“I am hopeful as I look to the future,” Dr. Leana Wen writes in her new book, “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health.” On the day she spoke to Yahoo News, however, case counts were spiking across the United States, due almost entirely to the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant. Masks were back. So were concerns that schools might reopen in the fall.
A former Baltimore public health commissioner who now teaches emergency medicine at George Washington University, Wen has become a prominent commentator on the coronavirus pandemic. Below, she offers thoughts on how to navigate the next stage of the coronavirus pandemic, as the nation grapples with the Delta variant, students prepare to return to school and President Biden struggles to maintain momentum against the pandemic.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Yahoo News: Did we declare victory too soon?
Leana Wen: The single biggest mistake that the Biden administration made during this entire pandemic response — and I would argue in the entire Biden presidency — was back in May when the CDC said that vaccinated people can take off their mask, but did not have proof of vaccination attached to it. And as a result, people understood the pandemic to be over them. The unvaccinated began behaving like they were vaccinated.
And what did we see? We saw exactly what I and many public health experts predicted at the time. The honor code did not work. Surges have happened because of unvaccinated individuals. Now with the Delta variant, restrictions are coming back, except nobody’s listening anymore.
President Biden absolutely declared a victory too soon. That said, I also do want to commend the Biden administration for a lot of their efforts. I mean, they have been exceptional in ensuring vaccine supply and increasing distribution.
YN: Why don’t we know more about how common and serious breakthrough infections are?
LW: We have a serious data problem in the U.S. for unclear reasons. The CDC, back in May, stopped collecting data on mild breakthrough infections. They announced that they were only going to be collecting data on severe breakthroughs, meaning severe enough to cause hospitalizations or deaths. Now I really do not think that this was the right decision at all. We need to understand, what is the likelihood — period — of breakthrough infections?