By Linda N., Special to CAW
In a webinar organized by the Ryan/Chelsea-Clinton Community Health Center under the executive director’s hosting leadership, Daniel Pichinson and Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, representing District 67, co-moderated a discussion with experts from both governments and private health sector establishments. The webinar addressed the various questions on how the COVID-19 vaccine works (where, when) and addressed eligibility criteria for receiving the vaccine and services offered at local healthcare facilities.
Undeniably, vaccine rollout has remained one of the significant challenges facing the Biden-Harris administration and could contribute significantly to the rating of the administration’s performance within the first 100 days. Despite daunting evidence and limitations, Americans expect a smooth rollout characterized by better coordination and cooperation among stakeholders, under a more decisive leadership, which, unfortunately, was elusive and created disappointing results within weeks of having approved vaccines.
Hitherto, the plethora of logistical challenges, there were concerns about vaccine safety and then eligibility. These questions have remained a concern that requires a multiple platform strategy in addressing the situation. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who represents the 12th district covering Manhattan, parts of Queens, and Brooklyn, acknowledged that over 20 million has been included in additional funding towards increasing vaccination to address both the virus and economic crises confronting New York. Despite the assurances, Americans remain concerned, posing several questions, some of which the webinar addressed. Some of the popular questions centered on the vaccine’s safety, side effects, and eligibility:
What is in the Vaccine?
One of the experts in attendance on the webinar, Dr. Zehra Siddiqui DO, a medical director at Mount Sinai, explained that the vaccine does not contain any harmful substance. She said that the Moderna vaccine, administered as a total of two shots at the muscle in the upper arm, the vaccine does not contain eggs, preservatives, or latex.
State Senator, Brad Hoylman also present on the webinar, attested to this statement by revealing that he participated in a vaccine trial in August 2020, which he later realized was the Pfizer vaccine trial. He explained that despite the slight headache reported by some recipients after the first dose, he didn’t experience any of the reactions others presented, especially after receiving the second dose three weeks later. He has remained healthy and without any effect since receiving the vaccination. However, he was quick to note that there is a need for additional clarifications, especially for various people, including people with immune-compromised cases, homebound, or media dark individuals who are yet to receive the vaccine. Dr. Zehra Siddiqui also addressed the concern about the vaccine, its effect on DNA, and allergic reactions. She explained that the vaccine does not react or distort the DNA, and the usual practice is that recipients are observed for some minutes after receiving the shots, depending on their level of concern. However, there are EpiPens onsite to reverse immediate allergic reactions before referrals if required in case of a severe allergic reaction. Most of the medical experts believe that the vaccine prevents severe disease, including difficulty breathing and hospitalizations. Other questions addressed during the session relating to the content and nature of the vaccine include:
Q: How long is the effect of the vaccine?
A: “We don’t know how long the immunity will last. Trials are still ongoing. It can be 4-6 months for now, but we don’t have an answer for now”.
Q: How long do antibodies last?
The consensus among experts is that this is an area that is still unfolding. Scientists are still unsure how long the antibodies last, especially with comorbid ailments like diabetics, heart or kidney disease. According to Dr. Siddiqui, “…we still don’t know how long it lasts; it’s little less than a year. However, if you have access to the vaccine, definitely take it. The only condition is if you were hospitalized, treated with plasma, then wait 90 days before you take the vaccine”. They encourage individuals with an opportunity to get the vaccine to take it rather than taking the chance of becoming very sick.
Q: Is it safe for pregnant women?
Experts suggested that all people of reproductive age are advised to receive the vaccine and take their medication. According to Dr. Siddiqui, “… pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers are advised to seek the opinion of their primary care physician”. She explained that Pfizer and Moderna vaccines excluded women within this category during the trials but have reported that some have become pregnant among the women who participated in the trial—suggesting that the vaccine is safe and does not affect fertility or increased miscarriage. She further explained that generally, mRNA would not affect fertility and lactation. However, it’s important the individual talks with their doctor before making a decision. Other questions raised sought the clarification of taking the vaccine and contracting the virus :
Q: If you take the vaccine, can you still get the virus?
The answer to the question was indecisive; they explained that individuals are advised to wear their mask still and practice social distancing when they get vaccinated. While the vaccinated individual might be protected from contracting COVID, the person might still be able to infect others.
In other instances, those who have contracted COVID but weren’t treated in the hospital are advised to get vaccinated after quarantine. If they received antibody treatment, they have to wait 90 days before getting vaccinated.
How effective are Moderna and Pfizer against the new COVID-19 mutations?
