Atlantic’s Gragnolati: Health care community can reassure population on vaccines

CEO: I’m going to be working really hard to make sure everybody understands vaccine is safe, and they need to get vaccinated

Brian Gragnolati. (File photo)

When Atlantic Health CEO Brian Gragnolati met Monday night with the members of Atlantic Medical Group, the large medical group associated with his system, he wanted to find out their feelings about the COVID-19 vaccines that figure to be in New Jersey in the coming weeks.

So, he turned to the group’s president, Dr. Steven Sheris, a cardiologist, and asked him point blank: “What are you telling your patients?”

“He said, ‘I’m telling my patients that I’m going to be first in line to get this vaccine — and that, as soon as it’s available for them, they need to do the same thing,’” Gragnolati said Sheris said.

The answer was just what Gragnolati wanted to hear. As the first doses of the various COVID-19 vaccines come to New Jersey, Gragnolatti said it’s important for the medical community to be strongly behind their use.

“If we can do that as a medical community, then our patients will follow, and we’ll get to those immunization levels within the goal that’s been outlined,” he said.

The COVID-19 vaccines are a light at the end of the tunnel, Gragnolati said. But it only will be effective if a large number of people get it — and then continue to do the right thing after they get it.

There definitely will need to be a public awareness campaign around the issue, Gragnolati said.

“Another education campaign is going to be critical because of human behavior,” he said. “It is not out of the realm of reason that we will see people thinking: ‘I’m vaccinated. I’m OK. Goodbye, mask.’ That would be the absolute wrong thing to do.”

It’s why Gragnolati is cautiously optimistic. He was thrilled to see the first people in the U.K. get the vaccine, but he knows there still is work to be done.

“I’m going to be working really hard to make sure that everybody understands the vaccine is safe, and that they need to get vaccinated,” he said. “And, then, at the same time, working to remind people to keep doing what we’re doing with masks and social distancing. Because, if we do all those things right, and we get the levels of immunization in this country that we’ve targeted, we’re going to have a much different summer this summer coming, than we did last summer.”

ROI-NJ spoke with Gragnolati on Tuesday. Here’s a bit of the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: There is concern, by some, about the speed with which this vaccine was discovered — which has led some to question its efficacy. What would you say to that?

Brian Gragnolati: There are two things that we want to make sure of: That we’re making this as easy as possible for people to get, and that we’re being factual about the science. After enduring the rhetoric over the past several months associated with the election, we are at a point where we want to go back and convince people that warp speed doesn’t mean skip the science steps.

What warp speed is about is how the government has provided the financial support to most of these companies who are in this race to be able to coproduce a vaccine. They’ve helped them financially. That’s what allowed them to do this. The science hasn’t been skipped.

ROI: OK, we’ve got the vaccine — but it appears it will be a logistical nightmare to distribute. People need two doses, and the vaccine has to be kept at unusually cold temperatures. How will you manage?

BG: That’s really what we’re all about in health care: Figuring out how to take complex things and getting them to happen.

We’ve been working on the plans for this for the last several months. We’ve got the requisite cold storage available for these vaccines when they become available. And we’ve got a plan in place to make sure that we can get this in the arms of our team members here at Atlantic first, then people who have vulnerabilities and people who are older than 65 second, and then the general public.

We’ve got a plan in place to do that. We’re just waiting for that signal from the government to go.

ROI: So, should we expect to get vaccinated at a hospital or a pharmacy or a doctor’s office?

BG: Look at the math on this and it’s simple: All of the above. We have a little over 9 million people in the state and we want to immunize 70% of them in six months. That’s going to be an all-hands-on-deck exercise. We’ve held our hands up high and said, ‘We will do whatever we need to do to get this vaccine into the community.’

ROI: How long is the vaccine good for?

BG: We don’t know yet. That’s going to be part of the challenge. And that’s why the collection of data is so important. We are continuing to follow patients, particularly those patients who are in the early trials, but we’ll also be collecting our own data on that, because we’re very interested in the answer to that question.

ROI: Next question: If I have the vaccine, could I be safe from getting COVID-19, but still be a carrier who could give it to someone who hasn’t been vaccinated?

BG: The answer again is, ‘We don’t know.’ That goes back to the other piece of this that’s critically important is that going forward. People will need to keep wearing masks. They will need to maintain social distancing. They will need to continue to wash their hands frequently.

What we want to get to is a level of immunity within the broader community where the transmission rates are very low. And, in order to do that, we’ve got to get everybody vaccinated, we’ve got to get at least 70% of the population vaccinated.

So, for the time being, this isn’t a hall pass. And it doesn’t mean you don’t have to wear your mask. You’ve got to actually stay focused, because we just don’t know the answer to that question yet.

ROI: So, there still is a lot to be learned. Should that in any way squash optimism?

BG:  Not at all. This vaccine is real. It’s safe. It’s coming. It is the light at the end of the tunnel. I woke up in a much better mood today then I was yesterday when I saw that folks in the U.K. started to receive the vaccine.

When I was coming into the office this morning and saying hello to people, it just seemed like people had an extra spring in their steps and a little different tone in their voices. We’re hoping to be able to follow the governor’s orders, so that, six months from now, 70% of the population has been immunized. That’s what we’re all very optimistic about.

The key thing is to make sure that people still wear their masks, socially distance, use common sense and wash their hands. Because, if we all just hang in there, we can do this together.