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This message was sent to the Rockefeller community from the Office of the President on February 26, 2021 at 2:02 p.m.
Subject: Update from the President

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Dear colleagues,

The country is emerging from last week’s deep freeze. As if surviving the brutal cold without heat or electricity for several days across much of Texas wasn’t sufficiently challenging, the flooded homes and buildings resulting from frozen pipes bursting has been an added frustration for many. Our hearts go out to those who suffered through this disaster. By contrast, in NYC the end of this work week has brought sunny skies and warmer temperatures, a nice respite from the winter doldrums.

The inclement weather slowed the shipment of COVID vaccines, and stopped administration of shots in some states, but the supply chain is back up and running, and gaining steam. This week Pfizer and Moderna committed to a very ambitious schedule of delivering 220 million doses in the U.S. by March 31, sufficient to fully vaccinate more than a third of the adult population. They have also committed to deliver a total of 600 million doses by the end of July, which would allow vaccination of the entire adult population. On Thursday, President Biden commemorated the 50 millionth dose delivered since his inauguration 36 days earlier, bringing the total doses delivered to about 66 million. Moreover, 75% of residents of long-term care facilities and 50% of people over age 65 have now received at least one dose of vaccine.

In New York State, 3.5 million vaccine doses have been administered thus far. The vaccine is now available to everyone over age 65, employees in certain industries, including K-12 teachers and in-person university instructors, and people age 16 and older with certain chronic health conditions. The state’s Am I Eligible app is the best way to find out if and where you can make an appointment. There is still no update on when or whether Rockefeller might receive a supply of vaccine to administer to members of our community. I urge you not to wait, and to seek an appointment elsewhere at the earliest opportunity.

Having been itching with anticipation for news about vaccine protection from COVID-19 in long term care facilities, which were the top target for the initial wave of vaccination (along with health care workers), I was thrilled to see the report on Thursday that from the start of the vaccine rollout in December to February 7, the number of deaths in residents of long-term care facilities has been in steep decline, now showing an astonishing 65% reduction in weekly deaths, compared to a ~7% increase in weekly deaths in the entire U.S. population over the same time period. New COVID-19 cases were also reduced by ~80% compared to a 45% reduction in the total population over the same period. This is fantastic real-world data demonstrating great efficacy of vaccination in our most vulnerable population and provides strong motivation to vaccinate as many people as possible as rapidly as possible.

Nationally, we now have an average of 69,000 cases per day, a 73% decline from the peak of more than 250,000 per day in early January. This is excellent news even though the precise explanations are uncertain. Unfortunately, New York City has not shared this steep downward trajectory, coming down from a peak of ~6,000 cases per day in mid-January to ~4,000 cases per day now, a number somewhat confounded by a substantial reduction in testing over this time period. The percentage of positive viral tests in the city, from the New York State database, has only come down from 5.7% to 4.3% over the same period. These numbers remain vastly higher than they were last summer, when daily case numbers averaged about 270 and the positive test rate was less than 1%. NYC now has a higher per capita infection rate than any state in the nation, with 47 new infections per day per 100,000 population. The need for continued vigilance has never been higher. The news is further fraught following reports on Thursday that a new viral strain is spreading rapidly in the state. This variant is distinct from others but shares the E484K mutation found in the South African and Brazilian variants that are of concern for their potential to be more infectious and have some success in evading the immune response to current vaccines or infection with the original viral strain.

At Rockefeller, there have been six new cases diagnosed over the prior two weeks among the 2,800 on-campus tests performed by the Darnell lab and reports of positive tests performed off campus. The watch list currently has 37 people. I urge you to continue to follow all guidelines and protect yourself, your families, and your colleagues from infection. I particularly note that while the state is relaxing restrictions on indoor dining and some public gatherings, there is A LOT of virus in the NYC community and the risk of infection is high, particularly indoors in small spaces and especially if masks are not worn. I urge you not to eat indoors with colleagues on campus, particularly in break rooms, where distancing is challenging and masks won’t be in full use.

Returning to the vaccine front, this week the FDA released its analysis of Johnson & Johnson’s EUA application for its single-dose adenoviral vaccine. The results are generally promising, with 72% reduction in moderate to severe/critical infections and 86% reduction of severe/critical cases in the U.S. cohort, and 64% and 82% reductions in these respective categories in South Africa, where nearly all infections are with the B.1.351 variant virus that has caused a lot of concern. This vaccine will likely be approved in the coming days and will be a welcome addition, with application in many settings in which the cold chain needed for the RNA vaccines is hard to maintain. These results also suggest that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines will likely perform as well or better with the B.1.351 virus.

Although vaccination is critical to protecting the health of our community and hastening the end of the pandemic, it is also important to note that state and federal health guidelines, and therefore University policy, do not treat vaccinated individuals differently than non-vaccinated individuals in most respects. Importantly, because it is unknown how effective the approved vaccines are at preventing upper respiratory infection, the potential for vaccinated people to become infected and transmit the virus remains. Therefore mask-wearing, social distancing, travel restrictions, quarantining requirements, and all other policies continue to apply to all individuals regardless of vaccination status, and all Rockefeller community members coming to campus are required to continue participating in the mandatory testing program.

As we continue to monitor the risk levels in the Rockefeller community and the city as a whole, we are also continuing meetings of the Research Restart Committee and the Emergency Preparedness and Response Committee to evaluate whether changes to our operations are required. At this time, we expect the current “Phase III+” operational status to continue into the summer.

Finally, I am most pleased to announce that this year and thereafter Juneteenth will be an official University holiday. Although Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, officially freed slaves in Confederate states, lax enforcement had allowed this practice to continue in many places, particularly Texas. Juneteenth commemorates the events of June 19, 1865, when Union Major General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas, and announced and enforced the immediate emancipation from slavery, marking the end of slavery in the United States. This date, more than the dates of the Emancipation Proclamation itself or the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution banning slavery (ratified on December 6, 1865), has become the date on which the end of slavery in this country is celebrated. This year the holiday will be celebrated on Friday, June 18, since the 19th is on a Saturday. It is long past time that this historic milestone, now known as Juneteenth, be commemorated on a national level, and Rockefeller’s decision to make it a holiday pays tribute to the importance of this day in American history and calls on each of us to do everything possible to create a more just and equitable society.

Please stay safe, be well, and continue to take care of one another.

With best wishes,

Rick

Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics
President