A Q&A on Jersey City vaccine distribution

JCMC's chief medical officer discusses timing and safety

Dr. Michael Loftus, Chief Medical Officer, Jersey City Medical Center- RWJBarnabas Health
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Dr. Michael Loftus, Chief Medical Officer, Jersey City Medical Center- RWJBarnabas Health

Today, Jersey City Medical Center began distributing the COVID-19 vaccine to its employees. In the coming weeks, the vaccine will be given to first responders and high-risk individuals before it is made available to the general public. We sat down with Dr. Michael Loftus, Chief Medical Officer, Jersey City Medical Center- RWJBarnabas Health, to ask him questions about the vaccine.

Q: Which COVID-19 vaccine are employees at Jersey City Medical Center receiving? 

A: We have the specialized freezers that are required for storing the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine so we will start distributing that vaccine.

Q: Why are health care workers getting the vaccine first?

A: The goal is to vaccinate some of the highest risk groups – those most likely to be exposed on a frequent basis. So the thought is to vaccinate those who are exposed to COVID-19 frequently and as well as those who would negatively impact our ability to care for patients if they were to become ill themselves.

Q: Do you feel these vaccines are safe?

A: Absolutely. The safety data was gathered in a very rigorous way. These were run through the appropriate safety protocols and the early testing data has been very good. It’s not just one manufacturer either. It’s at least two, with very similar safety profiles. Everyone here at Jersey City Medical Center is very excited to be able to offer this as a really important intervention in our fight against COVID-19. The vaccine is going to be the biggest game changer we’ve had so far to fight COVID-19.

Q: There are people in communities of color who have voiced concern and don’t trust the vaccine and the government when it comes to their health based on historical events. What can you say to those who hold this opinion to assure them that this vaccine is safe?

A: The impact of COVID-19 on communities of color has been profound and continues to cause widespread health issues in a disproportionate way. In Jersey City, by some measures the most diverse city in the entire country, JCMC continuously performs outreach to educate and earn trust within those communities. But it’s an ongoing challenge. There is a lot of disinformation being offered and social media videos spreading false stories.

I would encourage anyone, if you have questions, to reach out to one of the professional providers in your community for answers. Educate yourself about the benefits of the vaccination. We are vaccinating all of the healthcare workers for a reason.  It’s something that is safe, effective and will really help turn the tide to halt what is a concerning rise in COVID-19 cases locally. We’re starting to see a second wave. The cases are coming slowly and steadily rising and the vaccination will hopefully get us back to some semblance of normalcy. For those communities that have questions, that’s what we’re here for. Jersey City Medical Center is doing outreach, as we’re trying to educate, but it’s really important that people ask those questions and get answers. To have access to a vaccine with the current effectiveness and safety profile is outstanding. It’s really the best we could have reasonably hoped for. When you think about the science behind how it was developed, it’s pretty remarkable.

Q: Do you plan to get the vaccine?

A: Absolutely, it’s been shown to be safe and effective, and I think it’s an important part of doing your part to prevent spread. I will be in line with everybody else and when it’s appropriate for me to be vaccinated, I will be right there to have it done.

Q: We’ve have seen news reports about people getting allergic reactions. Is that something people should worry about. 

A: Allergic reactions to vaccines are rare, but it does happen. It can happen to any kind of medication or any kind of intervention. The protocols for administering these vaccines do include oversight and monitoring after the injection by a clinician who can observe for any sort of reactions that would be unexpected. That being said, it is very rare. The more common reactions are things like muscle aches, headaches and things like that, which are a sign of the body’s response to the vaccination creating those antibodies that are going to create long-term protection.

Q: When do you think the general population in Hudson County will be able to start getting vaccinated?

A: It’s a matter of how quickly the vaccine can be manufactured and distributed and as soon as those first waves of health care workers, high-risk individuals and first responders have been vaccinated. Local governments have already started the process of getting the infrastructure in place needed to get the vaccine out to the general public and we’re hopeful that it’s going to happen soon. It’s going to take time to get sufficient vaccines out there to vaccinate everybody, but we’re hopeful that we’re going to be able to start offering that early in 2021.

Q: Will people be able to get the vaccine at the hospital?

A: Logistics are still being discussed. We’re in constant communication with the leadership of Jersey City and Hudson County about where the best places are to offer the vaccine. The hospital is absolutely involved in those discussions and will be a partner in any way that is needed. The discussions are ongoing.

Q: If someone has already had COVID-19 do they need to get the vaccine?

A: There’s no contraindication to getting the vaccine after already having COVID-19. Even if you have antibodies, the recommendation would be yes – get the vaccine. The urgency for those people to get the vaccine is not quite as high given the relatively limited doses available. As we start vaccinating our healthcare workers who may already have antibodies, we are placing them in the lower category so that others can be vaccinated earlier in the line. But absolutely everyone should still get vaccinated even if you have antibodies or have had COVID-19.

Q: What if you are young and healthy, wouldn’t it be better just to get COVID-19, rather than risk taking the vaccine?

A:  Absolutely not. The risk of COVID-10 is so much higher than the risk of this vaccine. Yes, it is true that young healthy people who get COVID-19 tend to do better, but they don’t all do better. There is still a risk associated with being infected with this virus. That is not something to take lightly.  Beyond that, becoming infected without being aware means that you may pass it on to others who are higher risk or who have coexisting conditions that you may not know about. Getting it and spreading it unknowingly is how we got to where we are right now. If you become infected, you are infectious before you may know you have COVID-19, and so it’s absolutely a risk to those around you for you to be infected.

Q: Can you explain herd immunity in layman’s terms? 

A: The concept of herd immunity is that we are surrounded by others who are immune, and if enough of those others cannot spread a virus, then we as an individual are protected. The key is to reach a situation where enough people in the herd can’t spread the virus. Even if a small number of people do become infected, it stops with them. It can’t spread through those around them because the infection never gets to the other high-risk people in the herd. You need enough people who are immune or vaccinated or otherwise can’t be spreaders to essentially wall off those rare pockets where the infection develops.

Q: Hudson County is one of the most densely populated in the country. What will it take to achieve herd immunity?

A: The estimate is 70 to 75% vaccinated to prevent the spread. Those numbers are estimates and they depend on how spreadable a virus is.

Q: What is the advice for pregnant women?

A: There is no contraindication to getting the vaccine in pregnancy. There’s no specific recommendation that that group not be vaccinated. Women who are pregnant and interested in the vaccine should have a conversation with their provider to discuss the risks and benefits and make an individual decision. We are not going to refuse vaccinations to anyone who is pregnant if they have thought it through and it’s the right thing for them. Similarly, being vaccinated is not a prerequisite of delivering at Jersey City Medical Center.

Q: What about children getting the vaccine?

A: Right now, it’s an adult vaccine. The pharmaceutical companies are doing trials in pediatrics. Once they have sufficient safety data to show it’s ok to give to children, that will be updated. But for now, we are only vaccinating adults.