The two approved vaccines are claimed to guard against the new variants/mutations of COVID-19 to the extent of protecting vaccinated individuals against experiencing severe disease, administration into the hospital, and possible death.
Furthermore, in addressing side effects after the second dose, as reported by some recipients, the experts revealed that the side effects serve as a positive sign that the vaccine is effective, indicating that the body is creating memories vital for fighting the infection contracted. Finally, on new vaccines in the pipeline, specifically the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, the expert from Northwell hospital responded that it is a vaccine that is recommended for the treatment of emergency cases, which has proved to be 85% efficient in such treatment. Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been approved.
Alex Hellinger summarized this section by advising people with allergies to check with their doctors before taking the shot and reiterating that everybody is observed for 15 minutes after the shots and longer if people are concerned. He recommended that there is no need to quarantine after the dose is received. Even though it takes a few weeks to reach the 95% immunity level required after taking the shot, it still gives a level of protection.
Participants also raised several questions on eligibility. Moderated by Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, she asked questions like:
Q: Who is eligible?
Responding, Dr. Hillary Kunins, the Executive Deputy Commissioner of Mental Hygiene at New York City Department of Health and Hygiene (DOHMH), explained that the decision on who qualifies to receive the vaccine is determined from the Federal level, under the guidance of an advisory body. The decision is then sent to the state, where the recommendations are operationalized. However, they can decide to accept or reject the proposal from the federal level. She explained that the federal level determined the composition at different phases, including phase 1A and 1B. Under the first phase, those included are health care workers, people living in congregate, e.g., in nursing homes, first responders, congregations, shelters, essential workers, e.g., teacher, taxi and limousine drivers, grocery workers. More details are available on nyc.gov/covid-vaccine, vaccine finder.nyc.gov or a direct call to 877-VAX4WCY. According to her, New York City operates a centralized way for finding access to the vaccine.
What is the overall city approach?
Four areas were mentioned as necessary. Presently, the city’s approach is focused on increasing vaccine access and advancing equity, building confidence in the vaccine, expanding community outreach and engagement, according to the Executive Deputy Commissioner.
Q: When will hospitality workers, services, and staff be eligible?
In response, she explained that restaurant workers are eligible to receive the vaccine. However, “…we are not sure of when new groups will become eligible, including younger people, eligibility is based on recommendations by the public health officials who consider other categories of people to be in more urgent need of the vaccine”. She recommended that individuals check the single website that hosts vital information from the Government, nyc.gov/covidvaccine, for updates, eligibility page, or call center.
Other groups like younger people with underlying medical conditions, 911 first responders who are not up to 65+ years were still ineligible. Those who are homebound, those with mobility challenges, explained that they would soon be eligible, and there are available services for transporting them to the vaccination location.
Q: How do I get registered for the vaccine?
R: Dr. Kunins responded by clarifying that although no pre-registration is required for the vaccination in New York State or New York City. For those with interest, they are advised to contact the call-in line. She acknowledges that even though it is not ideal, it will get better and that it is essential for people to keep checking and trying to book an appointment. “You need an appointment to receive vaccines, and we encourage an appointment to get vaccinated.”
Q: When will the vaccines be available?
According to her, vaccine allocation sometimes appears unpredictable, so Government recommends not booking people for more appointments but to wait until new supplies of vaccines are allocated. “… since vaccine allocation is made at the federal level, we at the state level, find out our allocation weekly, and we send the information out to the primary providers”.
When will it be available in nearby pharmacies such as CVS?
A: Some NYC facilities have received an allocation, and under the federal pharmacy program, it will expand in the coming weeks. They will offer the COVID vaccine like flu shots.
Will the 2nd vaccine still be given after the first vaccine with the short supply?
R: Yes, the second dose will be allocated. Providers are expected to vaccinate all those they provided the first dose. There is a second dose that will be waiting for all the eligible people at their initial provider. Reach out and ask them when you can schedule to receive the second dose.
Q: When will patients with HIV become eligible?
R: So far, CDC has not added those with HIV to the list. The verdict is still out, so we don’t know.
On a similar question for those living with a disability, Alex Hellinger, the Executive Director, Lenox Health Greenwich Village, addressed the eligibility of people with disabilities; he claimed they could access the vaccine in his institution, but they need to receive the supplies to honor this request. According to Dr. Kunins, “…In Phase 1B, just like Phase 1A, everyone will not become eligible at the same time. It will be added on expansion. New York State decides on who becomes eligible based on supply.
What about those who are not computer savvy?
For now, the call centers are the best option. The city has a call center, and people are encouraged to use it to navigate booking an appointment.