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NYMC and TCUS Host 13th COVID-19 Symposium

New York Medical College and Touro College and University System held another edition in the symposium series to discuss the emergence and implication COVID-19 variants.

August 02, 2021
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The symposium offered a series of insightful presentations following a brief introduction by Edward C. Halperin, M.D., M.A., chancellor and chief executive officer of NYMC and provost for biomedical affairs at TCUS.

With the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 becoming a rising concern in the United States and across the world, Chandra Shekhar Bakshi, Ph.D., associate professor of pathology, microbiology and immunology, delved into the basics of virus variants and how they differ, in his presentation, “The ‘Delta Variant’ and other viral mutations: What they are and what you need to know about them.” Dr. Bakshi explained the variants are mutations off the parent strain of a virus and can lead to strains that are more transmissible or may not be as responsive to treatments or vaccines. He noted that the Delta variant is 40 to 60 percent more transmissible than the Alpha variant, which has the next highest percentage of cases among variants. “The bottom line is that the Delta variant is a super-spreader variant of SARS-CoV-2,” Dr. Bakshi said.

The theme of addressing the Delta variant continued with Robert W. Amler, M.D., M.B.A., dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice and vice president for government affairs, who gave insight into whether the general public will need a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot, in his presentation, “Wither Cometh the Booster? (If, when, and how),” discussing how the emergence of the variants heavily contributes to the potential need of a booster shot.

Dr. Amler addressed the four main variants and how they are variants of concern but not variants of high consequence, which are variants with demonstrated evidence of significantly reduced efficacy against current countermeasures and diagnostics. Other factors Dr. Amler pointed out were herd immunity, geographic trends, seasonal timing factors, population dynamics and logistics. Dr. Amler reiterated that a large number of people who were immune could reduce the need for boosters, although the percentage needed to achieve such herd immunity is still unknown.

While the need for booster shots is still uncertain, the search for effective treatments for severe COVID-19 infections remains a large area of interest. Neil W. Schluger, M.D., the Barbara and William Rosenthal Chair of the Department of Medicine, presented the polarization of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment, its lack of effectiveness and the politicization of the drug commonly used to treat malaria. Dr. Schluger’s presentation, “Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 Illness: Gone but Apparently Not Forgotten,” explained how the drug was brought to the forefront of the discussion of COVID-19 treatments but was quickly determined to not have any evidence of effectiveness against the virus, despite high-profile political figures in the United States touting it as a breakthrough treatment. Dr. Schluger used data from an observational trial he led where 1,400 COVID-19 patients were given hydroxychloroquine and showed that there was no evidence that the drug had any benefit of the patient’s conditions. Despite the lack of evidence that Hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment, the study was used to promote the drug on several news outlets that had similar political angles. “The advocacy of the treatment is an example of the politicization of medicine and public health,” Dr. Schluger said.

In addition to misinformation, another challenge is vaccine hesitancy. Mill Etienne, M.D. '02, M.P.H., FAAN, FAES, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, School of Medicine associate dean of student affairs and associate professor of neurology and of medicine, presented “Vaccine Hesitancy and COVID-19: What is it and what can we do about it?” speaking on the factors leading to hesitancy and skepticism in the COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Etienne presented statistics showing the demographics of those who were hesitant, including Republicans, people aged 30 to 49 and Black adults, citing worries about side effects, distrust of the government and wanting to wait and see how it works. Dr. Etienne pointed out that distrust could stem from unethical experiments done on marginalized communities in the United States. He discussed important strategies to increase vaccinations in those who are skeptical, including promoting trustworthiness and transparency. “It’s important to make clear to community members that the vaccines were made using processes that have been developed and tested for many years.” 

Giving a different perspective of the pandemic’s challenges, Joshua Ratner, vice president and chief strategy officer of WMCHealth, discussed the response to the initial outbreak in an interview with Dr. Halperin. Mr. Ratner reflected on the challenges of running a hospital during the pandemic, including creating new venues for patients, operating a tent for testing, assisting in mass vaccination sites and adapting to rapidly changing restrictions and guidelines.  “We had to throw away the existing rule book of how to run a hospital and create a new one,” Mr. Ratner said.

The symposium pivoted to legal news regarding vaccine mandates by employers, in a presentation led by Nicholas S. Janiga, Esq., vice president and chief legal counsel. Mr. Janiga spoke about recent legal cases including a lawsuit against Houston Methodist Hospital by employees who were mandated to get vaccinated or face termination. Mr. Janiga explained that while this case was thrown out by a judge, laws differ from state to state and could have varying legal implications.

The symposium concluded with a vibrant question and answer session hosted by Alan Kadish, M.D., president of NYMC and TCUS, covering questions on children getting vaccinated to further discussions about the prolonged efficacy of vaccines.