U.S. Rep. Andy Kim, a Democrat representing Burlington and Ocean counties, hosted a telephone town hall Tuesday night to discuss the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine and answer questions from residents.
Kim is a member of the bipartisan House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, where he serves as one of twelve members of the House tasked with conducting oversight over programs aimed at ending the pandemic and helping address the economic impact of the crisis.
“There can’t be a day that goes by until this crisis is over that we aren’t dedicated to quickly distributing these vaccines,” Kim said. “These vaccines will not only save lives. They will give us the freedom and peace of mind we all have missed over the past nine months. The freedom of knowing that we can go back to work or see our friends and family without fear.”
Kim said he has pressed officials on details of the national strategy for distributing the vaccine for months. “Right now I’m trying to do everything I can to get more vaccine doses to New Jersey,” he said.
Dr. Eddy Bresnitz, the medical advisor to the New Jersey Commissioner of Health on the COVID-19 response, participated in the call. Bresnitz provided an update on the state’s efforts to distribute safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines.
Bresnitz said almost 600,000 cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed in New Jersey, but that the number of actual cases is even higher because early on there was limited access to COVID-19 testing, and also because many people who are asymptomatic are not getting tested.
More than 20,000 residents of the state have died due to complications from COVID-19. Bresnitz said the deaths have occurred mainly in the over-50 age group, with residents over the age of 80 comprising 84 percent of deaths in the state. People with underlying conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes are at the highest risk of developing complications from COVID-19, he said. About 11 percent of New Jersey residents being tested for COVID-19 are testing positive. “That’s a fairly high number overall,” Bresnitz said. He also said the disease has had a disproportionate impact on the non-white population. Forty-five percent of New Jersey residents who have died from COVID-19 complications are non-white residents, he said.
Bresnitz said the efficacy rate of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is 95 percent, which he noted is a higher efficacy rate than for many other vaccines that combat other diseases. He discussed the safety of the vaccine and said there are two aspects worth noting when it comes to reactions after receiving the vaccine. One aspect is the site of the injection. About 80 to 89 percent of vaccine recipients have experienced soreness or tenderness in the arm after receiving the injection. He said the rate of soreness is comparable to the shingles vaccine. The other aspect is systemic reactions. 55 to 83 percent of vaccine recipients report having headaches, fatigue, sore muscles, or fever after receiving the vaccine. Younger people report having more symptoms than older people. Bresnitz noted that enduring these reactions is nothing compared to getting the disease and risking death.
He said the state has been allocated 620,000 doses of the vaccine so far. The allotment is pro-rated for each state based on its population. Some vaccine doses are held back for the military, he said. As of early this week, about 233,000 vaccinations had been given in New Jersey, with 214,000 shots being first doses, and the others being second doses. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine must be given in two doses to be fully effective. The Pfizer vaccine doses are given three weeks apart and the Moderna vaccine shots are given four weeks apart.
Kim expressed optimism that Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine will be approved shortly, and possibly be distributed as early as some time in February. “That would help us tremendously, getting more and more doses online,” he said.
“This is how we move forward. This is how we turn the corner,” Kim said, stressing that people still need to wear masks and social distance, given that about 4,000 people are in hospitals across the state every day due to COVID-19, and the COVID-19 test positivity rate is in the low double digits.
“This is tough. We want you to not let your guard down,” Kim said. “We are getting closer. There is that light at the end of the tunnel, but please even if you get the first dose, take precautions. Even after the second dose, wait for it to take effect.”
One resident asked if you can still be a carrier of COVID-19 if you have received the vaccine. Bresnitz said the jury is still out on that, and scientists need more data. “The data is not definitive that the vaccine reduces the ability to transmit the virus to others if you are infected,” he said. “We hope it is the case (that it reduces the transmission rate). Preliminary data suggests that it is true, but we don’t have a definitive answer. People still have to do what they’ve been doing not to transmit the virus. After you are vaccinated, you might be in that five percent of people the vaccine didn’t work really well for, for one reason or another.” Bresnitz noted that immunocompromized people were not included in the Moderna and Pfizer studies.
Bresniz also said people who have had COVID-19 already should still get the vaccine.
Another resident asked if it would be bad to get the shingles vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine around the same time. Bresnitz suggested that people get the shingles vaccine at least 14 days before the COVID-19 vaccine because the shingles vaccine does cause lots of site injection reactions, and having both vaccines at the same time would be “a double whammy.”
At the end of the call, several residents thanked Kim for his actions at the Capitol on Jan. 6. A photo of Kim cleaning up at the Capitol building went viral last week. Kim said his parents took him to visit the Capitol building when he was a teen and taught him to love and respect the building. He said he will always be a caretaker for the building while he is in office.
Asked whether it is safe for residents to head to Washington for Inauguration Day, Kim advised people to stay home.
“I’m not bringing my family down. I don’t want to take any risks,” Kim said. “There are clear and present dangers.” He said there will be strong security and no one will be able to get close to the Capitol building. “I’d discourage you or urge you to be careful and not try to get close,” he said.