The Current State Of COVID with Dr. Abdul El-Sayed | Crooked Media
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April 12, 2021
What A Day
The Current State Of COVID with Dr. Abdul El-Sayed

In This Episode

  • Most adults in America can soon sign up for a vaccine, but we’re faced with a new set of COVID-related questions on vaccine passports, virus variants, and more. To give us some answers, we’re joined by epidemiologist, physician, and former Detroit health commissioner Dr. Abdul El-Sayed.Plus, Michigan has become the center of America’s latest COVID surge with an average of over 7,300 new daily cases last week. We ask Dr. El-Sayed about the link between that surge and the UK variant of the virus, B117.
  • And in headlines: Army Lieutenant Caron Nazario sues two police officers in Virginia over a violent traffic stop, Maryland repeals the state’s police bill of rights, and workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, plant vote against unionizing.




Akilah Hughes: It’s Monday, April 12th, I’m Akilah Hughes.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And I’m Dr. Abdul El-Sayed.


Akilah Hughes: And this is What A Day where we are happy to announce that at this stage of the pandemic, cooking is canceled.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yup, we all did our sour dough, we did that whipped coffee, and now I’m just ordering it until this thing’s over.


Akilah Hughes: That’s right. So if you are delivering food, expect a fat tip for me because, yeah, I’m done. I’m done.


Akilah Hughes: First things first, we’ve got a guest with us today, epidemiologist, physician and former Detroit health commissioner Dr. Abdul El-Sayed. Abdul, so happy to have you with us. Thank you for taking the time.


Akilah Hughes: Akilah, it is my privilege and honor to be guest hosting What A Day with you, um, thank you for having me.


Akilah Hughes: Of course. Yeah. It’s been a long time coming. We finally are doing this together. Well, Abdul also hosts our favorite health podcast “America Dissected,” and we’re happy to have him along with us today to ask him some of our most pressing COVID questions, because guess what: we’re still in a pandemic. But before we get to that, here’s a quick word from a longtime friend of the show, Optimus Prime.


[clip of Optimus Prime] Human, it’s so good to see all of you once more. It’s been a tough and trying year. But you know what? We did it. We did it together. The fight is not over yet but I can see light at the end of the tunnel.


Akilah Hughes: Wow. Super profound. That is how Optimus is welcoming back guests at LA’s Universal Studios Hollywood, which officially reopens in a limited capacity this Friday, April 16th.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I’m like imagining Optimus Prime in a mask and it gives a brand new meaning to robots in disguise.


Akilah Hughes: [laughs] Yeah, they’re disguising their other disguise. Well, Optimus might be optimistic, but we are definitely not out of that dark tunnel he was referencing just yet, because cases are spiking in certain places around the world and here in the U.S.—so, Abdul, let’s just get into it. Let’s start with Michigan, because that’s where you are. And unfortunately, it has recently become the center of America’s latest surge. In the past week, there was an average of over 7,300 new cases each day. And according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, nearly two dozen hospitals are at 90% capacity. And that surge is being driven by the UK variant of the virus: B117. So can you give us a sense of the things you’ve seen yourself or heard from your own colleagues that illustrate how serious things are there right now?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, well, we heard from Optimus Prime and unfortunately going to have to be pessimist prime on this one.


Akilah Hughes: Oh [laughs] All righty. I’ll take it.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: We know that B117 has really ravaged Michigan. We’ve been the epicenter for some time. But it’s not just that, like you said Akilah. It’s also the fact that we’ve had some aggressive reopening and in the presence of B117, that reopening is that much more dangerous. And then lastly, while folks are really optimistic about the vaccines, and they should be, we really only have coverage at about 22% right now. And to get to herd immunity, we’re going to have to get to more like 75, 85%. But people are acting like the vaccines have already gotten here simply because they’re on the way.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, and that is probably not the best way to proceed. So, you know, you mentioned that there’s about 22% of Michigan’s population that is actually fully vaccinated at this point. So that puts it really in the middle of the pack compared to the rest of the country. So it’s not really behind in getting people protected. But like, what do we know about the other factors that are currently driving the surge?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, I can’t emphasize enough how important B117 is here. We know it’s more transmissible and it’s also more deadly. And it’s accounted for the high record number of hospitalizations, particularly among young people, that we’ve been seeing in Michigan. And you couple that with the fact that folks are just doing things that they might not have done this time last year. And you get to what we have here in Michigan.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah. Wow. So, you know, just people maybe thinking that the light was at the end of the tunnel and they can just go live their life like it was not a pandemic at all. And yeah, that’s unfortunate. I mean, do you think that factors like this are unique to Michigan, or something that should really just be a warning for the rest of the country?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: You know, that’s the thing, Akilah. It’s not unique to Michigan. We have B117 in every single state. And in many, many states, governors have led very aggressive reopening, like we’ve had here in Michigan. And people are acting like the vaccines are already here, even though they’re still just on the way. And so I’m really worried about what Michigan tells us about the rest of this country. And, you know, even early on the pandemic, Michigan was the canary in the coal mine. So we’ve all got to do what we can to make sure that other states in this country don’t wind up like Michigan. And that means making sure that you wash up, you mask up, you back up, and when you get the opportunity, you vaxx up.


