The first episode of Suncast takes a look at the COVID-19 vaccine rollout on Cornell’s campus and the Ithaca area, addressing hesitancy towards the vaccine, the differences between vaccine manufacturers, a vaccinated campus and more. Special guests include Cornell professor of virology Colin Parrish and Frank Kruppa, the Public Health Director of Tompkins County. This episode is hosted by Emma Rosenbaum and Anil Oza.
Listen on Spotify.
Links discussed in the podcast:
More information about mRNA and vector virus vaccines
Journal article on mistrust of vaccine among people of color
NYT article about vaccine hesitancy
If you are a student trying to get vaccinated sign up for the Tompkins County COVID19 Vaccine Registry. Students can also seek out vaccination at New York State vaccination sites or at local pharmacies — including CVS, Rite Aid, Walmart, Walgreens, Tops Friendly Market, Kinney Drugs and Wegmans among others.
Emma: Welcome to the first episode of Suncast, a podcast produced by the Cornell Daily Sun that takes an in depth look at the ongoings within the Cornell campus and the Ithaca area. I’m Emma Rosenbaum, a senior editor at the Sun and previous science editor,
Anil: and I’m Anil Oza, the current assistant managing editor and previous science editor. On this episode, we will be talking all about COVID-19 vaccines.
Everyone is sick of the pandemic. What makes it worse is not knowing when things will go back to normal. In this episode we will break down who on campus is eligible, where the vaccines are being given out, if there is a reason for people to be hesitant towards getting vaccinated, and what role the university will play in distributing the vaccine on campus.
Keep listening to hear the answers to these questions and more.
E: Almost all Cornellians – students, faculty, and staff – have become eligible to get the COVID vaccine. As the University starts to shift gears towards a fully vaccinated campus, we wanted to know about the student experience getting vaccinated so far.
Topic 1: Who can currently get vaccinated in New York State?
A: As of April 6th, any individual over the age of 16 is eligible to sign up for a vaccine. However, this has only been announced very recently. Before this announcement, students who wanted to receive a dose of the vaccine were finding innovative ways to get vaccinated.
I got my first dose about a month ago, because I am a TA for a class that meets in person, and I was able to get a dose through the Tompkins County registry, which meant I only had to take the TCAT to the mall, rather than going all the way to Binghamton or Syracuse.
E: Someone I talked to actually called various different Walgreens throughout the area, in the hopes of receiving a dose that was left over at the end of the day if someone missed their appointment. She succeeded after calling about 10 different stores, and got her first dose that same day.
I also talked to another student, Jordana Socher, a junior, and at the beginning of the semester she had an off campus job delivering groceries so she was eligible under phase 1b to get vaccinated. Because at the time, food delivery workers were eligible.
Jordana: I was eligible for the vaccine because I’m an InstaCart driver. In New York state, if you were a front facing grocery worker you were able to get vaccinated, so I was eligible under that.
Topic 2: How effective are the vaccines? Are all of the brands made equal?
A: There are many different companies making and distributing vaccines. The main ones in distribution in New York right now are Pfizer/BionTech, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson. From the most recent vaccine trials, the Pfizer and BionTech vaccine (which are partner companies manufacturing the same vaccine, to be clear) are reportedly 95 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 (Melillo, 2020). These two vaccines are administered in two doses, with a recommended time of 3 weeks between each dose, with a vaccinated individual being protected 28 days after each dose. The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is a type of mRNA vaccine.
E: Let’s break down what that means. A messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine is not the typical vaccine where part of the virus is injected into the body so that antibodies are made to fend it off, which is how the flu vaccine works. Instead, mRNA injected into the body can teach immune cells how to make a protein that can fight the virus. This protein, called a spike protein, is also found on the surface of the virus. After the mRNA reaches the immune cells, it relays instructions for how to make this spike protein. The body recognizes this protein as if it were the virus and begins facilitating an immune response and building antibodies. The body now knows how to fight off future infection by the virus (CDC, 2021).
A: The other vaccine manufacturer is Moderna. Their vaccine uses similar mRNA technology with an effectiveness of 94.5 percent. It has two doses, which need to be administered 4 weeks apart.
E: Another vaccine manufacturing company that has generated a lot of buzz recently is Johnson and Johnson. The J & J vaccine is the first one to be administered in one dose, which makes distribution a lot easier. The vaccine has an overall 66.3% effectiveness in protecting against COVID-19 infection.
The J&J vaccine, a type of viral vector vaccine, works slightly differently than the mRNA vaccines. A modified version of the COVID-19 virus, called a vector virus, is injected into the body, and gives the cells instructions on how to build the same harmless spike protein found on the COVID virus. Think of spike proteins as a marker that tells the body the cell attached to it shouldn’t be there and it should be fought off — it is not the harmful part of the virus that causes infection. The introduction of the vector virus into the body teaches it how to fight off the actual virus in case of future exposure (CDC, 2021).
