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You’ve been overwhelmed with headlines all week – what's worth a closer look? One Thing takes you into the story and helps you make sense of the news everyone's been talking about. Each Sunday, host David Rind interviews one of CNN’s world-class reporters to tell us what they've found – and why it matters. From the team behind CNN 5 Things.

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Dr. Sanjay Gupta on Our New Covid Calculation
CNN One Thing
Sep 17, 2023

Last week, the FDA and CDC signed off on updated Covid-19 vaccines that target currently circulating variants. It comes amid a recent uptick in hospitalizations and deaths in the United States ahead of winter that could see threats from three respiratory viruses – coronavirus, flu and respiratory syncytial virus. In today’s episode, we answer some frequently asked questions about the updated Covid-19 vaccines and look at how we should approach the virus nearly more than three years after its emergence.

Guest: Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent 

Listen to Chasing Life here.

Episode Transcript
David Rind
I've been doing some traveling recently, a lot of time in airports, and I can't say I've seen a ton of people wearing masks. Now, that by itself is not totally surprising, right? It's been that way for a while.
Briana Keilar
Except COVID 19 has been on the rise in the U.S.
Mandy Gaither
The CDC data shows about a 22% uptick in hospitalizations and deaths.
Kate Bouldan
First Lady Jill Biden is quarantining at home today after testing positive for COVID.
Poppy Harlow
CDC advisors are going to vote on recommendations for the new COVID vaccine shots.
David Rind
COVID appears to be on the rise. Updated vaccines are hitting pharmacies. It's all a little confusing. So more than three years after the start of this pandemic, just how cautious should we be? My guest this week is CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. We're going to break down what we should know about these updated vaccines and why when you get them could make a big difference. From CNN, this is One Thing. David Rind.
David Rind
Sanjay the last time you and I spoke on this show about COVID 19 was at the very end of 2021. If you can believe in fair to say, that was a very different time for this country when it comes to dealing with this disease.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Yes, absolutely. It's it's totally different now.
David Rind
Right. So can you explain how it's different this moment we're in now in September of 2023? Because I hear headlines like COVID is back or COVID is surging. But what does that actually look like out there?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Well, first of all, you know, the term surging. I'm not sure that that actually applies. If you a definition of a surge as a sudden, you know, for an upward movement. I think we're seeing more of an uptick and think of that as an early warning system. I think that if you look at the numbers specifically, there are about 19,000 hospitalizations that were ending the first week of September. COVID hospitalizations overall have gone up significantly. But compared to where they were at this time last year or in previous surges, they're starting from a much lower point. So that's the good news and the bad news at the same At the same time. I think one of the biggest issues right now is that we have a potential sort of triple threat season happening at the same time. RSV. Respiratory syncytial virus started in a pretty traditional timeframe this year, so we have a pretty good idea. It's starting more in the south. It's going to sort of go to the northeast in the late October, November timeframe. Flu was pretty traditional in Australia. We pay attention to the southern hemisphere because it is an early warning sign for the northern hemisphere. So November to January is probably going be the worst time for flu and that leaves COVID. And right now we're seeing this sort of summer uptick, we'll call it again. Does it turn into more of an uptick going into November? October, November, the same time as flu and RSV? If it does, that's going to be a significant concern because three separate respiratory viruses all circulating. People may not know what it is that's ailing them. And it's going to get a lot of people who are sick at the same time.
David Rind
So with COVID, then we saw these new vaccines start to be rolled out last week. They're in pharmacies now. Right. What should we know about them?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Well, first of all, one of the things I think is changing and just for people to pay attention to the language you're not hearing, public health officials refer to these as boosters anymore.
David Rind
Not a booster.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Not a booster. And much in the same way that a flu shot one year to the next is not considered a booster of the previous year's flu shot. It's a different vaccine. It's formulated to match as best as they can, the most predominant strains that are circulating. What we now know from the companies themselves, but I think importantly for our reporting from independent labs, that when you look at the antibodies that are created by these new vaccines and say, okay, how well do you match what's out there? How well do you protect what's out there? They protect pretty well. So if you've been previously vaccinated, even with one of the previous vaccines, or importantly, if you've had COVID in the last several months, you're probably pretty well protected against the now circulating virus. But I think one of the big messages and we're keeping an eye on this is that are we going to start looking at this? Is the public health community going to start conveying this as an annualized COVID shot, just like an annualized flu shot and even recommending them around the same time, which is, you know, just before Halloween.
David Rind