Akilah Hughes: Oh, I love that. Wow. That’s a, that’s very catchy. If they haven’t used that, somebody please write that down. We need people to actually do those things. Since late last week, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has sort of resisted to call for any kind of real lockdown. Can you tell us more about what she’s thinking and your own take on it?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Honestly, I have to disagree on this one. I do think we need another pause to save lives like we saw from Governor Whitmer, both in the spring last year and then also again in the fall. And we know based on the evidence that those pauses really did save lives. We need that again now. Now, I know that it’s been really hard. People are just sick and tired of this pandemic, but it’s not over yet. And the actions that she and other governors can take really can save lives. We need that now.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah. Yeah, it’s a, it is a little shocking that now everybody’s just sort of like: hey, the vaccines are coming, let’s just go out, live our lives. And there’s just really less, it seems like there’s less leadership from governors now than even when we were in what we thought would be the thickest of it. But, you know, in a few days, most adults in America are going to be able to at least sign up for a vaccine. And at the same time, the supply of doses will take a slight dip this next week, partly because of that mix-up that we reported on a few weeks ago, where a plant making the Johnson & Johnson shot ruined about 15 million doses—not clutch at all. So what’s your advice to people trying to make appointments ahead of time or, you know, people who still may be on the fence about getting a vaccine at all?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: See, the thing I don’t get Akilah is they got two Johnsen’s over there. You’d think we need both [laughter] Johnsons there to figure this thing out?


Akilah Hughes: Exactly how many jobs does it take to make a vaccine?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: That’s what I’m asking. Apparently, they’ve got to be Johnson Johnson & Johnson, I guess at this point. For folks who are working really hard to get their vaccine, keep working hard. The vaccines are on their way. And despite this hurdle from Johnson & Johnson, we’ve still got plenty of Pfizer and Moderna. So please do keep checking. Please do keep looking for opportunities to get that vaccine. But for folks who are hesitant, look, I hear you, I understand and frankly, skepticism is the backbone of science. But the way that we take on skepticism is with evidence. We know that these vaccines are safe and effective. And I’ll also tell you this, we know that the vaccines save lives, but I think for a lot of us, it’s about the little things. I got the opportunity to have some family over—all of us were vaccinated—and it was really nice to just be able to hang out with those folks without worrying that one of us might get sick from this disease. And so we’ve got the opportunity to do what we can to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and really get that normal that this pandemic is stolen from us, back. And I think that’s worth it.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s a really great point. I think that’s worth repeating. Like, I hadn’t gotten to see a lot of friends throughout the pandemic because I have these preexisting conditions. And now that I’m vaccinated, I’ve been able to have drinks in my backyard, drinks and other people’s yards, like, you know, like really not having that anxiety hanging over me of me getting sick and dying or, you know, somebody else getting sick because of me. And, you know, just that constant fear going away was, I think, worth it enough. So, yeah, I think that that’s super important. And I hope that people just take that to heart. You know, wouldn’t you like to live a life where you’re not constantly in fear of getting sick from COVID-19? Like, let’s move on. But, you know, something else that we’ve been talking about a lot on our show and is very much in the news, is these vaccine passports—which are basically things to prove that you’ve been vaccinated so you’re allowed to do things like go to a concert or board an international flight. States like New York already have them. Smaller communities have been thinking about them. And the White House said that at least on a federal level, it’s going to kind of stay out of the debate. But what’s your opinion on it?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Look, we’ve asked people to prove that they’ve been vaccinated against deadly diseases for a long time now. I mean, all of us did it to get into kindergarten. So this is nothing new. What is new about them, though, is the digital part. And, you know, every time Amazon or Facebook or Google do something, they always try and sell me something on the back-end. So I’m a little bit worried about big tech. And then there are all these startups. But you’re talking about health data and so you want to make sure that they’re safe and secure. And sometimes if they don’t have a track record, you might get a little bit concerned about that. And so I do think that we have to make sure that whomever we give our data can handle it appropriately and isn’t trying to sell it to someone to sell us something. But the idea of having to prove that you’ve been vaccinated, this is nothing new. What it is, though, is a new opportunity for anti-vaxxers, who have been pushing an ideology against vaccines, to find another platform. And it’s sad to see that, I think they’re mixing the conversation up a little bit here and disempowering people who really would like to get back to life.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, that’s a really good point about just, you know, anti-vaxxers have an outsized amount of power, especially in this new online landscape, and it’s just, you know, just a new horrible frontier. But Pessimist Prime, I want to wrap up on a sobering outlook on the fight against the virus around the world, because, you know, cases are surging in places like India, while others are struggling to even afford vaccines. So what are the data points that are most outstanding to you?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, you know, I am an epidemiologist in disguise. [laughter].


