Q&A: Hospital physician says arrival of COVID-19 vaccine ‘is a glimmer of hope’
Almost 10 months after COVID-19 was first diagnosed at Mount Sinai Health System, Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine arrived there Dec. 15.
The vaccine’s arrival caused a whirlwind of emotions, Gopi Patel, MD, the health system’s medical director of antimicrobial stewardship and associate professor of infectious disease, told Healio Primary Care.
“I cried multiple times that day,” she said. “But I was also full of cheer and very proud.”
Patel said she has not had a day without answering a colleague’s email, treating patients on the hospital floor or allaying patient or colleague fears since February. In April, the health system had approximately 800 patients with COVID-19, which is about 10 times its normal ICU capacity. Despite the long days and significant devastation around her, she said knew a “light” was coming.
“I trusted that scientists weren't going to get the vaccine wrong. I also knew I would be part of the effort to inform others about the vaccine,” Patel said.
She was a participant in an unblinded clinical trial involving Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine earlier this year. The initial vaccine Patel received was a placebo; now, she will also receive the true vaccine.
In an interview, Patel further discussed the mental and emotional state of employees at Mount Sinai since the vaccine’s arrival, strategies for addressing vaccine hesitancy and more.
Q: What were your thoughts when you found out that a COVID-19 vaccine would finally be come available to you and your colleagues ?
A: I cried when I found out I originally received placebo and would receive the actual vaccine. I cried during my team’s 7:30 a.m. huddle. I cried when one of our infectious disease pharmacists shared a selfie in front of the box carrying the vaccines.
I got to go home and tell my husband and my daughter that maybe next year will be different. Maybe my daughter will get to see her grandparents in person instead of over Zoom and maybe she'll go to school 5 days a week. There really is a glimmer of hope. I'm so proud of what Mount Sinai Hospital and the health system has done. I'm so happy that I got to participate and inform the science to this point.
Q: How has morale changed among your colleagues?
A: The celebration among health care workers and patients after our hospital president gave the first shot to one of our ICU nurses was amazing. It felt like there is a light. We now need to vaccinate all of our colleagues from physicians, to emergency department personnel, housekeeping staff and our community at large.
But we still have work to do, particularly for those patients whose chronic disease care was interrupted. There are a lot of places struggling with this same situation, posing a real risk for poor or undesirable outcomes among these patients. We need to tell these patients about the safety protocols we have in place so that they will come in for chronic disease care.
Q: What is your health system’s vaccination policy for employees? What are the consequences for those who choose not to receive the vaccine ?
A: Mount Sinai’s intention, over time, is to offer the vaccine to all of our employees. As of right now, we are not requiring employees to receive the vaccine, so we have not decided ramifications for those who choose not to receive it. However, if public health officials and other authorities make it mandatory, then we will follow suit.
Q: What would you say to physicians who are eligible for the vaccine but do not wish to receive one?
A: I'm cautiously optimistic that once physicians see someone who looks like them or has the same position as them be administered the vaccine, they’ll feel a moment of pride and receive the vaccine.
Q: What will you say to your patients to encourage them to get the vaccine when it is available to them ?
A: Our biggest goal right now in public health and in health care is to inspire vaccine confidence. To do so, I intend to tell patients my story: I really want to see my daughter go to soccer practice, play on a playground and for everybody to see her smile. I want to fly to California to visit my parents, since I have not seen them in over a year because of COVID-19. Almost everybody has a very similar story. Many people have lost family members to COVID-19. I would ask these vaccine-hesitant patients: How can you not want us to get to some semblance of normalcy again? If you are offered a vaccine, you need to take it.
I understand that some people want to see that the trials reflected their age group, race, ethnicity, medical condition and other demographic data. If I was a 67-year-old diabetic, I'd want to make sure there was someone like me in the trial. I would point out that there was a real push by the clinical trial organizers to include diverse participants.
Another thing we can do to instill that confidence is to mention the numbers: More than 16 million cases and over 300,000 deaths. Tell vaccine-hesitant patients these statistics and then ask them, “What are you waiting for?”