by Marlaina Cockcroft
There’s a lot of information out there about the COVID-19 vaccines, and Sean O’Connell wants to help you understand it.
The Mount Olive resident offered a virtual presentation, “COVID-19 Vaccines and Treatments: Making Sense of It All,” on Feb. 10, hosted by Mount Olive Democrats.
The founder and president of medical consulting firm OConnell Consultants said he wants to provide “useful and clear information. We’ve gone through a very difficult time, and this pandemic is the worst we’ve seen since 1918-1919.” He’ll be talking about the available and upcoming vaccines, how they work, how they were tested and the current status of the vaccination effort.
“We’re learning something every day about COVID. It’s still got more surprises. You can easily get overwhelmed with a flood of information, so we want to make sure we don’t do that,” he said.
O’Connell, whose background is in immunology, cell biology, regenerative medicine and tissue repair, is an adjunct professor in the Department of Vascular Surgery, Englewood Hospital and Medical Center.
He’s also chief science officer at Aegle Research Company, which is developing its own vaccine, though he said it won’t be on the market for a while.
He noted that “vaccines have evolved tremendously over the last 10 years.” In the presentation, he’ll describe “previous-generation vaccines and how these new vaccines, that were developed seemingly overnight for COVID, differ and why they are not rushed, why they are actually the product of years of development and why they represent such a radical improvement in the way that we can make vaccines against serious respiratory viruses that give rise to epidemics and pandemics.”
O’Connell acknowledged the difficulties with the rollout of the vaccine, especially after the federal guidelines changed on who could get the vaccine next. “The system that was going to be more of a gradual rollout is now going to be a pretty heavy rollout. The fact of the matter is, at the moment we just don’t have the doses.”
He said there are two schools of thought on this: One, make sure people can get the two doses necessary for full protection; or two, release all the doses now so as many people as possible can get the first dose, while increasing production so that the second dose will be available. There are pros and cons to both approaches, he said.
The two vaccines approved so far, from Pfizer and Moderna, will offer about 50 percent coverage after the first dose. “Coupled with the fact that we have some very fast-moving new strains of the virus, the question is just how much of a bulwark against new infection is that going to be. Is that going to really level the curve? It’s an open question, and I certainly don’t have the answer to that.”
He’ll also talk about the side effects of the vaccines, “because that’s a big issue.” He’s seen the growth of the anti-vaccine movement in the last five years, and “for people like myself, this is extremely disturbing.” He called the movement “a threat to everybody.”
O’Connell wants people to understand the true side effects of these vaccines and how they compare to previous vaccinations. “The answer is, better than some, not so good as others. But this should not deter people from getting vaccinated as soon as they have the chance.”
He said he’d seen one piece of disinformation the other day on Instagram: “A nurse got her vaccine, and her face melted.” He added, “My grandniece said she wasn’t going to take the vaccine, I said, ‘You’re foolish.’”
According to O’Connell, historical vaccinations, such as the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) or flu shots, can cause severe adverse or allergic reactions such as anaphylactic shock in around one in a million doses. With the Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations so far, it happens somewhere around 1 in 200,000. He said the people administering the vaccine must be aware of the possibility, and if someone is prone to allergic reactions, such as bee stings or to peanuts, “the prudent thing is, tell them before you get your vaccine and make sure that they are equipped to handle those reactions and that they watch you for 30 minutes as opposed to 15, as per the most recent guidelines.” More standard reactions, such as headache or pain at the injection site, don’t require medical intervention.
He doesn’t recommend anyone refuse the vaccine, even if they’ve already had COVID.
Though O’Connell praised the development of the vaccines so far, he said of the vaccine distribution, “I wish there had been more coordination and not leaving it up to the states. … There are vaccines, and there’s vaccinations, and those are two very different things. We’ve done very good on the vaccines, much better than hoped for. We haven’t done so good on vaccinations.” He’s hopeful that that will improve.