December 5, 2021

The virus vaccine is almost here — will you get it?

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Sean Smith, owner of Jax Service Center in Cortlandville, wipes down a counter Thursday in his store. Even though a COVID-19 vaccine is expected any time now, a combination of hesitancy to get it and the time it would take to distribute means the need for social distancing, masks, and disinfecting surfaces will remain for months.

Sean Smith pulls on the mask and pulls out the bottle of disinfectant. He wipes down the counter at his garage, Jax Service Center in Cortlandville.

He’s doing what it takes to stay safe, and to keep his customers and employees the same: masks, distancing, disinfecting. Like any of billions of people around the world, he’s looking to the day when COVID-19 is no longer a specter looming over shoulders, when he no longer needs to fear a virus that has — so far killed 1.6 million people around the world and left many more people than that with long-term health problems. More than 292,000 Americans have died.

That day is tantalizingly close. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel voted Thursday, 17-4 with one abstention, to recommend emergency approval of the first vaccines for coronavirus. Federal approval could come, perhaps by today. That would begin a long-anticipated process of moving the vaccine out of storage and into the bloodstreams of millions of Americans.

The end of coronavirus won’t be immediate: 70% of Americans would need the vaccine before the nation begins to see the benefits of herd immunity; 94% before we can say coronavirus is beaten.

Smith isn’t sure he’ll be one of them, at least not at first.

“Not to say that it won’t work, but I don’t want to be an experiment in that area,” said Smith, 42.

IT’S SAFE

“Of course with any new innovation there’s going to be hesitancy,” said Dr. Christopher Morley, an epidemiologist and chairman of the department of public health and preventive medicine at SUNY Upstate Medical University. “You see that not just with vaccines to be honest, you see that with any new technology. You have a portion of people that will be slow to take it up. Either they just don’t want to convert to something new or they have concerns — and that’s certainly the case with vaccines.”

He said many of the concerns surrounding the vaccine are related to how quickly it was developed.

“I think what we have to do is make sure people understand how much effort went into making sure that the process is followed for the vaccine development,” he said.

He said everyone working on the COVID response has stopped almost all other projects and work they are doing in order to fight the virus.

“So, the thing that I would urge people to consider is that all of the different steps that are usually taken in the development of a vaccine were taken with the vaccines,” he said.

In the case with the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, Morley said the vaccine, like any other trial, went through three phases. However, because of promising results the developer decided to group phases 2 and 3 together — fast-tracking the creation of the vaccine.

That’s not abnormal, Morley said.

“What would be strange is if they skipped the Phase 1 where they really tested how it works on a small group of people before rushing to a large group of people.”

Pfizer didn’t skip that step.

“That first test is not about whether that drug works, whether it’s effective, it’s about whether it’s safe and that happened,” he said. “It happened effectively.”

Phase 2 scaled up the process, bringing in more participants, but once they continued seeing promising results, the study was opened up to even more people in the third and final phase.

“The vaccine is both safe and effective to the best of anyone’s ability to tell,” he said. “The tradeoff is that people are contracting COVID, they’re spreading COVID and we have alarming hospital capacity issues and death rates across the country. People are dying and people are filling up hospitals and causing downstream issues with the health care system and so the vaccine is really a winner in the cost-benefit analysis that you would do.”

DISTRIBUTION

New York could see the first deliveries of the vaccine this weekend — around 170,000 doses, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday. Central New York is expected to get 6,400 doses.

The first people to get vaccinated will be high-risk health care workers, nursing home residents and staff. After that, other long-term and congregated employees, emergency medical services personnel and other health care workers will get the shot.

“Essential workers and the general population, starting with those who are at highest risk, will be vaccinated after these initial priority groups,” the governor’s release states.

Starting with first responders and health care workers is the right move, Morley said. “It’s a decision like that keeps everybody safe,” he said. Communities still need them to fight fires and help people in car accidents, whatever it may be, even if not COVID-related.

But 6,400 doses won’t cover everyone right away. So even among the first in line, priorities must be set.