But not everybody gets their flu shot every year. Right. So, like, are people going to get this shot?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
That that's a that's a big question. And you're right. I mean, even before the pandemic, I think less than half of adults in this country, in the United States, would get a flu shot. What I would say is I think one thing that I think is important to convey is that there is a component of of infection acquired immunity. If you've had COVID within the last several months, you probably have a fair amount of immunity. And I think that that's that's something that the public health community needs to convey as well.
David Rind
And is that a situation where people then should wait a little bit to get the new shot?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Yeah, I think so. The CDC says you can consider delaying getting the vaccine for three months if you've recently had COVID. So let's say you just had it. Just got COVID. You probably want to wait to the end of the year or know even early next year before you get another shot.
David Rind
Interesting. And logistically, are they still, like, free at my local CVS? Like, how does it work to actually get one?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
I think when the public health emergency ended, these now transitioned to the commercial market so much in the same way that other vaccines are sort of handled, which is that under under the Affordable Care Act, vaccines, preventative things like that are mostly covered by insurance. Most insurance plans will cover that. Certainly things like Medicare and Medicaid, government programs can help cover uninsured people, but some of that may end later this year. So for the time being at least, I think it's even though it's it's no longer part of the public health emergency, people should have access to it, either free or very cheap.
David Rind
Obviously, Sanjay, we've seen COVID become a political talking point as much as a health one ever since this all started. And the other day, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who of course, is running for president, came out and said that Floridians will not be used as, quote, guinea pigs for the new COVID shots, really criticizing them, saying they were hastily approved and have not been proven to be safe or effective. Can you set us straight on those claims? Are these safe?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Yeah, I think one of the things to keep in mind about the safety of these vaccines, there's been this criticism that have. Has the safety testing been adequate, unlike most medical products that exist on the planet? You now have something that has gone to billions of people. Billions of people. And you see certain certain signals. For example, in young men, there have been an increased rate of what is known as myocarditis, which is inflammation of the of the heart. If you look at the studies, you've. Find that myocarditis is also a significant risk from the virus itself. But a lot of people will say, well, look, I'm a young, healthy person. Do I want to subject myself to the risk of of myocarditis? And it's a fair question. But overall, if the risk of the infection is worse than the risk of the vaccine, I think you have to take that into account.
Florida Surgeon General Joseph Lapado
The questions we have about safety and about effectiveness, especially about safety. My judgment is that it's not a good decision for young people, for people who are not at high risk at this point in the pandemic.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
What you're hearing in some places like Florida is no one under the age of 65 should get the vaccine. Look, there's a lot of people who get sick. There's a lot of people who die. There's a lot of people who get long COVID that fall into that younger age group. And if you look at all the the preexisting sort of factors, conditions that could put you at higher risk obesity, asthma, diabetes, renal disease, all these things, that's 70 to 80% of our population in the United States would be considered high risk. So you have to to take that into account as well.
David Rind
So we've established that there is this COVID uptick, as you say. But like we've also said, it's very different than the pre vaccine days or even when Omicron was running rampant. So beyond getting the shot, how should we think about protecting ourselves in this moment? Should we be busting out our masks again?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Yeah, I think that there's a lot of back and forth about masks. I see this, and I think what the studies have shown is that trying to mandate masks, using that as an intervention did not work well. But that did not mean at the same time that a high quality mask worn properly is not effective. I think of masks kind of like I think of umbrellas for the weather. I think we're going to get to a point in our society where we can look at viral reports like air quality reports, like weather reports. If there's a lot of virus circulating in your area, the real question you're trying to ask and answer is how likely am I to come in contact with someone else's air today? And how likely is that air to contain the COVID virus? So if there's a lot of COVID in my area, and especially if I'm a you know, I work in a hospital, if I'm going to be around vulnerable people, I would wear a mask. And one thing I want to say about testing is obviously there's not a lot of testing that that's going on still. And the testing that is happening is happening in people's homes and not getting reported. But keep in mind, one of the advantages of testing beyond all the obvious things that you don't want to get other people sick and all of that is that if you have had COVID recently, you probably now have immunity infection, acquired immunity for a period of time. Right. If you don't test, you're not going to know that ideally we would be testing more broadly and people and it would be reported so we could get really good data in terms of how much COVID is circulating. Right now, they're using things like wastewater analysis and hospitalization rates, but that testing is still it's still important and it's can be helpful to society and helpful to individuals.
