SIU School of Medicine- How can you fight the pandemic?

By Jerry Kruse, , MD, MSPH, Dean and Provost, SIU School of Medicine & CEO, SIU Medicine

Welcome back from the holiday break. I hope you had a safe time of rest and renewal.  Unfortunately, the holiday break was not a time of safety in the United States as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to surge.

Many harrowing stories have shocked the health care system again. In the Los Angeles area, the supply of oxygen needed for medical treatment was depleted and hospital admissions exceeded the capacity of both regular hospital beds and ICU beds. Because the hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, Los Angeles Emergency Medical Services workers were instructed not to transport patients who likely wouldn’t survive and to give less oxygen to transport patients. But that is not the worst news.

On Tuesday, January 5, 2021, the United States experienced the largest number of deaths from a single cause or event for a 24-hour-period in its history. There were 3,775 deaths due to COVID-19 on Tuesday, January 5, exceeding by 125 the number of deaths at the Civil War Battle of Antietam.  Here are some reference points for deadly days in American history.

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        Pearl Harbor, 12/07/1941:                   2341 deaths

        D-Day, 06/06/1944:                               2500 deaths

        9/11 terrorist attacks, 2001:                2977 deaths

        Battle of Antietam, 07/17/1862:        3650 deaths

        COVID-19, 01/05/2021:                        3775 deaths

        COVID-19, 01/06/2021:                       3963 deaths

        COVID-19, 01/07/2021:                        4033 deaths

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The really bad news now is this:  As shown above, that record was broken the next day. On January 6, when attention understandably shifted to Washington, DC, there were 3,963 COVID-related deaths. January 7 saw 4,033 people perish. Daily death tolls of this magnitude are occurring day after day after day after day. This is a crisis of monumental proportions that we, as a society, have not yet appropriately addressed.

Now we, as a society, have another chance to respond appropriately. The COVID-19 vaccines provide us hope, and opportunity, to effectively combat SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. If we double-down on preventive measures and assure that 80 percent of the population receives the new vaccine, this is the light at the end of the tunnel – the cavalry is here!

 Vaccines are among us

Two U.S. pharmaceutical companies – Moderna and Pfizer BioNTech – have developed and rigorously tested vaccines that use a new mRNA method. They have been approved for emergency use by the FDA. The U.S. military began dispersing the vaccines across the United States in December. Astra Zeneca has developed a third vaccine that operates through another new mechanism, and it is also nearing FDA emergency approval. Many more companies have new vaccines in the pipeline. So plenty of doses are available now and more will be manufactured. There is no concern about that.

However, the path to actually giving the shot of the vaccine is complicated, with protocols cascading down from the federal government and CDC, to the states, to the counties, and finally to the administration sites. Protocols are not standardized, and administration rates for the vaccines have been disappointing. If we are to stop this pandemic, re-energize our work places and return to a more normal lifestyle, it is up to each one of us to do our part to ensure that the rate of vaccine administration increases rapidly.

These vaccines can do the trick. They are the products of new and exciting technology that will forever revolutionize the world of immunization. One former FDA official, when comparing vaccines for COVID-19 to traditional vaccines, gave both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines the grade of A+. I agree; A+ it is.  And here are the reasons.

The safety and efficacy of these first two vaccines is impressive. They decrease COVID infections by 95 percent and are safe for almost everyone. The vaccines have not been studied adequately in pregnant women, though initial signs indicate that safety is likely. Pregnant women should discuss this vaccine with their physician. They have not been studied in children, and they should not yet be utilized in immunocompromised people or those who have severe allergic reactions.

Both vaccines require two doses, administered about a month apart. The side effects are similar to those experienced with influenza vaccine: mild fatigue, perhaps a headache, and transient soreness in the arm at the injection site. More severe reactions are rare.

The vaccines introduce coated mRNA (messenger RNA, genetic material that contains instructions for making proteins) into a few cells. The mRNA guides the cells to produce a fragment of the spike protein found in the COVID-19 coronavirus. The protein fragment is antigenic, which causes your own natural immune response to protect against COVID infection.

There is a common misconception that the mRNA vaccines alter a person’s own genetic material. This is not true! The coated mRNA does not reproduce in the human body, and is quickly broken down and eliminated. The mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, and does not interact with or alter any of your genetic material in any way.

As a leader in the medical and academic communities, I wish to take a moment to salute the scientists who have spent their careers learning how to engineer these novel and potent vaccines for our welfare. They have collectively worked on coronavirus vaccines for several decades, and they rose to the challenge in 2020 under extraordinary circumstances to rapidly produce vaccines specifically for COVID-19. My hat is off to them all.

Vaccinations are a time-tested, scientifically proven way to protect yourself, your loved ones and those in the community. But they only work if we use them.

So here’s my strongest recommendation:  For your safety, for the safety of all those around you, and for the safety of Americans through herd immunity to COVID-19, please get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you can. It is safe and effective. 

Stay vigilant

The COVID-19 infection rate for Illinois and for the SIU areas is not rising as it is in much of the U.S.  We are in a better position than most parts of the country. Let’s take advantage of it.

There is much work to do.

We must get the vaccine, and we must diligently continue our other safety recommendations.  You know these well:

  • Do not travel domestically or internationally
  • Avoid gatherings whenever possible
  • Wear a mask
  • Maintain distance of at least 6 feet
  • Wash your hands frequently

Thank you for all you have done to get us to where we’re at now.  Have confidence that better days are ahead for all of us in 2021.

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