“I know those are active conversations that are under way and we’ll see how it rolls out,” Morley said.

But Morley said he doesn’t have enough information at the moment to determine when the next groups of people may receive the vaccine.

However, with many of the vaccines fast-tracked toward approval, people worry they may not be safe.

A Gallup Poll earlier this week showed 37% of Americans, like Smith, hesitate to get the shots, although that’s down from 42% in mid-October.

It’s a worry that’s been taken into consideration as health officials begin educating people on the need to get the shot.

BUILDING CONFIDENCE

People’s background, including race and age, will play a crucial factor into personal choices of who gets the vaccine.

Smith said he’s concerned with any potential side effects from the vaccine, particularly with the quick development of a vaccine just nine months after the pandemic began.

As a Black man, he is skeptical that he would have the same priority as a white person in getting a vaccination anyway, citing historical inequalities with vaccinations between white and Black Americans. It’s a doubt reflected in the Gallup data, which show 47% of non-white adults would not get the vaccine immediately, while 33% of white adults would delay.

This has been especially true in places like Queens, which has a large Black population and where Smith grew up, he said.

Smith said that working to build confidence in vaccine treatments would require greater diversity in public officials and making sure that Black people can get treatments as equally as white people.

NOT JUST ABOUT YOU

Dr. Mohammad Djafari, a pediatrician in Cortland, has already ordered 2,000 to 5,000 doses of the vaccine. Although it’s not yet approved for children, he was asked by the state to administer it to adults.

“You got to help the community,” he said, noting people need to think about their parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors. “This is not only for yourself, but the community.”

Once the vaccine is approved for kids, vaccination should be required before allowing the child to attend school, Djafari said, because the virus is so contagious — more contagious than influenza.

“This is not a joke,” he said.

LARGER SOCIAL GOOD

Few people understand that better than Kate Navickas, 36, of Cortland. She watched what COVID-19 did to a friend earlier this year; she will get the vaccine when she is able.

“Quite frankly, I want to get back to normal and see people and not worry about infecting them,” she said.

Her friend survived coronavirus, but was left with longterm damage to her heart and lungs, Navickas said. She had to change how she works, taking more breaks.

“When I hear her talking about those kinds of struggles, it is a reminder of how COVID can affect anyone,” Navickas said.

Despite some distrust she has in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the federal government, Navickas said she has read research studies from the likes of Yale University on the treatment and feels confident in it.

Getting the vaccine, she said, is “committing to the larger social good.”

BACK TO NORMAL

It’s not a simple answer on when people might see some semblance of normality, Morley said. It depends on a number of measures, “… first of all on just how much of the vaccine comes out and gets distributed and how much gets manufactured.”

There must also be measures in place to prevent a bad batch of the vaccine from being distributed and a million other actions that go into the process, including getting people to get the shot.

“So for me to give you a promise we’ll have 300 million doses by May and we’ll be out of the woods — I don’t know that,” he said. “This is an unprecedented thing. It’s like predicting the end of World War II. It’s tough at this point.”

KEEP FOLLOWING GUIDELINES

Until that day when everyone is vaccinated, you know the drill:

Wear a mask; stay 6 feet apart; wash your hands. Disinfect commonly touched surfaces.

Morley added: “Limit gatherings.”

“We know a lot more now than we did in the spring,” he said. “So right now we know the virus is circulating and that people should not be gathering. … We should still be limiting our trips to stores or to any place where there are people to whom we don’t live with. That’s a tough message to sell during the holidays.”

Eating at a restaurant is actually one of the most dangerous things people can do, Morley said. They’re in a close environment with their masks off for an extended period of time. They’re letting their guard down.

Support restaurants in other ways, he said. “I try to support them by taking out and tipping well.”

Wear the mask, the right mask, he said: a cloth mask, a surgical disposable mask or an N95 anything else just doesn’t work as effectively.

Wear it properly, too. That means snug to the face, not below the nose, not loose.

“People have, to some extent, this in their own hands,” he said. “Live as though you are surrounded by people who have it and you need to keep yourself safe and wear a mask.”