5 takeaways from NY's 1st week of Covid-19 vaccinations

5 takeaways from New York's first week of Covid-19 vaccinations

In the first 72 hours after the vaccine’s arrival, some 5,200 health care workers in New York City received the first of two doses

Lenox Hill Hospital Chair of Emergency Medicine Yves Duroseau receives the COVID-19 vaccine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park on Long Island, New York. Credit: AFP

Since its arrival Monday, the coronavirus vaccine has brought hope to New Yorkers.

But so far, only a few have actually been administered the vaccine.

In the first 72 hours after the vaccine’s arrival, some 5,200 health care workers in New York City received the first of two doses, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday. It was a slow start to what officials are calling the greatest mass vaccination campaign in the past 50 years, perhaps since polio.

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In fact, in the first three days of vaccinations, more than twice as many new coronavirus cases have been reported in the city as shots administered.

Mass citywide distribution isn’t expected for months. But the first week has brought at least some clarity on how the process might go.

 It’s going to move slowly, at least initially

On Monday, as the first shipments of vaccines arrived, Gov. Andrew Cuomo predicted a speedy rollout. “Today we’re in the process of administering 10,000 vaccines,” he said.

But two days later, the state health commissioner, Dr Howard Zucker, said only 4,000 people had been vaccinated across the state.

Hospitals took it slow from the start. At Mount Sinai in Manhattan, about 25 people were vaccinated at the health system’s flagship hospital Tuesday shortly after it received its first shipment, though doctors there said the vaccination program would quickly scale up.

“We’re going to need to pick up the pace dramatically just to vaccinate all our health care workers, let alone the population at large,” said Mark Levine, a New York City councilman who is chair of the City Council’s Committee on Health.

Hospitals do expect to quicken the pace. But with so many unanswered questions at the start of the week — when the vaccine would arrive, how many doses they would receive — it did not make sense to schedule too many people for vaccinations at first.

So the vaccination campaign is off to a slow start. In 1947, New York City managed to vaccinate a few million people against smallpox in a matter of weeks.

Fewer doses arrived than anticipated

Earlier this month, Cuomo said that New York state would receive 170,000 doses of the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Cuomo said only about 87,000 of that initial batch had arrived. By Friday, the rest of the shipment had arrived, according to the governor’s office.

Amid growing scarcity, the state Health Department has instructed hospitals in New York not to publicly disclose how much they received, even asking them to sign a memorandum of understanding, representatives of three hospital systems said.

“Due to the potential for security concerns, the MOU requires facilities not to disclose quantity on hand,” the state Department of Health said in a statement.

Levine said he believed that hospitals got slightly under 1,000 doses each, although a single hospital system like Mount Sinai or NewYork-Presbyterian may have received shipments at multiple hospitals.

Regardless, the doses that did arrive were well-received.

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On Tuesday, Ji Won Lee, an emergency room nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital, said she was inspired by watching the video of a nurse in Queens, Sandra Lindsay, become the first person in the US to be vaccinated.

“It was groundbreaking,” she said. “We have been waiting for this vaccine for so many months, for this pandemic to be over.”

“I wanted it, too,” she added.

Being first can be worrisome

While many health care workers are eager to be vaccinated, some acknowledge feeling ambivalent.

In authorizing the Pfizer vaccine, which during a clinical trial appeared to offer strong protection against the virus, the FDA said it found no “meaningful imbalances” in serious health complications between those that received the vaccine and those that received the placebo in a large-scale trial.

But that was not enough to convince all health care workers, who are part of Phase 1 of vaccine distribution.

“Some of my colleagues feel they want to wait for the second wave,” said Petrona Ennis-Welch, a critical care nurse and the first health care worker to receive the vaccine at Mount Sinai Hospital this week. “They do not want to be a part of the first round. They want to see how people do — which is understandable.”

Ennis-Welch, 54, has been treating coronavirus patients since March, when the first wave brought a surge of desperately sick people to emergency rooms across the city. “Patients were very ill, and they were dying quickly,” she recalled.

She acknowledged that even she had some misgivings. “To be honest, I had concerns, but when I stopped to think about it, I said, ‘You know, you’re here working every day, you’re among Covid patients, you really should just take it,’” she recalled.

Still, it seemed that the overwhelming majority of health care workers would choose to be vaccinated. At Northwell Health, the state’s largest hospital system, more than 1,600 people had been vaccinated by midday Thursday. Only two people had declined or deferred, said Joe Kemp, a spokesperson for the hospital.

One of the earliest Mount Sinai Hospital employees to be vaccinated was John Gomez, 53, who cleans hospital floors and patient rooms. Back in March, he fell sick with a severe case of the virus and was hospitalized for about a week.

When he heard a vaccine was available, it was an easy decision: “I’ll take it,” he said.

He noted that among some of his colleagues in housekeeping, the vaccine might prove a tougher sell. He had heard a number of conspiracy theories from them.

Past infection didn’t eliminate anyone

Some of those receiving the vaccine likely already have some protection against the coronavirus from a past infection. At Mount Sinai, several of the first group to be vaccinated recalled being sick with the virus or testing positive for antibodies.

Dr Jolion McGreevy, medical director of the emergency department, said he had the coronavirus a couple of months ago, though it was a light case with just one day of symptoms.

“It’s important protection, not just for us, but more importantly for the patients we care for and our families at home,” McGreevy said about the shot he had received just a few minutes earlier.

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The amount and duration of protection that past Covid-19 infections offer is not fully understood, but some researchers believe that many people likely experience some long-term protection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that clinical trials suggest the vaccine “is safe and likely efficacious” in people who have had prior coronavirus infections.

Dr Dave Chokshi, the New York City health commissioner, has said an “antibody test result has no bearing on whether or not you should get a Covid-19 vaccine.”

That’s an important point in New York City, where one study suggested that more than one-fifth of the city’s residents had the coronavirus during the first wave in the spring.

More is on the way

The Pfizer vaccine has so far received the most attention, because it’s the first vaccine the FDA has authorized for emergency use.

But the Moderna vaccine, which received FDA approval on Friday night, could start arriving in New York early next week in larger numbers than the Pfizer vaccine. Cuomo has said he expected the state to soon receive 346,000 doses from Moderna.

But the initial shipments from Pfizer and Moderna won’t even cover half of the 1.8 million people in the state who form part of the Phase 1 group, which also includes nursing home residents and workers.

On Wednesday, Cuomo indicated that Phase 2, which includes those categorized as essential workers, isn’t likely to start until late January.