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The COVID-19 Vaccine: A Light at the End of the Tunnel

December 14, 2020

What You Need to Know About the COVID-19 Vaccine

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Community Conversation: Brian Gragnolati

As the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines began, Brian Gragnolati, president and CEO of Atlantic Health System, shared what you need to know about the vaccine, deployment and what to expect in the coming weeks and months.

“Today is a great day” said Gragnolati in the Community Conversation on December 14, 2020. “If I think back to 10 months ago, I had absolutely wished for (this moment). I'm thrilled to see it happen so early, because I think it has so much promise. In the medical community, we have a lot of confidence about this vaccine."

Why is there so much confidence in the vaccine?

Gragnolati explained that as a member of the advisory committee to the governor, he spent significant time exploring the development of the COVID-19 vaccine. The first two vaccines, from Pfizer and Moderna, were based on a platform that has been in development for almost a decade. A tremendous amount of scientific work and rigor was put into unveiling and understanding the genetic code. 

What is Operation Warp Speed?

Operation Warp Speed is simply the name given to the effort to develop a vaccine, Gragnolati said. It enabled drug companies to access resources, create mechanisms and fund the swift and effective production of the vaccine. It accelerated the development by allowing the production cycle of the vaccine to happen concurrently with the approval process.

"That's why you can go from getting a federal approval on Sunday to now seeing vaccines being shipped all over the country. That is unprecedented…I think that this is a perfect blend for a public/private partnership.”

He said that partnership has allowed us to quickly get very safe and effective vaccines.

When will vaccine distribution begin in New Jersey?

Initially, six hospitals in New Jersey, including Atlantic Health System’s Morristown Medical Center, will receive the vaccine, with more hospitals to follow. The first six hospitals were selected by the State government based on the logistics, systems, processes and data collection necessary to deploy the vaccine, Gragnolati said.

"We're very excited about this opportunity. We're ready. We're hoping that we can start (vaccinations) in the next day or two. Our team members are really looking forward to this moment."

In fact, the first series of COVID-19 vaccinations were administered at Morristown Medical Center the day following this Community Conversation.

When will health care workers receive the vaccine?

Health care workers will be among the first people to get the vaccine. Gragnolati noted that team members at Atlantic Health System are enthusiastic, enrolled for vaccination appointments and ready to go.

When will the general public receive the vaccine?

There will be a process to prioritize and determine how the vaccine is distributed. The first phase will include health care workers, long-term care residents and staff members, and essential workers. The second phase will be people with pre-existing conditions and those over 65 years of age. The third phase will include the general public. As different versions of the vaccine are approved, the supply will increase and more people can get vaccinated. Gragnolati emphasized that Governor Phil Murphy's goal is to get 70% of New Jersey residents immunized in six months.

How will the vaccine be distributed?

Gragnolati explained that health care workers will receive the vaccine through an Atlantic Health System medical center. Long-term care residents and staff members will likely receive the vaccine through companies such as CVS and Walgreens. Other essential workers, first responders, and teachers will likely receive the vaccine through public/private partnerships that emerge in the communities they serve. As additional phases roll out and more vaccines become available, a broader distribution network that includes federal qualified health centers and community clinics will be established by counties and towns throughout New Jersey.

What are the differences among the versions of the vaccine?

As of this Community Conversation, the Pfizer vaccine was the only version available. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at very cold temperatures. It requires two doses: a primer dose and a second dose three weeks later. If you begin your vaccination with the Pfizer version, you cannot get a second dose from another version, for example, the Moderna version. When other versions of the vaccine are approved, more information about them will be available.

What is the reason for the second dose?

Gragnolati emphasized the importance of the second dose when getting vaccinated for COVID-19.

"Those second appointments are critical … The reason we have you register and get your contact information is to make sure that you get that second dose.”

The first dose shows immunities being developed, but the second dose is needed to really get to the level where you need to be, he explained.

If a person already had COVID-19, should they still receive the vaccine?

Gragnolati urged those who have previously been diagnosed with COVID-19 to consult with their physician for guidance on getting the vaccine. There is not enough data to determine one's level of immunity, but a previous diagnosis of COVID-19 doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't be vaccinated.

Should those who are immunocompromised or people who are pregnant get vaccinated?

Again, your primary care physician, OB/GYN or specialist should be consulted.

Once a person receives the COVID-19 vaccination, can they stop wearing a mask?

No. Gragnolati explained that we will be living with COVID-19 for many more months and that people will need to wear masks even if they are vaccinated. A vaccine protects an individual from getting COVID-19, but they may still transmit the virus to others.

"For the time being, until we really get a lot of people immunized, and we begin to see the transmission factors really plummet, the conventional wisdom is to wear your mask and follow whatever rules are being put out by the government. Governor Murphy here in New Jersey will be following the science very carefully and providing guidance."

Are we hitting a second wave of COVID-19?

Gragnolati put the current COVID-19 numbers into context. He recalled learning about COVID-19 at the beginning of 2020 and planning for it. Then, in March “saw the rocket take off,” particularly here in the New Jersey, New York Metro area.

“We saw a doubling of cases every two to three days. We literally, over a three-week period, went from zero patients with COVID-19 (in our hospitals) to about 600. We peaked in April at 900 patients, plus another 200 in our home programs who would have been in the hospital if we had not developed those programs.”

In this second wave, Gragnolati said there were 290 patients in our medical centers as of December 14, 2020. At the same time, Atlantic Health System continues to safely provide extraordinary care across other departments and specialty areas.

Gragnolati recognized the flexibility, innovation and sense of calm exhibited by our team members throughout the pandemic.

Are we close to the end of the COVID-19 crisis?

This year has been challenging for many people and has shaped all of our lives, particularly at the holidays, Gragnolati said. He said his own Thanksgiving holiday was quite different, and he won’t be spending Christmas with as many family members as he’d like.

“(The vaccine), to me, is a light at the end of the tunnel and what we have to stay focused on right now is continuing to care for our communities and to make sure our team members are safe. We've got to … get as many of our team members immunized as quickly as we can. Then, we need to roll that out through the community.”

What can people do to protect themselves from COVID-19 until they receive the vaccine?

Wear a mask, observe rules about social distancing, wash your hands and use common sense when gathering this winter. Gragnolati expressed hope that next year, we will be in a very different place.

Where can I find more information?

Resources and information about COVID-19 >

COVID-19 testing locations >

COVID-19 vaccine information >