Akilah Hughes: Exactly. What is it? “Protect people and roll out!” Or “Vaxx up and roll out!”


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Absolutely. [laughs] There are, we have to remember that this is a global pandemic. And while our country really suffered at the end of this pandemic, we’ve got to remember that people have suffered in other countries, too. I’m particularly focused on what’s happening in India, in Brazil—where there are some really worrying surges in some of the biggest countries in the world. The other piece of this, though, is the vaccines. There are countries where not 1 or 2% of the population have yet been vaccinated, and that’s because of the power of our corporations to try and hold on to their patents in ways that would mean that other countries, particularly low- and middle-income countries, wouldn’t get the access to the vaccine in the ways that they need them. The thing we have to remember here, though, is every single warm body that is yet unvaccinated is an opportunity for this virus to evolve and potentially mutate in a way that would allow it to slip our vaccine-mediated immunity. And that would be disaster for everyone, not just folks in those countries, but folks in this one, too. And so we’ve got a responsibility to do our part. And the sad truth is that oftentimes when we’ve talked about leading on our values across the world, that’s often meant our country dropping bombs on people. We’ve got the opportunity to drop vaccines. So I hope that we take it.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, and we absolutely should. Well, Abdul, thank you so much for answering our questions. And that’s the latest.


Akilah Hughes: It’s Monday, WAD squad, and for today’s temp check, we’re talking about a fallen legend: the rapper DMX passed away at 50 last Friday, after suffering a heart attack one week before. DMX, whose real name is Earl Simmons, sold millions of records starting in the late ’90s, and he was the first musician whose first five albums hit number one on the Billboard chart. Pretty impressive. He’s got a special place in both of our hearts. So, Abdul, what are your fondest DMX memories?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: DMX, he will forever form an indelible part of the soundtrack to my youth. I used to play a lot of sports growing up in and one of the things I did was wrestle. And I remember when I got that first DMX CD, I was so amped up and it was like that moment when you actually had CDs.


Akilah Hughes: [laughs] Yes.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: So amped up. And like, I was like super hype about it, and I’m getting ready to wrestle and I go out and get pinned in like the first 30 seconds. And I was like, man, if DMX saw me, he’d be so disappointed right now.


Akilah Hughes: [laughs] You’re like: I don’t want DMX to have to have to see this.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I figured, I figure that the other guy was listening to DMX, just louder. He got more of those barks. So . . .


Akilah Hughes: yeah. Fully.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: What about you?


Akilah Hughes: Oh, man. I mean, so I tweeted this when I heard the news, but I think it’s still true that, like, if you had a cool older brother in the ’90s, that’s how you probably got introduced to it if you’re around my age. My brother’s five years older than me, so he’s not like old, so please don’t think like; I feel old. A lot of people kept saying that on Twitter as well. But like, I just remember, you know, the covers of his albums are always so scary to me as a little kid. But the songs were so catchy, so good. My mom knew all the lyrics, like the whole family would rap them. In my very white elementary school, I remember like at halftime, the cheerleaders did like the Ruff Riders’ Anthem as their like, cheerleading routine—and I’m like this is a lot that I’m going to have to pass through in therapy one day. But I think that, like, it’s just, you know, his music is so prolific. And I think that it’s also like as a rapper, he was so larger than life. Like, you know, a lot of people are sharing that video of him performing at Woodstock ’99 where it’s like, it looks like the entire world is there [laughs] and he’s just performing every song and they know every word and they’re right on beat with him. And I also just think about like him in pop culture, right? With like Down to Earth with Chris Rock when he’s like, Chris Rock is in a white man’s body, but he doesn’t really know it so he’s not behaving that way and he starts rapping along and gets beat up. Also in top five with Chris Rock when he’s in jail and he sings Smile, which is a beautiful, beautiful, funny scene. But yeah, I just think that DMX was you know, I think Gabrielle Union put it this way, that he was: one of one. And, you know, I just think that we really did lose a legend this past week.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: We did. He was, he was also just such a good dude. You could always tell that there was joy and happiness about him. I’ll never forget that video where he’s like fanboy’ing about meeting Rakim.


Akilah Hughes: Yes. [laughs]


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And you could just see, I mean, this is somebody who’s, you know, whose will go down a as a legend in hip hop, who’s just excited to see another artist. And there’s no ego there. There’s no selfishness there. Just somebody who really appreciates the music and is joyful about it. And I think it’s a reminder to all of us to have joy in what we do and, you know, you never really know, never really no one is going to your time and so, you know, if you can live your life out there doing the things that you love, enjoying it with other people who love them, too, that really is a blessing.


