By Sandy Cohen
In a wide-ranging talk with UCLA Health physicians, Wednesday, Oct. 28, United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, MPH, addressed the politicization of the pandemic and the means of containing the spread of COVID-19. He also offered hope that a vaccine for the virus will be available by year’s end.
Dr. Adams said he has “a high degree of confidence” in a vaccine’s success. “This is the most scrutinized vaccine of all time,” he said. “The vaccine will be safe and effective because of process, not because of politics.”
Meanwhile, he said the “three Ws” — wearing a mask, washing your hands and watching your distance from others — are the most effective ways to curb transmission of the virus and to keep businesses and schools open.
Dr. Adams’ 50-minute talk, delivered via Zoom, was part of the Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine’s Grand Rounds series.
The nation’s 20th surgeon general did not shy away from the intersection between public health and politics in his talk just days before the presidential election. He decried how politicization of the pandemic has contributed to confusion and distrust around measures to contain the virus, from mask-wearing to the development of a vaccine.
Even scientists and others dedicated to public health are not impervious to the effects of bias, Dr. Adams said. “Politics, geography, race and biases creep into the way we think about things.”
He said “pre-existing social conditions” played a major role in the effects of COVID-19 on populations of color, noting that members of the Black community have been hospitalized with the virus at five times the rate of white people.
“Social determinants make individuals more susceptible to COVID-19,” he said.
Social justice and racial inequity were themes throughout Dr. Adams’ presentation. Rates of vaccination against influenza are historically lower among people of color, he said, calling the flu “a social justice issue.” He added that more widespread receptivity to the flu vaccine can make acceptance of an eventual COVID-19 vaccine more likely.
“This is the most important flu season of our lives,” he said to the audience of more than 200 health professionals.
Dr. Adams discussed the mental-health costs of the pandemic, noting the increase in suicides and adding that physicians have higher rates of suicide than the general public. He said he will issue a call-to-action regarding suicide awareness in December.
He also said he would issue, in December, a call-to-action about maternal mortality. Black women are three times more likely than white women to die during pregnancy or childbirth, a reality, he said, that is “one of the most glaring examples of bias, racism and inequity” in health care.
“The health of our nation depends on the health of our mothers,” he said.
Already this year, Dr. Adams has released a call-to-action to increase awareness about the risks of hypertension. He said 500,000 people who die this year will have high blood pressure listed as the primary or secondary cause of death. Hypertension also is correlated with a higher risk of complications from COVID-19, he said, adding that one in two adults – himself included – has high blood pressure.
Concluding his talk on a hopeful note, Dr. Adams said he believes distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine will be fair and equitable. To ensure diversity in this effort, the Department of Health and Human Services commissioned the National Academies of Medicine to design a framework for distributing the vaccine in addition to trial parameters.
“I want you to be encouraged, because we’re almost to a vaccine,” he said. “I want you to be encouraged, because we know much more about who is at risk and why, and we’re, therefore, doing a better job of protecting them.
“We know what works to keep people safe,” Dr. Adams said. “When you look at New York, they were the worst in the world for COVID-19, and they were able to drive their transmission rates down to less than 1%. They didn’t have a vaccine; they did it with the three Ws.”