Since its arrival on Monday, the coronavirus vaccine has brought hope to New Yorkers.
But so far, only a few have actually been administered the vaccine.
In the first 72 hours after the vaccine’s arrival, some 5,200 health care workers in New York City received the first of two doses, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday. It was a slow start to what officials are calling the greatest mass vaccination campaign in the past 50 years, perhaps since polio.
In fact, in the first three days of vaccinations, more than twice as many new coronavirus cases have been reported in the city than shots administered.
Mass citywide distribution isn’t expected for months. But the first week has brought at least some clarity on how the process might go.
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It’s going to move slowly — at least initially
On Monday, as the first shipments of vaccines arrived, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo predicted a speedy rollout. “Today we’re in the process of administering 10,000 vaccines,” he said.
But two days later, the state health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, said only 4,000 people had been vaccinated across the state.
Hospitals took it slow from the start. At Mount Sinai in Manhattan, about 25 people were vaccinated at the health system’s flagship hospital on Tuesday shortly after it received its first shipment, though doctors there said the vaccination program would quickly scale up.
“We’re going to need to pick up the pace dramatically just to vaccinate all our health care workers, let alone the population at large,” said Mark Levine, a New York City councilman who is the chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Health.
Hospitals do expect to quicken the pace. But with so many unanswered questions at the start of the week — when the vaccine would arrive, how many doses they would receive — it did not make sense to schedule too many people for vaccinations at first.
So the vaccination campaign is off to a slow start. In 1947, New York City managed to vaccinate a few million people against smallpox in a matter of weeks.
Fewer doses arrived than anticipated
Earlier this month, Mr. Cuomo said that New York State would receive 170,000 doses of the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech on Tuesday, Dec. 15. On Wednesday, Mr. Cuomo said only about 87,000 of that initial batch had arrived.
Amid growing scarcity, the state Health Department has instructed hospitals in New York not to publicly disclose how much they received, even asking them to sign a memorandum of understanding, representatives of three hospital systems said.
“Due to the potential for security concerns, the MOU requires facilities not to disclose quantity on hand,” the state Department of Health said in a statement.
Mr. Levine said he believed that hospitals got slightly under 1,000 doses each, although a single hospital system like Mount Sinai or NewYork-Presbyterian may have received shipments at multiple hospitals.
Regardless, the doses that did arrive were well-received.
On Tuesday, Ji Won Lee, an emergency room nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital, said she was inspired by watching the video of a nurse in Queens, Sandra Lindsay, become the first person in the U.S. to be vaccinated.
“It was groundbreaking,” she said. “We have been waiting for this vaccine for so many months, for this pandemic to be over.”
With distribution of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in the U.S., here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:
- If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
- When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
- If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. Here’s why. The coronavirus vaccines are injected deep into the muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This appears to be enough protection to keep the vaccinated person from getting ill. But what’s not clear is whether it’s possible for the virus to bloom in the nose — and be sneezed or breathed out to infect others — even as antibodies elsewhere in the body have mobilized to prevent the vaccinated person from getting sick. The vaccine clinical trials were designed to determine whether vaccinated people are protected from illness — not to find out whether they could still spread the coronavirus. Based on studies of flu vaccine and even patients infected with Covid-19, researchers have reason to be hopeful that vaccinated people won’t spread the virus, but more research is needed. In the meantime, everyone — even vaccinated people — will need to think of themselves as possible silent spreaders and keep wearing a mask. Read more here.
- Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection into your arm won’t feel different than any other vaccine, but the rate of short-lived side effects does appear higher than a flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. The side effects, which can resemble the symptoms of Covid-19, last about a day and appear more likely after the second dose. Early reports from vaccine trials suggest some people might need to take a day off from work because they feel lousy after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, about half developed fatigue. Other side effects occurred in at least 25 to 33 percent of patients, sometimes more, including headaches, chills and muscle pain. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is mounting a potent response to the vaccine that will provide long-lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
“I wanted it, too,” she added.
