By A. Campbell
As the second wave of the pandemic grips the city, questions swirl about the vaccine promising to bring it to an end. Is it safe? Does it work? How will it be rolled out? When will I get it? Where?
NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi, MD, answered those and other questions posed by community members at a virtual town hall meeting last week, organized by UWS City Council Member Mark Levine.
Highlights from the Q&A portion of the town hall are included below. You can watch the entire event on Council Member Levine’s YouTube page.
Note: The Q&A below has been edited for clarity and concision.
Can you dispel some of the rumors and misinformation that have been circulating online about what the vaccine does and doesn’t do?
Dr. Chokshi: “Let me start with what the vaccine is not. It is not a live virus. You cannot get the virus from the vaccine. It is also not DNA and it doesn’t affect your DNA. The mRNA doesn’t enter into the nucleus of the cell and so it doesn’t alter a person’s genetic code.”
So how does the vaccine work?
Dr. C: “We should focus on the ‘m’ in mRNA. ‘M’ is for messenger, that means it’s a message. That message is one that encodes a protein called the spike protein of the virus. The cell takes that in. It actually develops that protein so the body can recognize it and build immunity to it, and then as soon as that happens, the mRNA is released. It’s disintegrated, so it’s no longer in your body and all that remains is the immunity you’ve built up to the virus and to the virus protein. So when you do encounter the virus, your body recognizes it and can mount an immune response to it.”
How should people with allergies understand what the vaccine might mean for them?
Dr. C: “The vast, vast majority of people who have allergies – whether it’s food allergies or allergies to dust and dust mites or seasonal allergies – none of those bear on whether you should or should not get the vaccine. If you have those allergies, the vaccine will be safe and effective for you. The people who should have a conversation with their doctors about this are people who have had very severe allergies to a vaccine or to a medicine taken by injection in the past. In those cases, I do encourage you to discuss it with your doctor.”
Should organ transplant recipients and others who are immunosuppressed get the vaccine?
Dr. C: “I’m going to start by reiterating that for specific clinical circumstances, the best thing is to speak with a doctor who knows you and your condition best. What I will say more generally about people who may be immunosuppressed is that there are no contraindications to getting the vaccine simply because you are immunosuppressed – meaning the vaccine is likely to be safe and effective for you as well, but I do encourage you to have a conversation with your doctor to allay any concerns and to talk through the particulars of your situation.”
When will I receive the vaccine?
Dr. C: “The vaccine is going to roll out in three phases. Phase One is when we know there’s going to be limited supply of the vaccines and there will have to be these challenging decisions made about prioritization. Phase Two is when supply starts to catch up to the demand and when we’ll be able to expand out the groups that will be eligible for vaccination. And Phase Three is when we have supply that is sufficient to meet the overall demand and that’s when the general public will be eligible to be vaccinated.”
What is the estimated timeline for each of those phases?
Dr. C: “I don’t think we’ll get to Phase Three until potentially the middle of 2021, in terms of having sufficient supply for everyone. I think we’ll get to Phase Two, where supply is catching up to demand, perhaps in March and April, 2021. Until then, we’ll be in Phase One where we have to work through the prioritization groups because of the limited supply. I believe [Phase One] will last through February. We’ll work from where we are right now: high-risk healthcare workers, long-term care facility residents and staff, and expand it to first responders who are also in roles that put them at risk for infection and illness. Then, essential workers, particularly those who may not be able to physically distance, and then to people who are at risk because of age or underlying illness.”
Where will I be able to receive the vaccine?
Dr. C: “We want the vaccine to be administered in the places that all of you already trust getting your routine vaccines. If you’re used to getting that at your community health center, we want you to get it there. If you’re used to getting it from the hospital, we want you to get it there. If you’re used to getting it from a pharmacy, we want you to get it there. We’re going to partner with all of those places to try to expand access as much as possible. All of this will unfold in phases, but the goal is to get it to all of those access points.”
Will vaccinations be done by appointment and will residents receive communication about when they are eligible to receive them?
Dr. C: “We will rely on the relationships that you already have – whether it’s with your family doctor or your pharmacist – to help with that. Our goal and what we’ve been planning for is to ensure we have the best science-based information to equip those people with so they, in turn, can answer all of your questions. We already have a website up. It’s nyc.gov/covidvaccine. We update it regularly and you should bookmark it and check it frequently.
With respect to appointments, as the vaccine becomes more broadly available, appointments will be used frequently. Unfortunately, we remain in a public health emergency, in a time when we’re seeing a surge in cases. So, even as we administer a vaccine, we’ll have to make sure we’re masking up and and that people are flowing through the spaces where they’ll receive the vaccine in a safe and healthy way. I think appointment scheduling will help us with that.”