(New York, NY: January 23, 2021) What is Covid-19? How to prevent the spread of Covid-19? How effective are the vaccines to prevent Covid-19? Who should get the vaccine and what do we know of its safety? These are questions commonly asked and often there are conflicting responses, making a layman confused about one the most-deadly viruses in a century that has claimed millions of lives, impacting nearly every aspect of human life around the globe.
A lively panel discussion by healthcare professionals, organized virtually by Global Organization of Persons of Indian Origin (GOPIO) Manhattan Chapter in collaboration with the Indian Consulate in New York on Friday, January 15th, 2021 provided answers to these most important questions. The Webinar started with welcome remarks by Dr. Asha Samant, Advisor to GOPIO-Manhattan and International Coordinator-at-Large of GOPIO International. Dr. Asha Samant, in her opening remarks, described the current period experienced by humanity due to COVID-19as “a dark period in human history.” Dr. Samant presented the chief guest and the panelists.
In his opening remarks, Consul General of India in New York, Randhir Jaiswal congratulated GOPIO for organizing the panel discussion and educating the community on such a timely and vital topic with a thoughtful session by experts in healthcare field. While acknowledging the challenges faced by humanity due to COVID, Ambassador expressed hope and said, “There is optimism for the new year and we hope to put this pandemic away.”
Ambassador Randhir Jaiswal referred to India’s massive undertaking under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, beginning to inoculate health workers Saturday in what is likely the world’s largest f vaccination campaign, joining the ranks of wealthier nations where the effort is already underway. India has plans to vaccinate 300 million people, roughly the population of the United States. The recipients include 30 million doctors, nurses and other front-line workers to be followed by 270 million others, who are either aged over 50 or have illnesses that make them vulnerable to the Coronavirus. Praising the two India-based pharmaceutical companies for manufacturing the vaccines in record time, Mr. Jaiswal said, “We will be sharing our vaccines with other countries who need. It gives us pride that we can share our scientific knowledge with the world.”
GOIO Manhattan President Shivender Sofat welcomed the panelists and participants to the timely and very important discussion on Covid-19 and vaccination. In accordance with the mission, the newly formed Manhattan Chapter has taken several initiatives in the recent past. He referred to the Community Feeding every month organized by the Chapter. He urged the community to support the initiative by being a volunteer and or a sponsor. Shivender was joined with GOPIO Manhattan Vice President Dr. Vimal Goyle to organize the event.
Dr. Thomas Abraham, Chairman if GOPIO-International shared greetings to the Manhattan Chapter leaders and panelists from GOPIO International. Referring to New York City as “the worst hit in the country in the beginning, and is still reeling with the impact of the pandemic,” he thanked to Dr. Arnab Ghosh for taking the initiative and coordinating the panel discussion.
Dr. Arnab Ghosh, a physician in Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) specializing in adult Bone Marrow Transplantation and an immunologist, moderated the lively session, with three expert panelists, who are in the front line, working towards mitigating the challenges posed by Covid-19 in New York. “While admitting that “we do not have answers to many questions to Covid-19 that has changed our lives in all possible ways,” he said, “There is no magic wand to destroy fully the virus yet.”
Dr. Monika Shah, a physician in Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) specializing in diagnosing and managing a broad range of infectious diseases, including Covid-19 patients, gave broad introduction to “What is Covid-19?” Dr. Shah explained Coronaviruses as “a type of virus. There are many different kinds, and some cause disease. A newly identified coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has caused a worldwide pandemic of respiratory illness, called Covid-19”
While admitting ignorance in the beginning of the pandemic leading to certain behavior in people and healthcare professionals, Dr. Shah said, “Food is not a transmitter of the virus, while shared common surfaces could be a transmitter.” Dr. Shah emphasized the need for wearing masks. “Any form of masking is better than no masking. Studies have proved that masks help prevent the spread of the virus. N95 mask provides greater prevention, regular mask is good and we should use it in public,” she said.
On the prevalence and impact of Covid-19, Dr. Shah said, “Variability of symptoms is staggering and astonishing. While 80% might do well with Covid-19 symptoms, 20% percent need treatment, and 15% requiring hospitalization, and nearly 5% percent of those diagnosed positive face critical conditions.” While most of these who are at risk of critical care are those above 65 years of age, and with comorbidities, younger people can develop serious disease,” she added. “When diagnosed, do all that you do when you are ill with any other disease,” she told the audience. “Depending on the symptoms, if you can manage, stay home, but when feeling breathless, if you notice palpitations and severe tiredness, seek medical help.”