[DMX music clip] [music]


Akilah Hughes: That song is absolutely a party starter forever. It’s in every great action film. So, you know, just make sure you know the words. But just like that, we have checked our temps. Stay safe. You know, remember that X did give it to us, and we’ll be back after some ads.


[ad break]


Akilah Hughes:  Let’s wrap up with some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: A Black, Latino army lieutenant is suing two police officers in Virginia after they pointed guns at, pepper sprayed, and pushed him during a traffic stop last December. Lieutenant Caron Nazario was first pulled over because officers thought he did not have a license plate, though the suit claims that his temporary plates were clearly visible. Recently released body camera and cell phone footage shows the officers drawing their guns immediately after getting out of their cars and pepper spraying Nazario multiple times while he continued to keep his hands in the air. The lawsuit said that this event captured a national trend of police officers acting in dangerous, racially-biased ways under the assumption that they have complete impunity. Nazario is seeking a million dollars in compensation for what he says was a violation of his constitutional rights.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, I think they should double it. But speaking of police, state lawmakers in Maryland passed sweeping police reform bills on Saturday, including one repealing the state’s historic Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. The new laws restrict the use of no-knock warrants, ban officers from stopping people from recording them, raise the bar for use of force, and more. Maryland was the first state to establish a police bill of rights in the ’70s, protecting officers from accountability by scrubbing records of complaints against them, and ensuring that only other officers—not civilians—could lead investigations into police conduct. Now Maryland has become the first state to repeal its police bill of rights. Republican Governor Larry Hogan vetoed the reform bills, but the Democratically-controlled legislature overrode his say on Saturday. Police reform advocates call this the first step towards a fairer criminal justice system.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Reminds us that democracy matters. Nation-sized giga-corporation Amazon wins yet another fight with disempowered people whose lives it controls, with the news that employees of its Bessemer, Alabama warehouse voted overwhelmingly against forming a union. The final vote was tallied last Friday. About 1,800 employees voted no, while under 800 voted yes. The union that sought to represent the workers, the Retail and Department Store Union, says it will challenge the outcome on grounds that Amazon intimidated employees to get their desired result. The union cites Amazon’s push to install a mailbox outside the warehouse as one key example. It says this move may have violated labor law and communicated to workers that Amazon was counting their votes. Labor activists had hoped that a win at Bessemer would lead to similar actions at Amazon fulfillment centers nationwide. In the absence of that, their best option is for Jeff Bezos to become nicer after being visited by a Christmas ghost—that’s about as likely as Bezos getting hired as a shampoo model for L’Oreal, unless he buys the company.


Akilah Hughes: [laughs] True. Well, China has moved on from the classic “dog ate my vaccine data” line and is now admitting that their drugs might require improvements. At least that’s what the head of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention let slip at a conference this weekend. He said the vaccines, quote “don’t have very high protection rates” and may need to be supplemented with booster shots or new drugs altogether. This comes after China distributed hundreds of millions of doses to other countries like Mexico, Turkey and Brazil, while also trying to downplay the efficacy of vaccines developed using mRNA. China’s two approved vaccines were both produced via a more traditional approach using inactivated viruses to provoke an antibody response. Authoritative figures for the efficacy of China’s vaccines remain unknown. A trial of one of the drugs in Brazil said it was around 50% effective, while a trial of the other drug in Turkey reported an efficacy of over 80%. By the way, in our brave new world, if you know every vaccine’s efficacy by heart, you can be the most popular person in your school or workplace. It’s true.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: It means that I may actually be popular.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, I think you’re the most popular person at Crooked. And those are the headlines.


Akilah Hughes: One last thing before we go: last week on Love It or Leave It, Jon was joined by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, comedian Emily Heller, our own Jon Millstein, and more for a round of Rant Wheel. They talked about D.C. statehood, H.R.1 and the Masked Singer. Listen to the latest episode of Love It or Leave It Now wherever you get your podcasts.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: That’s all for today. And if you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, and to everyone celebrating Ramadan Kareem, and tell your friends to listen.


Akilah Hughes: And if you’re into reading, and not just vaccine data to friends as a way to be popular like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Akilah Hughes.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And I’m Abdul El-Sayed.


[together] And go stream DMX!


Akilah Hughes: Play it, bump it, in your hood. Let people know where da hood at.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: What! [ruff ruff] What! [laughter]


Akilah Hughes: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media.


Gideon Resnick: It’s recorded in Next by Charlotte Landes.


Akilah Hughes: Sonia Htoon is our assistant producer.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran, Akilah Hughes and me.


Akilah Hughes: Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.