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Panel: Trials must prove effectiveness, side effects of COVID-19 vaccine

Health experts explain coronavirus safety measures and take questions on what is currently known about the disease, analyze current treatments, the quest for a vaccine and a potential second wave.

Long Islanders should be patient as clinical trials proceed in the quest for a coronavirus vaccine, area medical officials said Wednesday in a Newsday virtual forum.

The 50-minute event featured a quartet of health experts answering questions on current COVID-19 treatments, school safety precautions, the risks of gyms and indoor dining and the threat of a second wave of the virus.

But with public health officials expediting the race for a vaccine — and reports that two major labs could have a vaccine ready for at-risk populations and health care workers by early November — the safety and efficacy of vaccinations was the No. 1 question posed by anxious Long Islanders who submitted questions.

Dr. Uzma Syed, an infectious disease specialist at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, said 13 vaccines are in clinical trials in the United States and more than 100 globally. While the process is moving faster than normal, the only way to ensure that a vaccine is safe is to allow it to go through its trials.

"We don't want to go into anything prematurely before having the data," Syed said. "We really have to let science lead and follow the methods that have always worked."

But the doctors cautioned that even with clinical trials, unexpected side effects may only manifest once the vaccine is on the market and has been widely distributed. And the long-term effects of a vaccine may not be known for some time.

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"We are not going to find out until we are well into the pandemic and well into the aspect of vaccinating people widely," said Dr. Susan Donelan, medical director of health care epidemiology at Stony Brook Medicine. "But we know that at some point we need to try to reach herd immunity in order to break the chain of transmission."

Dr. Lawrence Ferber, director of behavioral health central intake services at Catholic Health Services, offered guidance to Long Islanders to who are both fearful of taking a vaccine and worried about the consequences of not being vaccinated. 

"It's natural to feel scared," Ferber said. "It's OK. We will get through it."

With schools reopening, doctors urged Long Islanders to continue with the basic health and cleanliness practices that have brought down the state's infection rate, including wearing masks, washing hands regularly and socially distancing from strangers.

At-risk populations, including seniors and those with preexisting medical conditions, should remain cautious of large gatherings and may want to avoid gyms or indoor restaurants, experts warned.

"We cannot get complacent and must be smart," said Donelan, who urged residents to also get vaccinated for influenza.

Dr. Nicolas Hernandez, a physician at Northwell Health's Plainview Hospital who is currently battling COVID-19, said it will only take a handful of cases to start spreading to force a second closure of the state.

"I know it's fatiguing," Hernandez said of the continuing cautions being urged against the virus. "But everyone needs to keep reminding themselves that this is not forever. It's just a matter of time before we can get things back in order."

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