in the hospital or not. So great decision.

[00:50:14] Bill Walsh: All right. Thank you, Dr. Kessler, and thanks Cheryl for calling in. Go ahead and get your brother, make sure you get, your brother gets vaccinated too in the process. Jesse, let's go back to the phones. Who do we have next?

[00:50:26] Jesse Salinas: Yep. We're going to take a question from Anna in South Carolina.

[00:50:30] Bill Walsh: All right. Hey, Anna, welcome to our program. Go ahead with your question.

[00:50:35] Anna: Hi, my question is, you have COVID, and I need the isolation process explained. Are you isolating from the day you went and got your test, isolating from the date you got results, and then the process moving forward from that. It's very confusing.

[00:50:54] Bill Walsh: Dr. Kessler, would you want to help Anna out with this? There have been some changes in recommendations recently, haven't there?

[00:51:00] David Kessler: Correct. But I think that usually, Dr. Passaretti can correct me, I think generally we count from the day of onset of symptoms, and right now what CDC is recommending is isolation. If you test positive for five days and then there are tests available, but if you test positive where you have symptoms or fever, you know stay in isolation for another five days. But if you have no fever and no symptoms and test negative, then feel free to go about. But make sure you wear high quality masks for at least the next five days. Dr. Passaretti may want to correct me and see if I got that right.

[00:52:02] Katie Passaretti: No, you got it completely right. So it starts from date of symptom onset, five days, at least. And then if you're improved from a symptom standpoint, all the way better. You can come out and wear a mask. If you do take a test, then it depends on that test, but a test isn't mandatory. You shouldn't feel like you have to track one down to decide whether you can come out or not.

[00:52:23] Bill Walsh: OK, thanks for you both for that. Jesse, let's go back to the phone lines. Who do we have up next?

[00:52:29] Jesse Salinas: Yep. We're going to take another question. This is going to be from Wynonna in Missouri.

[00:52:38] Bill Walsh: Hey, Wynonna, welcome to our program. Go ahead with your question.

[00:52:41] Wynonna: Thank you. Well, I've had COVID, and I've gotten over it. I didn't have any symptoms of it. The reason why I went and got tested is because my granddaughter’s boyfriend got it. That's the way I got it. So that's why I went to be tested. And then when I went, I was positive. And then what I was wondering, OK, I'm negative now. So and I've had both flu shot, I had Moderna; I had both shots from Moderna, and I had my flu shot, but I didn't get my booster, like I said, but I wasn't sick at all. But what I want to know, when can I get my booster since I just tested negative. Do I have to wait? I've been told I'm supposed to wait three months before I can take the booster. Is that right?

[00:53:44] Bill Walsh: Yeah, let's get an answer. Dr. Passaretti, can you help Wynonna?

[00:53:48] Katie Passaretti: Yeah, sure, Wynonna. It's a really good question, and one we get a lot. So you actually don't have to wait three months after COVID to get your, you know, if you're unvaccinated, get your vaccine or to get your booster. Really the minimum amount of time that we say to wait is until you're feeling better, and for you, awesome, you didn't have any symptoms with your infection and the time frame when you're infectious to other people. So you don't want to go get a shot while you're still infectious and could spread to other people. But once you're beyond that time frame, you can consider going ahead and getting the booster. So there's no need to wait three months. Certainly, you may have some short-term protection from infection for a period of time, but there's no harm in getting it as long as you're cleared from isolation or you're told you're no longer at risk of infecting other people. So as long as you're feeling better and out of isolation, you can get the booster. I typically tell people not to wait much longer than three or four months, because then your risk of getting a second infection with COVID tends to go up a little bit.

[00:55:03] Bill Walsh: OK, thanks doctor, for that. Jesse, let's take another question.

[00:55:07] Jesse Salinas: Yep, let's do Carmen from New York.

[00:55:10] Bill Walsh: Hey Carmen, Welcome to the program. Go ahead with your question, Carmen.

[00:55:18] Carmen: OK, my question is for my brother-in-law, who lives in Harris County, Texas. And they have very high rates of omicron there. And he had Guillain-Barré syndrome. But he was told by his doctors he cannot get the vaccine. And I don’t know, I don't feel that that's safe. I think that is there anything you can do for people with this syndrome? He would love the vaccine, but you know, what do you do when you're told....

[00:55:54] Bill Walsh: Yeah. Yeah. Well, let's ask our doctors. I'm not sure if Dr. Passaretti could answer this one, or Dr. Kessler? Dr. Passaretti, why don't you jump in first?

[00:56:03] Katie Passaretti: Sure, so you know, certainly I wouldn't kind of assume, you know, your, your brother-in-law's doctor knows that medical situation the best, but a history of Guillain-Barré is not a strict contraindication to going ahead and getting vaccinated. So I think, you know, first your family member can go ahead and consider getting vaccinated for that extra protection, you know, weighing the risk of the, you know, the omicron circulating in his area, and you know what infection might do to him. There are, as we kind of talked about earlier, potential treatments for higher-risk individuals, unvaccinated individuals, if he chooses to not get vaccinated, but you know, mostly I would say, you know, even with a history of Guillain-Barré, you can consider proceeding with one of the mRNA vaccines and getting that protection against future COVID infection.

[00:57:03] Bill Walsh: So either Moderna or Pfizer would be the best option in that case.

[00:57:07] Katie Passaretti: I mean in general Johnson & Johnson isn't our first line anymore. In general we recommend Pfizer and Moderna.

[00:57:14] Bill Walsh: OK. Fantastic. Dr. Kessler, did you want to add anything to that?