David Rind
I also wanted to talk to you, Sanjay, because on the new season of your podcast Chasing Life, you're talking all about the brain. And I want to know, what do we know about how COVID impacts our brains?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
You know, we are still learning a lot. I remember when I first, you know, I've heard about people having isolated loss of smell and no other symptoms. I remember thinking to myself, that was the first clue that this is a virus that can affect the base of the brain and cause inflammation and caused these types of symptoms. It was very clear that this was a virus that was affecting the brain. Can you just tell me a little bit about your life before this? Like, what were you doing? What was your life like before all this happened?
I was an extremely busy person. Mom, wife, dog, mom.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
What was different and what remains different is just how long this seems to last for People.
Have a hard time trying to read. It's like the words just go all over the page.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
It's not measured in days or weeks, but months and even years. When's the last time you worked?
Two days before I went to the hospital.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
You've been unable to work since?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
The good news, I guess, is that if you look at the data overall, reported cases, at least of long COVID are going down. But the people that still have it are hugely disabled by it.
I mean, it has almost feel like long COVID has taken my life away and I want it back.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
And it's not that surprising given that other viruses do cause impacts on the brain. But I think it's going to be some time before we know how how persistent long-covid is and how much and what percentage of the population it really affects. Look, I just want to say that, you know, I. Being able to do this podcast is it's a real joy. And the fact that we're doing it on the brain. Because I am a lover of the brain. I'm a neurosurgeon.
David Rind
You're the brain guy.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
I'm the brain guy. And you know, the reason you choose to go into neurosurgery and spend seven years of your life working 100 hours a week, you better love it. And you know you shouldn't do it. And I love it, and I really do. And, you know, having done it for so long now, I think I have the the ability to look backwards and say, I still love it. But what is interesting is that there's a lot of fascination with the brain. And I think for a lot of people, you assume because it's in this this black box of a skull, that it's kind of fixed, it's immutable, there's nothing you can do about it. And we used to think the same thing about the heart and other organs in our bodies, but now we know we can and on a very regular basis, on a daily basis, change and improve our brains. So we're tackling all these different things, episodes around the brain, the distracted brain, something I think most of us can relate to. But what that.
David Rind
Very relatable.
David Rind
Very relatable. But I think what that episode really ends up being about is the attentive brain.
Dr. Gloria Mark
We first started measuring this back in 2003.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
I learned so many things from talking to Professor Gloria Mark about this, who informed me that our attention spans have objectively gone down.
Dr. Gloria Mark
In 2012, we measured it at 75 seconds, and in the last five years or so, it's averaged 47 seconds. Wow.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
They were about two and a half minutes back in 2003, and they're about 47 seconds now. They were short back then and they're even shorter now.
David Rind
That's wild.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
But you can do something about that.
Dr. Gloria Mark
You know, the typical thing is you write down a time and a task that needs to be finished. You know...
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
I am not talking about a new medication or a new technique or an intervention, things that you can do in your own home to just improve your attentiveness.
Dr. Gloria Mark
Let's think instead about designing your day, right? Being proactive and designing the tasks that you have to do based on what your own personal rhythm it's for when you're at your best, at your peak focus.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
So I'm learning a lot the concussed brain, the rested brain, the caffeinated brain. And I got to tell you, David, I got a chance to talk to the king of horror. Stephen King. Stephen King. Stephen King. But the frightened brain. Why do we like to be scared? I mean, are there lessons in that? Stephen King had a lot of thoughts on that. And as with all these podcasts, I learned a lot.
David Rind
Well, you can hear a lot more about all of that from the new season of Chasing Life. You can find it wherever you listen. Sanjay, thank you.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Always a pleasure, David. Thank you.
David Rind
One thing is a production of CNN Audio. This episode was produced by Paola Ortiz and me David Rind. Matt Dempsey is our production manager. Faiz Jamil is our senior producer. Greg Peppers is our supervising producer. And Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of CNN Audio. Special thanks this week to Amanda Sealey and Felicia Patinkin. Thank you for listening. If you're liking the show, let us know. Leave a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts, thus help us out. We'll be back next week. Talk to you on.