Top doc at Holy Name: Why 2nd wave is less intense … but why he’s worried about holidays

As cases surge, Chief Medical Officer Jarrett remains cautiously optimistic while acknowledging vaccine is still months away

Adam Jarrett of Holy Name Medical Center. (File photo)

Holy Name Medical Center may very well have been the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in New Jersey, if not the country, in the spring. ROI-NJ’s inside look at the hospital on March 14 — when most in the state didn’t fully understand the gravity of the situation — unfortunately foreshadowed what was to come.

So, with the second surge in full swing — New Jersey had 8,667 new cases this weekend, pushing the cumulative total over 300,000 — we went back to the hospital and spoke with Dr. Adam Jarrett, its chief medical officer.

Jarrett, who has a self-published book out this week detailing what Holy Name went through, “In the Time of COVID,” said health care officials at Holy Name have been expecting this wave, are thankful that it is not as severe, but worry about what Thanksgiving and Christmas — two potential super-spreader events — will bring.

“I think what probably caused some of the spikes was people being not as careful as it relates to Halloween,” Jarrett said. “I’m pretty sure that Halloween triggered a little bump. And I think we’re going see the same thing with Thanksgiving. And then maybe even with Christmas.”

The good news, Jarrett said, is that these spikes are nothing like we had in the spring.

“The intensity is less, so that’s good,” he said. “We’re now probably four to six weeks into the second wave. By this time, in the first wave, we had well over 100 patients, on our way to 250. Now, we have 35 patients.”

Not that COVID-19 is any less deadly, Jarrett said.

“Unfortunately, even though the numbers are not overwhelming, we still have some very sick people,” he said. “We have five people on ventilators today, we’ve had a couple more deaths.

“This is not a disease that that that affects only 80-year-old people with comorbid conditions, we have a 37-year-old woman who is very critically ill. This disease is still scary and life-threatening for a small percentage of people.”

Here is more of ROI-NJ’s conversation with Jarrett, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Did the second wave take you by surprise?

Dr. Adam Jarrett: We certainly assumed it was coming. We were crossing our fingers and hoping that we might get away without the second wave — and there was some hope that it may not come at all, that, maybe, there was more immunity than we realized — but I think we were all fooling ourselves a little bit.

Of course, we kept all our facilities up and running, so we never shut it down. So, when the second wave came, it was actually relatively simple to just get back into COVID mode.

ROI: Let’s talk about getting into COVID mode. Holy Name was overwhelmed by this, and responded amazingly. Is the staff, psychologically, ready to go through something like it again? More so, are they bothered by how the cause of this wave may very well have been from people not taking it seriously again?

AJ: When I walk through the wards and I interact with the doctors, the nurses and technicians, they’re  all apprehensive, because they’re worried that we’re going to get back to where we were, but I don’t think there’s any judgment. I think good health care professionals don’t judge their patients. So, it’s not a matter of judgment, probably frustration, because we’re still here, but I don’t I don’t hear anyone judging patients, because I think we’re all in this together.

ROI: Still, is there more we could have done to prevent this second surge?

AJ: Are we all acting as good as we could be? I think we try. But it’s been hard. This hasn’t been a week. It hasn’t been a month. It’s going to be a year-plus. We’re not going to be out of this until March, April, at the earliest, even with the vaccine. I think people are just having a hard time trying to live some sort of normal life. We’re all human. And everyone is trying to do their best.

The only way that you can be 100% safe is to go into a complete lockdown. And I think there’s a small percentage of the population that’s doing that. And I think there’s a small percentage of the population that is completely disregarding any social distancing rules. The rest of us are somewhere in the middle. So, I think it’s hard for staff to look at individuals and be frustrated. I think they’re more frustrated at the reality of the situation.

ROI: You mentioned the vaccine. It seems every day there is good news, not only in terms of efficacy, but in how quickly some members of society could be vaccinated. How does someone in your position — someone who understand vaccines and therapeutics better than most — react to the vaccine news?

AJ: Well, I’m definitely more positive than I was three months ago. And I’m more positive now than I was even two weeks ago. I think there’s reason to believe that we’re going to have a vaccine that is as safe as it can be and as effective as it can be, probably by the middle to the end of December. If you asked me that a month or two ago, I wouldn’t have said that.

ROI: How close is the finish line — or, at least, a time when there is mass vaccination.

AJ: There still are some hurdles that (the vaccines) have to get over. The process that the FDA goes through is a real process. It’s not a rubber stamp; it better not be a rubber stamp. The FDA has to look at this with a different set of eyes to make sure that the data, that what the drug companies are seeing, is the actual data.

Now, I think it’s extremely likely that the FDA will give the OK, but it’s not a done deal. Then, it has to be distributed. And you’re not immune until your second dose. So, if you just do the timeline of that, we’re talking about, in a best-case scenario, that high-risk people, health care workers are not immune until late January, early February. And that’s if everything goes well.

I am cautiously optimistic, but, if that’s the timeline, then we’re still in this with the general public until March and April. And I think, unfortunately, lots of people are still going to die.