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North Country health officials urge vaccinations

Saranac Lake Middle School social studies teacher Dwight Stevenson is among the first group of people to be vaccinated against COVID-19 at a state Department of Health-run vaccine clinic in Plattsburgh on Monday, Jan. 18. (Photo provided by Dwight Stevenson)

PLATTSBURGH — A North Country Chamber of Commerce webinar gathered regional healthcare professionals Wednesday morning and the message was clear: Get the COVID vaccine ASAP.

University of Vermont Health Network, Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital Vice President of Population Health and Information Services Dr. Wouter Rietsema was one of five panelists and called the available COVID vaccines “miraculous.”

“We have vaccines that prevent 95% of a disease — that’s unheard of in vaccinations,” Rietsema said, noting that a “good” flu vaccine was closer to the 50% range.

“If anyone is waiting to see if they’re safe, we’ve vaccinated 100 million. How many do you need?”

No steps skipped

Chamber President and CEO Garry Douglas led the morning’s virtual discussion, asking panelists vaccine-linked queries related to COVID variants, post-vaccine symptoms, herd immunity and the debunking of vaccine rumors. He also urged the community to listen to the professionals, not social media posts.

Asked if any steps were skipped in the vaccine-making process, Dr. Tracey Henderson of Adirondack Health in Saranac Lake said, “No.”

The doctor explained that creation of the vaccine technology began in the early 2000s with the SARS outbreak in Asia, which had helped to expedite the process. She added that more funding was available quicker than typical due to a “strong desire to get this done quickly” and said each company performed all three clinical trials.

“It became very clear early in the Phase 3 trials that the vaccines were very effective, so emergency use authorization (was granted) based on the fact that the data was very clear, very early,” Henderson said.

“Ethically, it would have been not a good idea to wait much longer, because we knew that there was a vaccine that was very effective.”

Before, after vaccine

Though some claim taking zinc and/or vitamin C prior to vaccination offsets symptoms, Kinney Drugs Pharmacist Ruth-Ellen Van Arnam said data was limited.

“For most people, there isn’t any need to pre-medicate for a vaccine with anything,” Van Arnam said. “Your immune system is best prepared to do its job when you’re getting plenty of sleep, physical daily activity and staying well hydrated, eating properly.”

Dr. Mona Chitre, of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, advised individuals not pre-treat post-vaccine symptoms with over-the-counter meds, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. She suggested treating symptoms, like headaches, after they have occurred.

“This is your body mounting the response that we want it to mount,” Chitre said. “Our bodies are getting primed, our bodies are getting ready so that if we come in contact with coronavirus, we’re ready to attack and keep our bodies protected.

“We don’t want to suppress our immune system from mounting that effect.”

Post-COVID vaccinations

Individuals who have already tested positive for COVID-19 should “absolutely” get vaccinated, Rietsema said.

“People who have very mild or asymptomatic disease often have very low levels of anti-COVID antibodies after,” he explained. “Vaccination creates levels of antibodies far higher than natural immunity.”

The doctor described a vaccine’s first dose as “priming the pump” and the second “locking in immunity.”

And Searing said the idea that, “Oh, I don’t need to get it, because I’ll be protected by herd immunity,” was false.

While that method worked for overall population health, the RN said, when it came to individual health, “the way to protect yourself is to get vaccinated.”

“Don’t wait”

Asked the differences between the various COVID vaccinations, Chitre cited varying storing requirements, dosing and the age of which there was proven efficacy and safety.

“What these vaccines do have in common is that they’re safe and they’re effective,” she said. “So the Moderna vaccine, Pfizer vaccine and Johnson & Johnson vaccine — whichever vaccine you have access to is the one that you should get.

“Don’t wait for one or the other. They’re all safe and effective.”

Searing said CCHD was aware of residents who had delayed receiving one of the two-dose options in favor of awaiting the Johnson & Johnson, a one-dose option, to become available and had since “come down with COVID.”

“That is sort of a tragic outcome of waiting for convenience.”

“Get vaccinated, please”

Asked how close the North Country was to achieving herd immunity, or having 75 to 85% of its total population vaccinated, Searing noted the 20,000 individuals who were currently too young to get the shots.

“That makes it a little more difficult,” she said, adding that, according to the region’s vaccine dashboard, about 30% of eligible individuals had complete dose series. “We have a long way to go.”

Officials noted vaccination positives, like reaching herd immunity for a return to normalcy, and protecting others who were currently ineligible. Searing addressed vaccine skeptics, saying, “We have 100 million people so far who have gotten vaccines; not one of them has died.”

She noted the 500,000 people who had died, including 31 in Clinton County, and COVID impacts, like fatigue and cognitive inability to think clearly, felt by some survivors for up to six months after the fact.

“If you’re thinking about a risk versus benefit — come on, get vaccinated,” she continued. “Stop everything else and save your life and save the lives of your friends, your family and your neighbors and the people you might not even know whose life you’re saving.

“Get vaccinated, please.”

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