WATERTOWN, Mass. – The Armenian Revolutionary Federation Eastern Region USA (ARF-ER) hosted a virtual COVID-19 vaccine panel on Sunday, March 14. The panel featured John Bilezikian, MD, endocrinology, Columbia University; Kim Hekimian, PhD, public health, Columbia University; Tsoline Kojaoghlanian, MD, infectious disease, Maimonides Children’s Hospital; Lawrence Najarian, MD, ophthalmology, New York University; and Karine Birazian Shnorhokian, MSN, RN, regional director, CareOne.
The panelists – made up of public health and medical experts – shared an update on the pandemic and insight on the vaccination process, as well as the vaccine’s efficacy. They also answered questions during a live Q&A session.
“Vaccines are one of the public health tools that we can use to protect ourselves and to protect our loved ones,” said panel moderator Dr. Hekimian. “We have evidence-based understanding of other public health measures that we know can also keep us safe and keep our loved ones safe as well, including continued mask wearing, social distancing and frequent hand washing,” she continued, underscoring the importance of these preventive measures since only 10-percent of the US population has been vaccinated so far.
While there are more than 50 vaccines in development, three—Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson—have received emergency approval from the FDA and have been administered to millions of Americans. “These three vaccines that are currently available are based on technology that has already been around for more than 10 years,” noted Dr. Kojaoghlanian, a pediatric infectious disease specialist. “They are new to human beings, but the technology and the platform that was used to prepare them has been an area of active research for more than 10 years,” she continued. Dr. Kojaoghlanian is the principal investigator of more than a dozen multi-center clinical trials studying new antibiotics, vaccine immunogenicity and diagnostics in pediatrics. She also works to devise and implement new therapeutic modalities, evidence-based guidelines, vaccination strategies and trainee education and evaluation policies.
Dr. Kojaoghlanian also discussed the role of the messenger RNA, which is transmitted through vaccines to build up our immune system, so that when the actual virus attacks, the immune system is ready to respond. “We are very lucky that these vaccines, when they were designed… they were designed to prevent symptomatic COVID-19. What does that mean? Symptomatic means someone who develops illness from COVID-19. It could be a moderate illness where somebody can have a little bit of fever and extreme fatigue and a cough, or it can be severe in this leading to hospitalization and in many cases, as we know, death,” explained Dr. Kojaoghlanian. “The beauty about these vaccines is that all of them prevented severe COVID-19 equally well and equally highly, which means that if you get this vaccine, the chances that you’re going to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19 are really less than five percent, according to recent data,” she continued.
Dr. Kojaoghlanian also highlighted the differences between the vaccines and concluded that they are all effective and can tremendously impact the long-term consequences of COVID-19.
Dr. Bilezikian, for his part, commented on the speed at which the vaccines were developed. “Speed is a function of need and a function of resources. This coronavirus infection is a one-in-a-century event, and not to be overly dramatic, but our civilization was really threatened,” stressed Dr. Bilezikian, a professor of medicine and pharmacology at the College of Physicians & Surgeons at Columbia University. “Literally one month after the first case of coronavirus was identified in China, the protein sequence of the virus was known and published in the New England Journal of Medicine. That opened the doors for the drug companies to develop vaccines.” Dr. Bilezikian, who has been involved in independent data and safety monitoring boards for the development of drugs and vaccines for the past 15 years, underscored the FDA’s supervision and approval of these clinical trials. He reassured viewers that the FDA was empowered to stop the study if safety concerns among the approved pharmaceutical companies became apparent at any point in time. “Rather than be concerned about the speed of these trials, I would say that these are marvels of biotechnology and we have to be very grateful that a year later we have made great progress,” concluded Dr. Bilezikian.
After this discussion about the availability and safety of vaccines, Dr. Hekimian transitioned the conversation to the impact of the pandemic on the elderly population and public health.
“We needed to do whatever we could to make sure our residents, patients and staff were safe,” recalled Birazian Shnorhokian, who helped lead the nursing organization CareOne in the quick implementation of strict protocols in communal living environments—even at the cost of eliminating the residents’ interactions with their loved ones. “That was really hard, but it was necessary to stop the spread and infection. So many variabilities became really challenging—from gowning to sending out tests to off-site laboratories—we were diving into this and adapting to the needs of our population. We needed to do whatever we could to make sure our residents, patients and staff were safe,” said Birazian Shnorhokian, who specializes in clinical care management, improving care transitions and population health, especially among the geriatric population.
Birazian Shnorhokian’s update on long-term healthcare facilities was much more uplifting than this time last year. Since close to 1.4 million Americans reside in over 15,000 nursing homes in the United States for both short and long-term care, the coronavirus severely impacted the residents who exhibited complicated hospitalization rates.
Birazian Shnorhokian not only discussed the realities of caring for an elderly population, but also the realities of living in a communal congregational setting where spread was much higher. She provided an overview of the regulations and guidelines that nursing homes are subject to and ended with encouraging words about the vaccine and its impact on patients’ physical and mental health. She also reviewed the new guidelines in place that protect not only the residents, but also anyone crossing the threshold of centers including staff and visitors.
“A lot of our residents have been waiting for this [the vaccine], as many have lived through polio. They lived through a lot of firsts in terms of the experience. And there were so many residents that were celebrating that there is a vaccine now, and that this could lead to a new normal in the sense of what we’ve lived through over the last 365 days,” she concluded.
The discussion then moved on to vaccine safety and what to expect from someone who has already been vaccinated. For this portion of the discussion, Dr. Hekimian invited Dr. Najarian to participate.
A second-generation Armenian American, Dr. Najarian has served Bedminster and surrounding communities for nearly 30 years, teaching ophthalmology residents at New York University and New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. He’s also been president of the Armenian American Health Professional Organization (AAHPO) since 2006. Dr. Najarian spoke about the importance of studies that are still underway through Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, emphasizing that it is the duty of every vaccinated person to report any complications and side effects directly to the Centers for Disease Control. He spoke to the empowerment of vaccinated persons and stressed how the importance of the reports can trigger a second level of scrutiny.
“I think it should instill a lot of confidence in all of us. We are all concerned about that one-in-a-million complication. When you look at the risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19 versus our concern about that one-in-a-million complication, we can see that the benefits of the vaccine very much outweigh the potential side effects,” Dr. Najarian emphasized.
“I’d like to thank our panel of experts for their time and attention to such an important topic. We are grateful that they continue to not only man the frontlines of this pandemic, but also provide our community with the tools and knowledge we need to understand and navigate the vaccination process,” said Ani Tchaghlasian of the ARF-ER Central Committee.