Westchester County health officials urged residents to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they have the opportunity to receive it in order to protect themselves, their families and people they come in contact with.
During a Facebook Live forum last Thursday evening led by County Executive George Latimer, Health Commissioner Dr. Sherlita Amler and Dr. Dial Hewlett Jr., medical director of the division of disease control for Westchester’s Department of Health, said the risks to one’s health and society are far greater by avoiding vaccination then by getting inoculated despite reservations by a sizeable portion of the population.
“The most important tool we have right now to get back to life as we knew it before COVID is a vaccine, and we’re lucky that we have multiple vaccines done by multiple companies in record time,” Amler said. “Right now, we have to help the public understand what vaccines can do for them, who should be vaccinated, what the limitations of vaccines (are), and we just have to work this out.”
Pfizer and Moderna were the first two pharmaceutical firms that developed vaccines with more on the way. Westchester has thus far only received Moderna’s product, Amler said.
Although the hour-long forum was to discuss issues related to COVID-19, it predominantly focused on the vaccines, including distribution challenges, who is eligible to receive them and where to get them. Local, state and national health officials have said that a minimum of 70 percent of the population needs to receive the vaccine for society to reach herd immunity. Some experts have pegged that number as high as 80 to 90 percent.
Hewlett said data collected from the first two million doses administered nationwide revealed 21 cases of anaphylaxis, four of which required hospitalization. The odds of serious health problems are far greater if people fail to get the shot when they have a chance, he said. The COVID-19 mortality rate is close to 2 percent with at least a 10 percent chance, and as much of a 40 percent chance, of the virus causing long-term chronic symptoms, Hewlett said.
“So I think that people have to weigh that out, and certainly, if you think about it and you’re rational, it’s much better and the odds are with you in terms of getting the vaccine versus risking getting COVID,” Hewlett said.
At least half of those who receive the vaccine are likely to have temporary side effects, Hewlett cautioned. The most common is a sore arm with fatigue or tiredness also being reported. After the second dose, which comes four weeks after the first shot for the Moderna vaccine and three weeks later for Pfizer, it has been common to experience a mild fever for a few hours before it wears off, he said.
Those who receive the vaccine will get a card with an appointment for when they should return for the second dose, Amler said. When multiple vaccines are available, they cannot be mixed, she said.
It is unclear how long the vaccine provides immunity, but studies suggest that protection is four to five times stronger than having had the virus, according to Hewlett.
Perhaps the most serious challenge facing Westchester, New York State and the nation is the slow rollout of the vaccines. New York State is receiving 300,000 weekly doses of the vaccine from the federal government, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday. Health care workers have been the first recipients.
Cuomo announced that the second group of eligible vaccine recipients – police, firefighters, other public safety workers, educators, transit workers and people 75 and up – can start registering for their vaccination appointments starting Monday.
A state website will be activated by 8 a.m. on Monday and a call center will begin accepting calls at 4 p.m. The site and phone number had not been released by Saturday.
The governor said unions will organize the appointments for the various workers. Participating pharmacies will administer the vaccine for seniors.
“This is the group that’s the most at risk,” Cuomo said. “This is the group with the highest death rate.”
So far, about 1,200 of the state’s 5,000 pharmacies have committed to giving the shots, with an initial group of 500 ready to accept registrants, he said.
Those 75 and older is, by far, the largest contingent in the second group eligible for the vaccine, totaling about 1.4 million state residents. In all, there are 3.2 million people in the second group and about one million health care workers who still need to be vaccinated, he said.
However, at the current rate of distribution, Cuomo said it will take until mid-April to complete vaccinating the first two groups and 47 weeks to reach the minimum 70 percent herd immunity threshold, an unacceptably slow pace.
Latimer said the third eligible group will consist of people with chronic medical situations, including the immunocompromised, followed by the general population. No date has been given when the next two groups can begin signing up.
He said the task to immunize the population just at the county level is daunting.
“We haven’t done anything like this…in our lifetime and I’m not sure 100 years ago that pandemic could not have dealt with this,” Latimer said. “So we’re in new territory.”
Amler said while most of the population waits its turn for the vaccine, it is crucial to continue the oft-repeated strategies to stay safe and for officials to educate the public.
“We’re in the middle of vaccinating the public right now, it doesn’t mean we can stop wearing masks,” Amler said. “It doesn’t mean we can stop social distancing and doing all the things that we’ve done before. It just means that we have to vaccinate about 70 to 80 percent of our population and we’ll reach herd immunity, which means that we will have less of a risk of widespread outbreaks of this virus.”
Hewlett also exhorted the public to avoid airplane travel and large gatherings.
“If we behave in the right way, we can keep our schools open and our pre-schools open and our children will be safer, and also it will allow the parents to do the kinds of work that they need to do,” he said.