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President of the American Heart Association says vaccines and early treatment is key to dealing with COVID-19

Dr. Donald Lloyd Jones
Dr. Donald Lloyd Jones

Wyoming has roughly a 39 percent vaccination rate against COVID-19 and is seeing its hospitals fill up. State health officials say that approximately 96 percent of those in the hospital have not been vaccinated. Another fact is that by the time many reach the hospital they have serious cases of COVID-19 because they didn't seek treatment when symptoms first arrived.

Dr. Donald Lloyd Jones is the President of the American Heart Association and the Director of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. He tells Wyoming Public Radio's Bob Beck why Wyoming's numbers concern him.

Donald Lloyd Jones: Well, you know, I think that we're very concerned that Wyoming is actually second lowest in terms of vaccination rates. People might be asking, why is the American Heart Association here? Why do we care about COVID-19? Well, it turns out that the things that put people at risk for severe COVID infection are obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and pre-existing cardiovascular conditions. And these are exactly the things that put people at risk for heart disease and stroke, and that's our sweet spot. So we want to try to protect people against all of these things. And vaccination is our most effective tool for protecting people.

Bob Beck: In places like Wyoming or rural areas we've got people with heart issues, weight issues, that kind of thing. How does that make things worse, if they get COVID?

DLJ: I think so many of our American population that live in rural areas just have a tougher time accessing quality health care. Hospitals and clinics are fewer and farther between, it's harder to know what your risk factor levels are. Weight is fairly obvious. But at any given point, nobody really knows what their blood pressure is unless they have a way to measure it, or what their blood sugar status is unless they have a good way to measure it. And so it's critically important that people be connected with the health system, know their numbers, get with their doctor, and make sure that these things are under control so that there's not any extra risk from COVID-19.

BB: Is one of the things you're concerned about the fact that some of these hospitals are filling up so quickly because people are coming in pretty sick?

DLJ: Well, that's exactly right. I think, in addition, people in rural areas tend to present later in the course of COVID, once they get it. So what we want people to do is make sure they have a plan, if they're not feeling well, pull the trigger early, get in contact with the health system. Don't wait until the breathing is really bad or very high fevers and people aren't in extremes before coming to the hospital because it's much harder for us to care for people who have severe manifestations of COVID.

BB: So what you're focused on right now is getting people their first shot, and obviously getting fully vaccinated, I suppose?

DLJ: That's exactly right. Again, vaccines are clearly our most effective means to protect ourselves, but also to protect our families and our communities. We've all got to be in this together because this is a highly transmissible virus. And we know that these vaccines are extremely safe, and they serve to protect us against more severe COVID hospitalization or death. Even if you know some people may get mild symptoms from it, the vaccine will prevent those severe complications, and really protect all of us much better.

BB: Now, what about boosters? We're starting to hear a little bit about that right now? Is this something people should jump at? Or should they take their time and sort of size it up?

DLJ: So most important is to get your first set of vaccines, get fully vaccinated. If you already are fully vaccinated, I think the CDC recommendations that came out just last week are very important: people 65 and older should get a booster. If they're Pfizer vaccine recipients, they should get a booster after six months because that older population is a little more vulnerable. People 18 to 64, if they have underlying health conditions should be talking to their doctor about a booster and some of our frontline workers, healthcare workers, food service, agriculture workers, a lot of those people should think about it as well. Just because they're so important to our economy and to help things work, but also because they're a little higher risk for exposure. And so we want to make sure that those people are as protected as possible. Again, just Pfizer vaccines for now, but I think the other vaccines will get guidance very soon for boosters.

BB: One of the things that's come up in our state is this discussion about whether or not vaccines should be mandated for health care workers. There's a lot of health care workers, maybe a surprising number to many of us, that don't want those mandates. They don't want to be required to do this. What do you make of all of that?

DLJ: I think that we're seeing corporations and health care systems voting with their feet because they know it's the right thing to do. I understand that there may be some reluctance about vaccination. But again, we've got to be all in this together. We've got to protect our patients. I'm a doctor, I need to be vaccinated, not just to protect myself but also to protect my patients so that, should I be exposed, I can't transmit it to them. And I think that's really one of the principal sorts of responsibilities of a healthcare system is to make sure we're making people better and not exposing them to anything that could make them sick. So I actually believe in these mandates and I think they're very important to help us move forward and protect the population.

BB: So many people believe that it's actually better to get COVID and then you're more resistant down the road. What do you know about that?

DLJ: Well, no reason to think that's really true. And, of course, once you have COVID you could be one of those 5 percent or so who get very sick and require hospitalization. And let me tell you, we've cared for a lot of those patients, these folks can get really sick. You do not want to get this. Obviously, one in 500 Americans has died from COVID since this epidemic started. And then we've got a whole group of people who actually have these lingering symptoms who don't feel very good for sometimes months after the infection. So I wouldn't play with it. The immunity you get from the vaccine is just as good as you could get from getting the virus and then you don't have to worry about those severe complications.

BB: So get the vaccine, that's number one? And then it sounded to me like the other thing you want to stress to folks is, if you feel yourself starting to get sick, and you've got those symptoms, get it addressed as quickly as possible?

DLJ: That's exactly right. You know, if people arrive in the emergency room, already very short of breath, requiring a ventilator to go on a breathing tube to help them breathe. Those are the people who end up in the ICU for weeks or months. It's very difficult if people present late in the course of this illness to actually help get them better quickly. We've had patients who require double lung transplants, replacing both lungs, just to be able to get them off these advanced support systems and get them back to being able to live on their own. So that's a pretty extreme outcome. And you don't want to mess around with this virus. You want to present as early as possible. If you're having symptoms, get tested and get treated as early as possible.

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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