Being first can be worrisome
While many health care workers are eager to be vaccinated, some acknowledge feeling ambivalent.
In authorizing the Pfizer vaccine, which during a clinical trial appeared to offer strong protection against the virus, the F.D.A. said it found no “meaningful imbalances” in serious health complications between those that received the vaccine and those that received the placebo in a large-scale trial.
But that was not enough to convince all health care workers, who are part of Phase 1 of vaccine distribution.
“Some of my colleagues feel they want to wait for the second wave,” said Petrona Ennis-Welch, a critical care nurse and the first health care worker to receive the vaccine at Mount Sinai Hospital this week. “They do not want to be a part of the first round. They want to see how people do — which is understandable.”
Ms. Ennis-Welch, 54, has been treating coronavirus patients ever since March, when the first wave brought a surge of desperately sick people to emergency rooms across the city. “Patients were very ill, and they were dying quickly,” she recalled.
She acknowledged that even she had some misgivings. “To be honest, I had concerns, but when I stopped to think about it, I said, ‘You know, you’re here working every day, you’re among Covid patients, you really should just take it,’” she recalled.
Still, it seemed that the overwhelming majority of health care workers would choose to be vaccinated. At Northwell Health, the state’s largest hospital system, more than 1,600 people had been vaccinated by midday Thursday. Only two people had declined or deferred, said Joe Kemp, a spokesman for the hospital.
One of the earliest Mount Sinai Hospital employees to be vaccinated was John Gomez, 53, who cleans hospital floors and patient rooms. Back in March, he fell sick with a severe case of the virus and was hospitalized for about a week.
When he heard a vaccine was available, it was an easy decision: “I’ll take it,” he said.
He noted that among some of his colleagues in housekeeping, the vaccine might prove a tougher sell. He had heard a number of conspiracy theories from them.
“They have so many questions,” he said. “They’re talking about how they’re going to give something bad to your body. They really don’t know about this vaccine.”
Past infection didn’t eliminate anyone
Some of those receiving the vaccine likely already have some protection against the coronavirus from a past infection. At Mount Sinai, several of the first group to be vaccinated recalled being sick with the virus or testing positive for antibodies.
Dr. Jolion McGreevy, medical director of the emergency department, said he had the coronavirus a couple of months ago, though it was a light case with just one day of symptoms.
“It’s important protection, not just for us, but more importantly for the patients we care for and our families at home,” Dr. McGreevy said about the shot he had received just a few minutes earlier.
Corey Pigott, a registrar in the emergency room, never felt sick, but tested positive for antibodies, he said.
The amount and duration of protection that past Covid-19 infections offer is not fully understood, but some researchers believe that many people likely experience some long-term protection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that clinical trials suggest the vaccine “is safe and likely efficacious” in people who have had prior coronavirus infections.
Dr. Dave Chokshi, the New York City health commissioner, has said an “antibody test result has no bearing on whether or not you should get a Covid-19 vaccine.”
That’s an important point in New York City, where one study suggested that more than a fifth of the city’s residents had the coronavirus during the first wave in the spring.
More is on the way
The Pfizer vaccine has so far received the most attention, because it’s the first — and so far only — vaccine the F.D.A. has authorized for emergency use.
But the Moderna vaccine, which is likely to receive F.D.A. approval shortly, could start arriving in New York early next week in larger numbers than the Pfizer vaccine. Mr. Cuomo has said he expected the state to soon receive 346,000 doses from Moderna.
But the initial shipments from Pfizer and Moderna won’t even cover half of the 1.8 million people in the state who form part of the Phase 1 group, which also includes nursing home residents and workers.
On Wednesday, Mr. Cuomo indicated that Phase 2, which includes those categorized as essential workers, isn’t likely to start until late January.
For now, city officials are unclear on when the vaccine would be distributed to most New Yorkers.
“For an individual trying to figure out where am I along that road map, I just want to be upfront and acknowledge we don’t have that granular detail for you at this moment,” Dr. Chokshi said in a presentation this week.
Luis Ferré-Sadurní and Alexandra E. Petri contributed reporting.