Note: Since this event was recorded, access to the COVID-19 vaccine has expanded to those age 12 and up and CDC guidance and New Jersey’s requirements for masking have evolved.
Approximately four million people in New Jersey have now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. In a Community Conversation on April 28, 2021, Atlantic Health System’s Brian Gragnolati, president and CEO, and Dr. Steven Sheris, SVP, Physician Enterprise and president, Atlantic Medical Group, discussed New Jersey’s new vaccine eligibility guidelines, and the system’s ability to rapidly screen and identify multiple disease variants.
Do people still need to wear a mask if they have been vaccinated against COVID-19?
Masking and social distancing will still be necessary for now, regardless of one's vaccination status. According to Gragnolati, masking protects individuals from COVID-19 as well as other viruses, including the seasonal flu. He urged people to follow the science.
Dr. Sheris added that there is still the possibility that vaccinated people could harbor the virus in their throat or nose and transmit it to others who are not vaccinated.
“There’s your personal protection and then there’s your personal responsibility to others as a public health matter ... take into consideration whether you’re indoors or outdoors, who you’re with, the distance you can maintain, and the vulnerability of the people you’re with,” Dr. Sheris advised.
When will life return to normal and what does normal look like?
Gragnolati acknowledged that, broadly speaking, this was the most common question people have asked about the COVID-19 pandemic.
He sympathized with the desire for workplaces, businesses, restaurants and public gatherings to resemble something normal. But he stressed that, even when this pandemic wanes, people will need to adapt to new health and safety practices, such as mask wearing on airplanes and virtual visits to the doctor.
Dr. Sheris added that it is still important to protect those who are most vulnerable in our population, especially during flu season.
What has changed in terms of vaccination access and availability?
When the COVID-19 vaccine was first introduced, access and availability were limited to those who met certain criteria, based on age, health and employment status. Now, eligibility has greatly increased, and the vaccine is widely available for all adults, ages 16 and up. Appointments can be made on the Atlantic Health System website.
Gragnolati was enthusiastic about the process and was encouraged by how easy it is now to get a vaccine. “So those of you who might’ve been reluctant because you didn’t want to wait, you can get it now and I encourage you to do so.”
Is it safe for somebody who has allergies to food and medication to get vaccinated?
Dr. Sheris said that if you’ve had a reaction to a vaccine before, then you should talk to your doctor about vaccination and have a discussion about your specific health care situation.
When will young people be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine?
Gragnolati said that vaccine trials for young people are underway and that he expects that the federal government will issue guidance to reduce the eligibility age over the next six months. This is an important step to ensure that kids can return to school, he affirmed.
Dr. Sheris added that Pfizer has submitted data to the FDA for a vaccine for children between the ages of 12 and 16 and that further clinical trials are underway for children between the ages of 2 and 12.
Why has there been a push to get seniors in high school vaccinated?
With expanded vaccine availability, officials are looking for ways to stimulate interest and incentivize people to get vaccinated. High school seniors, who have missed out on many things during the pandemic, could enjoy more normal graduation parties if they got the vaccine.
“You can have your grandma there; you can have your grandpa there. You can have your mother and father and your whole family there ... it’s a great opportunity to say, hey, everybody needs to get vaccinated,” Gragnolati said.
How can other groups of people be encouraged to get vaccinated?
Dr. Sheris said that vaccination rates have been moving in a positive direction, but the supply is now greater than the demand. Gragnolati said that public health officials are looking for new and creative ways to encourage people to get vaccinated. He appealed to the online audience to offer suggestions for programs and incentives for groups of people to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. For instance, he mentioned the possibility of creating a mobile vaccination program to visit high school sporting events. He said Atlantic Health System will work with your local community or organization to tailor a program that will fit your needs.
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Will booster shots of the COVID-19 vaccine be needed?
Although the vaccine has only been available since late last year, the data has shown persistent protection against the virus. The vaccine is designed to provide immunity from COVID-19.
Dr. Sheris explained the complex ways that process occurs within the body, focusing on how specialized white blood cells (called T-cells) provide a durable response to the virus. However, variants may develop that escape the immune response. As a consequence, there will probably be a need for booster shots in the future.
Gragnolati said that Atlantic Health System will be ready to provide vaccines and boosters for as long as COVID-19 presents a threat to individual and public health.
Which COVID-19 variants are currently threats and how are they identified?
There are a number of COVID-19 variants, including the UK variant, the Brazilian variant and the South African variant. In New Jersey, many testing facilities do not identify positive cases based on these and other variants and, therefore, the full impact of them is unknown.
Atlantic Health System has begun to test for variants and has shared that data with the state. However, Dr. Sheris stressed that the variants change neither the fundamental diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 nor the efficacy of vaccinations, mask wearing and social distancing. “You should not be concerned about (variants) if you’re following all the rules,” he stated.
Dr. Sheris and Gragnolati also praised the work of Atlantic Health System scientists and researchers for providing public health officials with valuable information on COVID-19 testing and transmission.
If you've been vaccinated, is it okay to take over-the-counter pain medication if you have general pain?
According to Dr. Sheris, you can take pain medication if you’ve been vaccinated. There is no evidence that over-the-counter brands such as Advil® or Tylenol® affect the vaccine’s response.
Can I choose which COVID-19 vaccine I receive at Atlantic Health System?
Currently, people cannot choose the version of the vaccine they receive. Appointments are made by time and location. Atlantic Health System vaccine centers offer both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
“My advice to my family members is, if you can get a vaccine, get a vaccine. You don’t need to be discerning about that,” said Gragnolati.
Dr. Sheris said that, in extremely rare instances, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has produced blood clots. Physicians are aware of the rarity of the condition and will work with individuals to recognize and anticipate any complications.
In accordance with the latest guidance from the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New Jersey Department of Health, Atlantic Health System has paused the administration of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.
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Are Atlantic Health System medical centers and physician practices ready to receive patients with conditions unrelated to COVID-19?
Dr. Sheris said there is no reason to delay your health care and that the facilities of Atlantic Health System are fully operational and prepared to serve your health care needs.
“If there are still people out there who have delayed screenings, preventive care, or chronic care management and have been feeling well and thought they could put it off, it’s time to come back to the office and re-engage with the health care system. It’s perfectly safe as it has always been to seek care. You don’t want to push that off at the risk of developing complications down the road.”
Gragnolati added that COVID-19 patients are treated in specific units and strict, rigid safety protocols are in place throughout the system.
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How can I help people learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine?
Gragnolati concluded the program by encouraging the audience to engage with their family, friends and community to spread the word about the importance of vaccines.
“The key to getting back to normal is engaging on this, having these conversations with your friends and family members who might be reluctant about getting a vaccine,” Gragnolati acknowledged. “Thank you for being engaged because our ability to get back to normal is directly in your hands.”
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