Americans have been understandably frustrated with the pace of COVID-19 vaccination to date. We are accustomed to delivery on demand and certainly health care on demand.
Asking the public to wait for a coronavirus vaccine shot, after a grueling year of illness, death and disruption is yet another test of our mettle. And with variants posing new threats, the anxiety grows around the globe.
I would like to offer my perspective, as the leader of the health network that has been at the epicenter of the COVID pandemic in New Jersey.
We need to be patient and remind ourselves of the remarkable progress we have made in fighting this pandemic.
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Our nation has never experienced the collaboration between government, pharma, insurers and health care providers that led to the development of safe and highly effective vaccines in record time.
As we continue to accelerate vaccine distribution, I believe this same sense of partnership, as well as a steely determination and sense of urgency, will help us vaccinate more Americans than ever before. Here’s why I’m optimistic:
First, remember that more than 53 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered nationally, which represents about three-quarters of the 70 million doses distributed, according to the CDC.
Would you have believed this possible just a few months ago? Earlier This week, New Jersey administered 1.4 million doses – that’s real progress as the state races to vaccinate 4.7 million people by early summer.
The Biden administration has amped up availability through a series of measures, including finalizing a deal to buy 200 million more doses from Pfizer and Moderna by the end of July. Both the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security are in discussions on how the military can help, including the possibility of sending up to 10,000 troops to vaccination mega-hubs.
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This will add to the growing ranks of mega-sites — shuttered shopping centers, motor speedways and baseball stadiums — pressed into service to give thousands of shots daily in each location.
Hackensack Meridian Health, in partnership with the New Jersey State Department of Health and State Police and National Guard, opened the Bergen County Covid-19 Vaccination Mega Site at the former Meadowlands Racetrack. It is now vaccinating 1,500 per day, up from 800 daily shots just two weeks ago. Ultimately, it will increase to up to 3,000 shots daily.
In less than four weeks, an aging, defunct racetrack was transformed into a 20-station vaccine hub, with specialized freezers, an army of vaccinators, schedulers, troopers, and physicians.
It is a site to behold: Soldiers in camouflage aiding elderly people and signing them into our electronic medical system; nurses emerging from retirement to answer the call for help; patients so grateful that a few have wept or hugged their vaccinator.
Second, more vaccines are joining the impressive arsenal. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the first single-dose product, has filed for emergency use authorization. Though not as effective as Moderna’s and Pfizer’s two-dose regimen, the vaccine is more than 85 percent effective in preventing severe illness from COVID-19 infections. Other vaccines could reach the market as well. This will help get us to herd immunity to control the pandemic, in which 70% to 85% of the population needs to be vaccinated, experts say.
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Let’s remember that never before has our government assumed the risk for vaccine development on a massive scale to accelerate production as was done in Operation Warp Speed. The vaccines’ approval was a reassuring affirmation of our scientific and entrepreneurial capability to address global threats to humanity.
Third, coronavirus infections and hospitalizations are falling across the nation – below 70,000 for the first time in three months, according to the CDC. The decreasing number of infections will ultimately lead to fewer deaths.
Thankfully, we are now treating around 600 patients in our hospitals system-wide, a far cry from the nearly 3,000 that were hospitalized at the peak of the pandemic in April. And far fewer patients are ending up in the ICU and on ventilators, a relief to our communities and our front-line heroes.
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Fourth, remember, that most people who become ill with COVID-19 will be able to recover at home. Meanwhile, we have new tools in the toolbox to reduce the number of catastrophic outcomes.
Remdesivir was approved by the FDA in October and clinical trials suggest that in certain patients, it modestly speeds up recovery.
Also approved are monoclonal antibodies cocktails, such as Regeneron, which was shown to reduce risk of hospitalization in clinical trials. Convalescent plasma therapy, infusing plasma from recovered patients into the sick, is helping many hospitalized patients.
Buoyed by that success, our network is launching new research to test the therapy in treatment outside of hospitals.
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Not all recent developments are positive. We need to address the growing number of variants the virus is producing. Thankfully, the vaccine makers, with the support of the federal government, are moving quickly to modify vaccines to provide maximum protection against these mutations.
In these challenging times, please consider our nation’s progress, the unprecedented collaboration that is moving us forward and know that we are working tirelessly to beat this global menace.