Anil: I spoke with Frank Kruppa, the Public Health Director of Tompkins County, a few weeks ago about vaccine rollout here. He is in charge of coordinating the County, which includes Cornell, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College. For the past year he has been in charge of testing, vaccines, and messages surrounding the pandemic. He also talks to the colleges in the county to organize their reopening and consults with the universities on the best path forward. I asked him specifically about the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, to see if there would be special consideration to who would get it — because it is just one dose.
Anil: So when you get the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, are you going to kind of make a decision on who gets what vaccine, you know, the Johnson and Johnson, despite it has slightly lower efficacy. There’s some issues with that number because it’s been tested in populations with different variants and just higher virus prevalence. So I think most people Public health experts I heard from have kind of compared all the vaccines similarly, but do you anticipate maybe favoring the Johnson Johnson vaccine for college students who are younger and can bear the risk? or potentially because it’s one dose giving it to those in rural areas? Because then you only need to find them once and give them that first shot?
Kruppa: Yeah, so there’s obviously a lot of a lot of thought that goes into those processes. What I would say is that anyone should get whatever vaccine is available to them first, right? They’re all they all are going to protect. And we would encourage folks to seek the first vaccine that they can find, to your question about how do we make decisions on where we use them? Yes, because Johnson and Johnson is a single dose series, we are absolutely going to be looking at what populations it makes most sense to target with those, particularly in the early days when we’re likely to only get a few doses. Right now, the state has prioritized homebound individuals for the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. So we haven’t received any yet. But if we had, we would have been required to use it on our homebound individuals, but we’re looking at multiple populations, whether it’s our homeless, our migrant workers, those that might be in and in our jails. And students, of course comes up particularly with the timing, right, depending on when the vaccine becomes available. If it’s the end of the semester, if we hit somebody with one dose, and then they’re all gone back to, you know, their primary residence, it makes it very difficult to get that second dose. So all of that will be taken into account. But it really will depend on when and how much vaccine we get.
E: I also talked to Dr. Colin Parrish, a professor of virology at the Cornell Veterinary School, who has studied viruses and viral transmission among animals. I spoke with him about the vaccination process and what he thinks a vaccinated future at Cornell would look like.
Parish: “The research that we do, and we’ve done this for a few decades now, is viruses that jump from one animal to another and then cause epidemics or pandemics. They are basically similar to what has happened with the coronavirus pandemic in humans. Understanding the epidemiology of the virus, its nature, how it’s shared and transmitted, those are all things that we are very interested in.
There’s many companies you hear a lot about in terms of developing COVID-19 vaccines. We’re all talking about these vaccine brands as if they are Ford, General Motors, and Hondas or something. The data is that they are quite effective at both preventing infection and transmission.
Emma: “There’s been a lot of talk about the mutant strains of COVID, with the distribution of vaccines do you see these mutant strains posing a threat in the future?”
Parrish: “There’s a lot of talk about the mutants and the so-called variants, some people call them the scariants — they are definitely a cause for concern.
We do know that coronaviruses can evolve. There’s an avian coronavirus called infectious bronchitis virus, for which there have been vaccines. We know that some of the viruses have been able to escape the vaccines to some degree by mutations, so I think it is something that people are gonna need to be aware of.
The variants are real, but the vaccines are quite effective against the variants that are around right now. I mean the viruses may pick up more mutations in the future and escape the vaccines, but all of the vaccines that are currently at use in the US can be changed very quickly to include the mutants.
Emma: There’s a lot of uncertainty right now, at least in the general public, about how the vaccine will evolve with the mutant strains. Parrish hypothesized that vaccine manufacturers are planning to not change the entire vaccine, but include a portion of the vaccine that contains the variant sequences. He said this is relatively easy to do based on the existing RNA technology.
Parrish: Right now the vaccines seem to be pretty good, they certainly protect against infection, and severe disease and death. I think they will be good for next year, but we may need to do an update, whether people will need a vaccination booster every couple of years seems likely.
People are surveilling these things, so they will be able to figure it out in time to update the vaccines as necessary.”
Topic 4: Tompkin’s County
Anil: The goal with getting as many people vaccinated as possible is to achieve herd immunity, not just on campus but also in Tompkins County as a whole. Kruppa discussed a bit about this when I talked with him:
Kruppa: Yeah, herd immunity is when we have enough individuals in our community that have immunity from the particular disease. And so in this case, either having been vaccinated, or if they previously had COVID, they could potentially have some natural antibodies, we still encourage folks to get vaccinated even if they’ve previously had COVID. But so our goal is to try to hit between 75 and 80% of our population having vaccinated immunity. And the purpose for that is the disease needs a host to live. And so the more barriers that the disease bumps up against in the community, because somebody has immunity from it, the more likely it is to end with the one individual that has, you know, contracted the disease.
Topic 5: The University’s role in vaccinations and shifting protocols
E: One recent development the University has undertaken is mandating students to register their vaccination status to the Daily Check portal by April 15. The website says that this information is mainly being used for data collection purposes, mostly. Vaccinated individuals who have been exposed to COVID have different quarantine rules according to NY state than those who are not, but it still remains to be seen whether those vaccinated will be subject to different protocols than those who are not.
