This past Monday was a historic day, a literal shot in the arm in the human war against a devastating virus. It is appropriate to call it “V-Day” in America, a comparison made by four-star Gen. Gus Perna, the chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed in charge of vaccine deployment, to D-Day, when we landed on the beaches of Normandy during World War II to begin the liberation of Europe.
With Friday's federal approval of a second vaccine from Moderna and the start of its distribution today, and with still others being considered, it's even more of a remarkable scientific achievement in record-breaking time.
Some would say the D-Day comparison is overly dramatic, but not so when you consider the number of lives at stake here and around the world as COVID-19 continues to spread unfettered to millions more people.
At NYU Langone Health, where I work, I was privileged to be privy to the initial rollout, as the deep-freezer trucks arrived carrying the Pfizer vaccine. Mere hours later the vaccine center was open, down the hall and up the stairs from the testing center.
NYU Langone's chief medical officer, Dr. Fritz Francois, said it best to me in an interview, describing the terrible scene during the first major battle against COVID-19 last spring and comparing it to where we are now: “And we know that patients, unfortunately, died … there's new hope, there's hope because finally we can see that something can help protect against this particular virus. And it is a day when we can transform things because we have the science to provide a solution here in terms of getting things from the bench all the way back to the bedside in protecting our health care workers and also our vulnerable patients against COVID.”
The first patient at NYU to receive the vaccine was Tara Easter, nurse manager of the NYU Medical ICU, and she said it was an honor to receive it. I was impressed by her professionalism and her stoicism. Nurse Frank Baez administered the shot and took a careful patient history, focusing on Easter’s lack of allergies. “So I felt very confident going in and really excited,” she told me. “I'm not planning on taking a day off. I feel fine right now. I hope I keep feeling fine and I'll just, you know, keep an eye on it.”
I asked Easter if there was any resistance among the staff to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. “I think there is,” she said. “I think, as you said, it's fear. It's fear of the unknown. But again, I'm just trying to talk about it, try to keep raising it, you know, again, saying I'm taking it. And hopefully once ... more people tart to take it, then those that are afraid will also join in."
NYU’s medical director of lung transplant, Dr. Luis Angel, was also at the front of the line to receive the vaccine in an effort to protect his vulnerable immunocompromised patients on the wards from COVID-19 that he unwittingly might pass on.
“We (front-line health care workers) have to get this vaccine," Dr. Angel said. "It is not for me. It's for our patients, for our coworkers, for our families and for everybody. And so this is the moment that we really have to do this to take care of everybody.”
Then on Friday, Moderna’s MRNA vaccine received its emergency use authorization (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and with almost 2.9 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine delivered last week, it now looks like 8 million doses of both vaccines will be delivered by Christmas Day. Moderna’s product has the advantage of not requiring dry ice for storage and, in fact, can be kept in a refrigerator for up to 30 days. So it will be more useful for doctors’ offices, small clinics and pharmacies than the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine which must be stored at 70 degrees below zero Centigrade.
With all of this proceeding at “warp speed,” it was particularly disturbing and petty for the rollout to be criticized over some states receiving only up to 40 percent of the Pfizer vaccine that originally was promised. All the criticism and finger-pointing is dangerous in that it could erode public confidence in the vaccine program. Luckily, Gen. Perna did what great leaders do: He took full responsibility for the delay. “It was my fault,” he said. “It was a planning error and I am responsible.”
Some turbulence is expected when you are traveling at warp speed.
Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent and author of the new book, "COVID; the Politics of Fear and the Power of Science."