One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, doctor reflects on medical advances and the pandemic's lessons

March 11 marks one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Dr. Leo Nissola, a physician and immunotherapy specialist, spoke with Anne-Marie Green and Vladimir Duthiers on CBSN about vaccines, the lessons of the past year and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' new guidance that people can visit their loved ones in nursing homes.

Video Transcript

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Well, today marks one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. And the United States has been the hardest hit by the deadly virus, with more than 29 million reported cases so far and over 529,000 lives lost. I want to bring in Dr. Leo Nissola. He's a physician and immunotherapy specialist, and he joins us now from San Francisco.

So Doctor, did you-- you know, for me, I think for a lot of us, when we just reflect on today and where we were a year ago, the newsroom behind me was full of life, full of people. We were working. And then that day when we heard from the World Health Organization that this was being declared a global pandemic and all of us went home, I think we all thought, well, we'll see each other in a week maybe, perhaps two weeks. We could not imagine that a year later this newsroom would be empty.

You can just-- if you see behind us here, a lot of the desks are as people left them exactly a year ago. I haven't seen Anne-Marie in person in 365 days, and I count us as some of the lucky ones. We haven't had any close family members who've succumbed to this deadly pandemic. But as a physician, just knowing what you know about pandemics, knowing what you know about infectious diseases, did you have an inkling that we would still be like where we are today a year on?

LEO NISSOLA: Sometimes it feels like the year went by in the blink of an eye. And at times it feels like 2019 was five years ago. We have lost an unacceptable amount of lives in the past year. And looking back to March 2020 when I started advising elected officials in projects like COVID Act Now, there was no shortage of unknowns, and the science of understanding the coronavirus was still developing.

But it was clear that we needed to take bold and decisive actions in order for us to control the spread of this virus. To me, COVID taught this painful lesson that we all share together. And I remember as if it were yesterday the first medical report I saw of a mysterious pneumonia-like syndrome coming from China. I knew then that things could get serious, and unfortunately, they did.

When our first epidemiological models came out with the predictions in the number of cases that they-- we were predicting in case no actions were taken, some have called us alarmists. Looking back, clearly, we were not alarmists enough. Black and brown Americans have died at a disproportionate rate from the past year, and alarmingly, these groups still struggle to find the vaccines and get vaccinated. So there's no shortage of-- of things to repair in our broken health care system. And to me, the systemic inequalities have caused all these disparities that we are experiencing in the past year.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: You know, a global pandemic requires international cooperation. And we really saw that when it came to researching the virus, figuring out treatments, and ultimately, a vaccine, several vaccines. When you think about the innovations in health care over the last year, what comes to mind? I would think that the rap-- rapidity of the vaccine is probably at the top of the list.

LEO NISSOLA: That's right. Well, the effort that brought the vaccines, to me, it's incredible. And I think bringing these new therapies to prevent and treat disease required a massive effort from regulators to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, but also, it was only possible due to the participation of clinical trial volunteers. Without them, we would not have vaccines today. So I would encourage us today to take a moment and understand just how lucky we are that we-- we can appreciate these people that have tested these vaccines in order for us to know if they were safe and effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths. And now we are so lucky to have them.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Denmark and Norway have temporarily stopped using the AstraZeneca vaccine, Doctor, after reports of blood clots forming. A woman from Denmark died from that very thing, a blood clot, after getting her shot, although in Spain, they say that they will continue to use these vaccines as they haven't had any issues. How does a vaccine like this cause a blood clot? And did the woman have any preexisting conditions? I mean, what are the facts here as it relates to some of the risks from that particular vaccine, the one from AstraZeneca?

LEO NISSOLA: So let's just be clear that the vaccine that we're talking about is not authorized in the United States for emergency use. So that-- that blood clot case is being investigated right now by regulators in Europe and by the drug makers. Although we do not have the details of the clinical features of that particular patient, it's important that we monitor those new symptoms and we monitor the occurrence of diseases at the same time that the vaccination occurs to understand whether or not it warrants a further investigation into the vaccine, but also if it was relatable to the vaccine or not. Sometimes these cases have direct relationship with the drug, and oftentimes they don't. So it's hard to say until all the data comes out.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released new guidelines yesterday saying that it's safe to visit loved ones in nursing homes even if you or your family members have not been vaccinated yet. So the agency justified this move by pointing to the fact that more people are being vaccinated, and there's been a significant drop in cases in nursing homes. But the virus is still spreading, both inside facilities and outside. I want to get your take on it. Do you think it's safe to visit a loved one in a nursing home if you haven't been vaccinated, or maybe the benefits outweigh the risks because these are people who have been kept away from their loved ones for a year now?

LEO NISSOLA: You are so right. And for me, it's really complicated to give a correct take, because I don't think there's a right and wrong here. Folks that are separated for the past year have been struggling, not only with mental health, but emotional health as well. So I think it's important for the risk mitigation measures to occur at a personal level in understanding what is your risk tolerance. Do you still want to be able to see your loved ones even though you're not vaccinated and you may carry a virus? And that's a personal choice.

So I think it's a good thing that we are-- we're not forbidding people from seeing their loved ones once more. I don't believe that. I think folks should make their own personal decisions as far as their own family goes, especially saying their last goodbyes, at times. So for the past year, most of us have not had the time to grieve the loss of our loved ones and that pulls together the need for the presence of the loved ones that we have alive today. So I do understand the science behind releasing the red tape around these visits, but I do think it's concerning that unvaccinated individuals will still put others at risk for their own cause.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Yeah, so true. Sometimes there are no really, really easy answers in some cases. Dr. Leo Nissola, thank you very much.

LEO NISSOLA: Thanks for having me.