On vaccines, Dr. Shah explained the differences between the vaccines created in India and in the US, stating that both versions are meant to generate antibodies against viral components to protect from the virus. In the ones available in the US mRNA that codes proteins are used while the other version viral proteins are produced and used to vaccinate. In none of these versions, any viral particles are injected and the vaccines are completely virus-free. She assured that the vaccines are known to be very effective, and also in combating the new variants of the virus, although their effectiveness may be a little different.” “Even if we get vaccine, we need to be cautious,” she advised.
Dr. Sunanda Gaur, is a Pediatric Infectious Disease specialist and Professor of Pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS. As its Director of the Clinical Research Center, she is actively involved in leading clinical trials related to antimicrobials and infectious diseases including Covid-19 and educated the audience on “Covid-19 among kids.” She said, “The good news is that children in general do well with this virus. Most children were spared from it and they are not normally tested for the virus.” While admitting that “We did not have enough data on children,” Dr. Gaur said, there is more data available now and that as many as 2 million kids have been infected with Covid-19 and that there are 175 deaths among children have been reported so far.
Dr. Gaur was of the opinion that “It is safer to send kids to school” Stating that children can transmit the virus, Dr. Gaur said, “Children are not the drivers of the virus. Kids over 10 years of age are more likely to transmit than the younger children.” When the rate of infection is in the community is lower, schools can be opened. Schools are not known to be spreaders. It is safer if all procedures are followed in schools and that it is safer to send kids to school. While education is remote, stress in family is higher,” she said.
On the question of breast feeding for mothers who are positive for Covid-19, Dr. Gaur said, “Virus is not in the milk. Pregnant women do not transmit the virus to newborn children. Mother needs to breast feed safely. Bur she needs to isolate from other kids and family members.” While admitting that there is not enough data on pregnant women, Dr. Gaur pointed out that CDC recommends that they be offered the vaccine. She noted that vaccine conferred protection from many other infections, to the mother are known be transmitted via breast milk to infants.
Dr. Gaur also assured that in spite of the speed of development of the vaccines, they have undergone rigorous testing under progressive phase clinical trials and have been found to be effective and safe. “We have not cut any corners,” she said. She highlighted that the side effects were very few and far in between, and usually due to a reaction against the vehicle in which the vaccine is injected. Dr. Shah emphasized that although the vaccine was developed only recently against Covid-19, the vaccine technology has been backed by several years of biomedical research.
Dr. Madhury (Didi) Ray, who works at the Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and has built systems for public health emergency preparedness and response against Covid-19, explained as to why Covid-19 is more deadly than prior pandemics. “We are seeing more travel and interaction than ever before in human history. You create a situation where a virus with mutation has the ability to infect human beings. Close proximity has between people has increased infection. Travel hubs like Wuhan and NYC have become epic-centers of the transmission and spread of the virus,” she pointed out.
Dr. Ray told the audience that “You have the power to prevent the transmission of the virus.” She emphasized some of the “CORE Behaviors: 1. Stay home when you are sick. 2. Practice face covering. 3. Maintain physical distance. 4. Wash hands frequently. While trying to prevent infection, follow the steps and avoid spearing the virus.” Referring to the many initiatives New York City has recently piloted, DR. Ray said, the city is monitoring of clusters in schools. Evidence shows gatherings of kids need not be super spreader events.”
Regarding Covid-19 tests, Dr. Ray said, “All tests are free in NYC. She emphasized that one need not be concerned about one’s citizenship or immigration status and these facilities were accessible to all the members of the community. What is important is to do the test.” Dr. Ray said, contact tracing is the largest in NYC. If you are positive you will be monitored and that will let all of your contacts know. NYC is also offering mandatory paid leave to those infected with the virus and the City is offering free hotel accommodation to isolate and not transmit at home. South Asians have higher rate of hospitalization than many other groups. Allergic reactions to vaccines are extremely rare.
Dr. Ray also highlighted the slow but expanding access to the vaccination program in NYC. She pointed to several web resources where the closest points of distribution of the vaccine can be found, she admitted, “We do not know how long the immunity from the vaccine lasts. Until herd immunity is achieved, we need to be cautious even after vaccine.”