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OpinionEditorial

A shot in the arm

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Blue Planet Studio

Are you waiting for the opportunity to take a vaccine that could prevent a deadly disease that seems to spread easily through our most vulnerable populations?

You don’t have to wait.

Even as so much attention is focused on the potential for a safe and effective vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus, we must not forget there are other deadly diseases we can prevent right now.

Start with the flu vaccine, available at your doctor’s office, pharmacy and local clinic. Get that flu shot — now. And update your vaccinations — and your children’s vaccinations — for other diseases, including the measles, which spiked in 2019 around the world.

Want an added incentive? A small study shows the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine might even help to protect individuals against COVID-19. And getting the flu shot now will help build immunities, making your body stronger when it’s time for the COVID-19 vaccine.

What lies ahead

All of this, however, is just an important precursor to the larger vaccination effort ahead. The best hope for fighting the pandemic, which has infected more than 12 million Americans and killed more than 260,000, is a safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine that people nationwide have access to and are willing to take.

That’s an enormous ask.

Yes, a vaccine is coming soon. There have been promising results from companies like Pfizer and Moderna, with vaccine candidates reportedly 90% effective or better, and from AstraZeneca, whose effective rates vary based on how the vaccine was administered.

But that is only the beginning.

First, the Food and Drug Administration has to move through its approval process. Its plan to hold public meetings in December is a good start. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has committed to conducting New York’s own review, and state officials promise it will happen simultaneously with the FDA’s process. That’s important, as Cuomo’s effort must not delay New Yorkers from receiving the vaccine.

Then, there must be an efficient, effective plan to deliver the vaccines to the states, which in turn will distribute it to clinics, pharmacies and physicians who administer it to patients. Storing the vaccines is an additional concern, because each has different temperature storage needs and other requirements.

The first distribution stage may be the simplest, as pharmacies and hospitals will provide the vaccine to long-term care facility residents and front-line health care workers first.

Then comes the hard part — and with it, questions.

How will New York officials develop the infrastructure to obtain, store, distribute and provide as many as 40 million doses, assuming each person needs two shots? How will they make sure those in minority and low-income communities — hardest hit by the pandemic — are reached, especially because many lack pharmacy chains, general practitioners, or urgent care facilities? How will the state keep track of and make public data about vaccine distribution and use? How will New York encourage residents to take the vaccine, and combat dangerous anti-vaccination messaging on social media, where opponents are often able to out-shout the doctors and pro-science experts? And how will the state determine who receives which vaccine, and when?

Finally, just as important: How will state officials make sure people keep following coronavirus-related restrictions, even as the vaccine becomes a reality?

Getting answers

New York officials need answers to those questions. But the only way states will successfully distribute a COVID-19 vaccine is with appropriate federal funding. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated the nationwide effort could cost $6 billion. For the Trump administration to take full ownership of the vaccine success story, and its Operation Warp Speed to be a breakthrough, it should make sure Congress provides the funding for national distribution.

And Congress should not insist on documentation status as a condition for getting the vaccine. It’s both the moral choice, and key to achieving herd immunity in our area.

New York officials say state preparations are underway. Existing systems, including the Vaccine for Adults program that provides vaccinations for free for uninsured individuals and others, will help. Using mobile health clinics, churches and other facilities as vaccine centers, and enlisting clergy, community leaders, and others to help, will be necessary.

It will take intense focus.

Most critical right now is an extensive public awareness campaign that is forceful, clear, and constant. Advocates behind the vaccine hesitancy and anti-vax movements are organized, with money behind their efforts. The pro-vaccine effort will need the same. It’s good that 58% of Americans now say they would take a COVID-19 vaccine, up from 50% in September. But other studies show troubling trends, such as that only 14% of Black people trust a vaccine’s safety, while 18% trust its effectiveness.

Reaching herd immunity — necessary to protect the entire population — will take far more buy-in. Each disease is different, but for measles, as an example, 95% of the population must be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

This is a moment. Federal and state officials have a staggering undertaking ahead of them. There’s a lot of hope, desperate hope, that the end might be in sight. But for hope to become reality, everyone has to get this right.

— The editorial board

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