A: The University just announced that it is planning for an in-person fall semester, but what lecture halls will look like depends on how many students are vaccinated by August. The University is also mandating that students be vaccinated if they want to return to campus, but how students get vaccinated is still a question mark.
Cornell was recently approved to be a distributor of COVID vaccines, but hasn’t made any announcements on this. Even though the University has been approved as a distribution site, they will likely be waiting to know how many doses they will receive to cement what this site will look like.
E: When I talked to Dr. Parrish a couple weeks ago, he thought it would be possible for the majority of people on campus to be vaccinated by the fall.
A: Although it seems like vaccine distribution will be the step that takes us over this pandemic, there seems to be false information that has been circulating since the summer, creating mistrust towards the vaccine in certain individuals.
Topic 3: Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy
E: A poll done by the Associated Press found that half of Americans want to receive a COVID shot (Neergaard et al., 2020). I read an article in the New York Times that presented the opinions of people who did not want to receive their COVID shot (Hoffman, 2020). The sentiments shared, which are what I’ve heard in my own life, is that the process was too rushed for the vaccine to be safe.
A: Conspiracy theories circulating include that the vaccine can change DNA, or that it contains a microchip that the government will use for population surveillance. These theories seemed inevitable, and one explanation from disease narrative experts is that an information vacuum — the lack of information — can develop when the public do not get clear scientific explanations during a crisis like a pandemic. So people turn to these familiar narratives that, although have no substantial basis, fill that vacuum (Lee, 2021).
E: It isn’t just conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers who mistrust the vaccine, and they aren’t the biggest issue. Racial disparities have long existed in health care. The African American population has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, accounting for 21% of deaths from COVID-19 (Warren et. al, 2020). Only 18% of Black Americans and 40% of Latinx Americans trust that a COVID-19 vaccine will be effective, according to an article from the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.
This mistrust is the biggest hurdle for getting the majority of the population vaccinated, which makes it seem like actually making the vaccine was the easy part.
A: Vaccine hesitancy is a concern for the general Tompkins County population, according to Kruppa, who said that historic racial disparities in access to healthcare have hindered distribution.
Kruppa: I think we have areas of concern with folks that may be hesitant or are not not interested in the vaccine, and every population. And it’s hard to, it’s hard to know for certain where because we’ve been doing these targeted distribution events because of the prioritization. But I think generally speaking, we know in every population, we’ve got some education and convincing to do so folks will seek a vaccination.
Anil: Are there any sort of groups that you are particularly the, you know, concern about whether that be ethnic or racial groups or kind of political groups or just, you know, certain geographic groups that you’re specifically concerned about not being interested in getting vaccine?
Kruppa: Yeah, I mean, I think we have concerns in every population, as I said, but obviously, we know that in our communities of color, they are disproportionately lack access to health care in general. And so we would imagine that would extrapolate to this situation. So we’ve got to do work to make sure that those populations have access. And I think we’ve, we’ve already started to do that in a few different ways. And, and I think our rural communities, we’ve got to do some work, it’s a bit harder for people that live out in the rural areas to, to access, say, mall sampling site, for example, that we’ve set up here. So we know we’re going to have to bring the vaccine to where people are, at some point, to make sure that it’s as accessible as possible for everyone.
E: As an expert in the virology field, here is what Dr. Parish had to say about it:
Parrish: There is really no reason to avoid the vaccines, there are a lot of stories out there that are aimed at making people unsure of the vaccines, such as all these things about the Astrazeneca vaccine causing blood clots in Europe.
The reality is that the likelihood of getting severe disease is thousands of fold greater than any of the side effects that have been described. I think people are very quick to believe a headline in some news source rather than the experts who are making the vaccine.
The balance of the evidence is really that the vaccines are as good as any vaccine I’ve seen. They will help to solve the problem that we’ve been dealing with in the past year, if people take them and use common sense after that and in the future.
A: This doesn’t seem to be an issue for Cornell students. I think the sentiment from the majority of people I’ve interacted with is that they want the vaccine. While most people do want to be vaccinated I think the one issue I hear a lot about is people being worried about the side effects — whether that is their arm being sore, or being sick for a couple of days.
E: I also think being at a university campus, hesitancy towards the vaccine isn’t really an issue because we have greater access to information, telling us which concerns are founded and which are not founded. I did talk to Jordana about this as well.
Jordana: I would have taken any vaccine that was offered, but I’m glad I got Pfizer. I didn’t really care what it was made of, I was going to get it either way because I trust science.
E: There’s a lot of information out there on COVID-19 vaccines, and hopefully this episode helped break down what’s relevant to our campus. If you haven’t been vaccinated yet, sign up for the Tompkins registry, which will send you emails when there are doses available in Tompkins County — the link to sign up with your email will be in our show notes. You can also check out New York State’s website or the CDC’s vaccine finder.