[00:57:19] David Kessler: No, I think that Dr. Passaretti got it exactly right. Obviously check with your doctor, but the best expertise is Guillain-Barré is not a contraindication to getting the vaccine. The earlier call, you know, raised the question that, you know, again, I think Dr. Passaretti got it exactly right, when should you, if you've gotten COVID, when should you get your boost? And, you know, I was talking to Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, Dr. [Rochelle] Walensky about that question, so Dr. Fauci said, you know, we don't have great data to be able to answer that. I mean, I think there may be an advantage of waiting. I mean, and again, I agree 100 percent with Dr. Passaretti. You want to do it within three to four months. But there may be an advantage of waiting about a month because you really do want to allow —the immune system really works by maturation of response. So you give it a little time to be able to have that maturation. But again, you know, that's why we're practicing medicine, and there are sometimes there are not perfect data. But, you know, my sense is if you've had COVID recently and you're due for a boost, you know, sometime between a month and three months probably makes sense.

[00:58:45] Bill Walsh: OK, thanks so much, Dr. Kessler, and I think we're going to have to leave it at that. We are at the top of the hour. This has been a really informative discussion and thanks to both of our experts for being with us and providing all of the updates. And thank you, our AARP members, volunteers, and listeners for participating in this discussion today. AARP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization and has been working to promote the health and well-being of older Americans for more than 60 years. In the face of this crisis, we're providing information and resources to help older adults and those caring for them protect themselves from the virus, prevent its spread to others, while taking care of themselves. All of the resources referenced today, including a recording of the Q&A event, can be found at aarp.org/coronavirus beginning tomorrow, January 14. Go there if your question was not addressed, and you'll find the latest updates as well as information created specifically for older adults and family caregivers. We hope you learned something that can help keep you and your loved ones healthy. Please join us again January 27, at 1 p.m. Eastern Time for another live coronavirus Q&A event. We hope you can join us then. In the meantime, stay safe, thank you, and have a good day. This concludes our call.

Coronavirus: Staying Safe During Changing Times

Today at 1 p.m. ET

Listen to a replay of the live event above.

With COVID infections and hospitalizations surging across the U.S., many Americans are concerned about their health and safety, and confused about changing guidelines. Our expert panel addresses your questions related to Omicron, testing, vaccines and boosters during this live Q&A event.

The experts:

Katie Passaretti, M.D.
Vice President and Enterprise Chief Epidemiologist 
Atrium Health

David Kessler, M.D.
Chief Science Officer, White House COVID-19 Response Team
Professor of Pediatrics, Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of California
Former FDA

Bill Sweeney
Senior Vice President, Government Affairs, AARP


For the latest coronavirus news and advice, go to AARP.org/coronavirus.


Replay previous AARP Coronavirus Tele-Town Halls

  • December 16Coronavirus: What You Need to Know About Boosters, Vaccines & Variants
  • December 9Coronavirus: Boosters, Vaccines and Your Health
  • November 18 - Coronavirus: Your Questions Answered — Vaccines, Misinformation & Mental Wellness
  • November 4 - Coronavirus: Boosters, Health & Wellness
  • October 21 - Coronavirus: Protecting Your Health & Caring for Loved Ones
  • October 7Coronavirus: Boosters, Flu Vaccines and Wellness Visits
  • September 23 - Coronavirus: Delta Variant, Boosters & Self Care
  • September 9 - Coronavirus: Staying Safe, Caring for Loved Ones & New Work Realities
  • August 26 - Coronavirus: Staying Safe, New Work Realities & Managing Finances
  • August 12 - Coronavirus: Staying Safe in Changing Times
  • June 24 - The State of LGBTQ Equality in the COVID Era
  • June 17 - Coronavirus: Vaccines And Staying Safe During “Reopening”
  • June 3 - Coronavirus: Your Health, Finances & Housing
  • May 20 - Coronavirus: Vaccines, Variants and Coping
  • May 6 - Coronavirus: Vaccines, Variants and Coping
  • April 22 - Your Vaccine Questions Answered and Coronavirus: Vaccines and Asian American and Pacific Islanders
  • April 8 - Coronavirus and Latinos: Safety, Protection and Prevention and Vaccines and Caring for Grandkids and Loved Ones
  • April 1Coronavirus and The Black Community: Your Vaccine Questions Answered
  • March 25Coronavirus: The Stimulus, Taxes and Vaccine
  • March 11 - One Year of the Pandemic and Managing Personal Finances and Taxes
  • February 25Coronavirus Vaccines and You
  • February 11 - Coronavirus Vaccines: Your Questions Answered
  • January 28 - Coronavirus: Vaccine Distribution and Protecting Yourself
    & A Virtual World Awaits: Finding Fun, Community and Connections
  • January 14 - Coronavirus: Vaccines, Staying Safe & Coping and Prevention, Vaccines & the Black Community
  • January 7 - Coronavirus: Vaccines, Stimulus & Staying Safe

 

  • Dec 3 - Coronavirus: Staying Safe & Coping This Winter
  • Nov 19 - Coronavirus: Vaccines, Staying and A Caregiver's Thanksgiving
  • Nov 12 - Coronavirus: Coping and Maintaining Your Well-Being
  • Oct 1 - Coronavirus: Vaccines & Coping During the Pandemic
  • Sept 17 - Coronavirus: Prevention, Treatments, Vaccines & Avoiding Scams
  • Sept 3 - Coronavirus: Your Finances, Health & Family (6 months in)
  • Aug 20 - Your Health and Staying Protected
  • Aug 6 - Coronavirus: Answering Your Most Frequent Questions
  • July 23 - Coronavirus: Navigating the New Normal
  • July 16 - The Health and Financial Security of Latinos
  • July 9 - Coronavirus: Your Most Frequently Asked Questions
  • June 18 and 20 - Strengthening Relationships Over Time and  LGBTQ Non-Discrimination Protections
  • June 11 – Coronavirus: Personal Resilience in the New Normal