Rutgers COVID expert tells Morris Township forum: Take the vaccine

Dr. Amesika Nyaku, top, fields a vaccine question, via Zoom, from T'Anna Kimbrough of Black Lives Matter Morristown, Jan. 19, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin


The pandemic’s early days were hellish for Dr. Amesika Nyaku, an infectious disease specialist at Rutgers Medical School.

Her sense of helplessness “was absolutely terrible…we could not help anyone,” she recounted.

But COVID-19 vaccines are game-changers, Nyaku told an online forum Tuesday.

“If we were able to get 70 percent vaccination, we would be out of this very quickly,” she said, on a day when the United States pandemic death toll topped 400,000. Church bells commemorated the victims, at the request of President-elect Joe Biden on the eve of his inauguration.

Hosted by Morris Township’s Democratic organization and Black Lives Matter Morristown, the webinar asked whether people of color, the elderly, and persons with underlying conditions should get inoculated.

“Without a doubt, I will resoundingly recommend it to everybody. The older they are, the more medical problems that they have, those are the people that I’m saying, please, be the first to sign up, so that they can get it,” said Nyaku, who helped run clinical trials of the Moderna vaccine at the New Jersey Medical School Clinical Research Center.

The massive bells of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church rang 400 times on Jan. 19, 2021, honoring 400,000 U.S. victims of COVID-19. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Forum organizer Ron Kimbrough, a Democratic committee member who is Black, said many African Americans are wary of COVID vaccines because they were developed so swiftly — and because of the country’s “sad history of experimentation” on people of color.

Nyaku, who is Black, has had her COVID shots, a two-step process. After some muscle aches, which she treated with over-the-counter pain relievers, “I’m good to go.”

Blacks and Latinos should get vaccinated, she said, because they are among the groups hit hardest by the novel coronavirus. She suspects economic and social factors, not genetics, are to blame.

Minorities may lack access to health care, for one thing. And many may live in multi-generational households, exposing older family members to the virus, she said.

Nyaku said she had been researching HIV when the National Institutes of Health told infectious disease doctors and immunologists to “stop what you’re doing and focus on COVID.”

“If this amount of effort were put into HIV it would be so amazing,” she said.

Government/industry partnerships, and scientists’ familiarity with COVID’s viral cousins, SARS and MERS, contributed to the rapid rollout of the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, Nyaku said.

A “focused infusion of money” and an “all hands on deck” mentality also helped.

Clinical trials and federal approvals can take years, but these vaccines were rolled out in less than one. They are up to 95 percent effective — regulators would have been thrilled with 50 percent– with few serious adverse reactions so far in the United States, Nyaku said.

Vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are anticipated soon, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.

Deaths of 33 Pfizer vaccine recipients were reported this month in Norway, where thousands of nursing home residents have been vaccinated. It’s unclear if the vaccine was responsible; some of the deceased may have been terminally ill when they were vaccinated, according to news reports.

Nyaku fielded questions from a virtual audience that included Black Lives Matter Morristown leader T’Anna Kimbrough (Ron Kimbrough’s niece); Morris Township Mayor Jeff Grayzel, Deputy Mayor Mark Gyorfy and Committee members Cathy Wilson and Bud Ravitz; and Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. of Morristown’s Bethel AME Church and the Rev. Alison Miller of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship.

Some topics:

Can the vaccines give you COVID-19?

No. None of these vaccines use a live virus.

The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use Messenger RNA. It “delivers the recipe to your body that it will use to develop antibodies, so when your body is exposed, it’s already prepared and ready with the defenses to fight off the virus,” Nyaku said.

Anaphylaxis, a severe reaction, may stem from an allergy to the chemical polyethylene glycol, she said. Small numbers of people also get anaphylaxis from flu shots.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging Americans to get vaccinated to avoid the risks of death or serious illness from COVID-19.

Do the vaccines prevent COVID-19?

Maybe. They were tested for effectiveness in minimizing severity of the illness, to keep people out of hospitals, Nyaku said. More data is needed to confirm whether the shots actually prevent infection.

So should you wear a mask after being vaccinated?

Yes. Nyaku said it’s possible you still could be an asymptomatic carrier.

Will the vaccines work against new variants of the virus?

Pfizer says yes, Nyaku said.

Will we need these shots every year, like flu shots?

Unlikely. But booster shots may be recommended farther down the road, the doctor said.

Should persons who already had COVID get vaccinated?

Yes, according to the CDC.

Where can COVID survivors track research into lingering symptoms?

Nyaku suggested starting here and here.

Should COVID vaccinations be mandatory for schoolchildren, and for everyone?

COVID vaccine studies of children are ongoing, so any mandates for them would be premature, Nyaku said.

While she is hopeful about the Biden/Harris push for 100 million vaccinations in 100 days, requiring inoculations for adults when vaccines are in short supply will cause “confusion and frustration, and get everybody really stirred up and in a panic,” she said.

If enough people are vaccinated, she added, mandates may be unnecessary. The virus might get knocked out of circulation, or its effects minimized like the common cold.

“There could be changes that happen,” Nyaku said.

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