Last Monday, Dr. Dave Chokshi, commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Dr. Ted Long, executive director of the COVID-19 Test and Trace Corps, gave members of the Queens Borough Board a sense of optimism about the pandemic.
But they also urged caution and patience, noting that the COVID-19 metrics are all currently pointing in the wrong direction citywide.
“We now have a light at the end of the tunnel in the vaccine,” Chokshi said. “But it doesn’t make the tunnel any less perilous.
“We have to look back to what has worked over the last few months,” he added. “All of the things that helped us bend the curve, first in March and April, and helped us keep the virus at bay for the last several months until the last few weeks.”
In Queens, the health commissioner, who has lived in Jackson Heights for the past seven years, said the data shows significant increases in cases and an uptick in hospitalizations. The borough’s COVID-19 positivity rate now exceeds six percent.
“We remain in a precarious position,” Chokshi said. “You don’t throw the oars out of the boat during a storm just because you see the shoreline.”
He urged New Yorkers to keep wearing masks, staying home if they feel ill, washing their hands, maintaining social distancing and getting tested for the coronavirus.
He noted that it’s difficult to maintain the discipline and vigilance, and that everyone is tired of the virus. In particular, he admitted that it’s not easy asking people to avoid gathering with their loved ones, especially during the holidays and after a tough year, but said it’s important to “redouble our efforts.”
Chokshi said it was moving to see the vaccine administered to doctors, nurses and other health care workers the city has relied on over the last few months.
“My heart just lifted,” he said. “It is really a shot of hope.”
The Pfizer vaccine was delivered to five hospitals in New York City last Monday, 37 the next day and two more on Wednesday. Chokshi said he expects the Moderna vaccine to be authorized and distributed as early as this week.
Both will be administered to medical facilities, as well as nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
The health commissioner explained that both are MRNA vaccines, meaning they teach bodies how to trigger an immune response and build immunity to the virus that causes COVID-19. MRNA vaccines do not affect or interact with a person’s DNA.
Later in his briefing, Chokshi was asked if people with allergies should take the vaccine. He noted the FDA and CDC have investigated its effects after two people in England suffered allergic reactions following in injection.
“Unless you have severe allergies to a vaccine or another medicine that was taken by injection, the vaccine is considered safe for you,” he said. “If you do have specific questions, I recommend you speak with your primary care doctor about it.”
As for the supply of the vaccine, Choksh said it will be limited at first. The vaccine will be distributed in phases to groups of people based on their risk of COVID-19 exposure, as well as the severity of the illness they may experience.
Following health care workers and long-term care facility patients and staff, the next phase involves essential workers, especially those who have a hard time physically distancing at home, he said. The next group are people most at risk of the effects of COVID-19, including older New Yorkers and people who have underlying medical conditions.
Chokshi said the process will take time. He added that city officials are working to ensure that access to the vaccine will be easy and free from barriers such as cost and immigration status.
“Yes, the calvary is coming, but it’s going to be a slow and steady march for them to arrive,” he said. “We don’t expect that the vaccine will be broadly available to the general public until mid-2021 at the earliest.”
Borough President Donovan Richards, as well as other community board chairs, noted that communities of color have a “sordid history” with vaccines. Answering how the city plans to gain the public’s confidence in taking the vaccine, Chokshi said equity will be a key part of their rollout plan.
“Trust is a key ingredient for turning a vaccine into a vaccination,” he said.
He said he hopes community leaders will become strong messengers in support of the vaccine.
“You’re the ones who have the trusted relationships in your communities,” Chokshi added. “The starting point is to work through trusted relationships that already exist.”
Dr. Long stressed the importance of COVID-19 testing. He said if health officials can get a half-million New Yorkers to get tested every week, “we will control this virus.”
“Right now, we see a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “But now is the time we have to work harder than ever before to sprint to that finish line.”
Long also mentioned the city plans to open a new “COVID Center of Excellence” in the coming weeks at 71-17 Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights. He described the site as a “one-stop shop for everything” officials know about the coronavirus.
Patients will have access to on-site pulmonary function tests, which diagnose different kinds of conditions so they can be prescribed the proper treatment, as well as echocardiology exams, neurological evaluations and comprehensive behavioral health assessments.
“We offer all of that on site,” Long said, “on the day we see you.”