Vaccine panel happy with progress, but the message remains: Vaccines save lives

September 03, 2021


Although upcoming booster shots and mask-wearing by schoolchildren dominated the discussion during a September 2 webinar about COVID-19 vaccines, the overarching message from the assembled panel of Quinnipiac experts was the same as it’s been since vaccines were available: Get yours!

Titled “Empowering Our Communities and Informing Your Decisions,” the virtual program was the fifth in a series of conversations hosted by Quinnipiac’s School of Health Sciences over the past 15 months and made available to the public.

Janelle Chiasera, PhD, dean of the School of Health Sciences, moderated the webinar, and viewers were encouraged to ask questions of the panel, composed of: Lisa Cuchara, PhD, professor of biomedical sciences; Anne Dichele, PhD, dean of the School of Education; David Hill, MD, professor of medical sciences, director of global public health and senior medical adviser for COVID at QU; Mary Peterson, a pediatric nurse practitioner; and John Thomas, JD, professor of law.  

“With the recent FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, talk of booster shots, rising delta variant cases and the return of students to schools, I cannot think of a better time to bring together our experts to provide clarity on these topics and help answer your questions,” Chiasera said.

“We’ve come a long way,” she said, noting that 65% of Connecticut’s population is now fully vaccinated. “We are doing well with those over the age of 55, 85% of whom have been vaccinated,” she said, noting that within the age 16-35 group, the rate falls to 59%. And only 20% of Americans now say they are not likely to get vaccinated — the lowest percentage ever.

Mindful of the surging and highly contagious delta variant circulating now, Hill emphasized that people should get vaccinated to protect not only themselves, but others who do not yet qualify for the vaccine. He also recommended getting a flu shot when available, even if the timing  coincides with a COVID-19 vaccination or booster.

“There is no reason to separate the vaccine from the flu shot. One of the benefits this past season were very few flu cases,” he said.

Cuchara commented that although immunity to the virus seems to have waned a bit, “The vaccines are still very good at preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death, so they still give you decent protection against the most severe consequences.”

The recent uptick in cases and hospitalizations among the 5-to-11 age group not yet eligible for vaccinations has been concerning, Peterson said, adding that their symptoms normally are less severe. Cuchara said statistics show that children in Connecticut are not contracting the virus as much as kids in other states, especially the south, because of Connecticut’s high vaccination rate.

“The difference between North and South shows our community immunity is actually working,” she said.

Children have or are returning to school wearing masks in Connecticut, and Gov. Ned Lamont has mandated that their teachers be vaccinated to protect them. Not all parents in this state and others are on board with mask mandates for children, but Thomas pointed out that masking allows our education system to meet its legal obligation to not discriminate based on disability. He said children with asthma and diabetes and others at risk of severe issues from COVID-19 have the right to an equal education.

“The fact is, we have always done things to protect the one from the many,” Dichele said, citing nut-free school environments to protect those with allergies. “It’s not new to us … we need to be empathetic to others with comorbidities.”

Dichele said some people are concerned that mask-wearing may affect overall learning environments, “but children have been very resilient and teachers very creative. The overarching concern of health and safety of children far outweighs the learning piece when we can accommodate that learning piece in creative ways,” she added.

Data to date illustrates that in-person learning far outweighs virtual learning across the board, particularly in math, the dean said. “Even with masks, even with distancing, children still learn better on the ground.”

Chiasera noted that 68 percent of parents say they will get their children vaccinated when the time comes, and Peterson said the thinking is that the FDA will announce its recommendation for emergency use vaccines for children ages 5-11 in October and follow with recommendations for younger children in the new year. She is hopeful they can get their shots in their pediatrician’s office.

Discussion about booster shots centered on their safety and whether they are needed. All U.S. adults who received the first shots will be eligible soon.

“We know the boosters are very safe, and the fact that we see our immunity beginning to wane is perhaps proof that the COVID vaccine should have been a series of three shots to start with,” Cuchara said, comparing it to HPV and hepatitis B vaccines, which often are given in a series of three.

As a twice-hospitalized COVID patient, Thomas shared that he already has availed himself of a booster shot. He reiterated Hill’s advice, saying, “The loss of empathy in our communities is really concerning. Get a booster shot and do everything you can to protect your neighbors and loved ones.”

Cuchara said getting the booster shot will be a personal decision. “Right now, some people may say, ‘I got my two and am unlikely to have serious disease, and I’m OK with that, while others want to be as safe as they can be and protect the community.”

Hill predicted that the same people who got the vaccination originally will probably get the booster shot. But he’d first like to see another 10 to 20% of unvaccinated people in the state make a real impact on the pandemic’s length and severity by getting their first shots.

And with full authorization granted by the FDA, “There is no question that employers can mandate the shot for their employees,” Thomas said. He also sees proof of vaccination cards to attend events or to travel on the horizon.

Hill thinks QU students received their vaccines recently enough to get them through the fall semester safely, but he may consider boosters for students in the future, and first off might be students going into classrooms for teaching and health science students doing clinicals.

One webinar viewer wondered whether it would be OK to attend a large-scale outdoor event, such as a football game in a stadium, without a mask.

“Fifty thousand people going into a stadium will make screening hard. Personally, if I were in a setting like that — cheek to jowl with people cheering and spewing forth their respiratory viruses — I would wear a mask,” Hill said as the other panelists nodded and smiled.

“I would feel more comfortable. At indoor crowded spaces, certainly you would do that,” he added.

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