Priority: limit Workplace Spread
7th Town Hall Announces Staff Vaccination Plan
On Jan. 15, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins hosted the 7th virtual town hall on NIH’s coronavirus response. He was joined by NIH principal deputy director Dr. Lawrence Tabak, Office of Research Services Director Colleen McGowan and Clinical Center CEO Dr. James Gilman, to announce further details of the plan to vaccinate NIH staff.
“Keep in mind that the goal of the vaccination program here at NIH is to minimize workplace transmission,” said Tabak, who gave an overview of the plan. “Because the vaccine is in short supply, NIH frontline staff who work onsite at NIH facilities in clinical or other operational positions are prioritized to receive the vaccine first.”
Development of the 4-phased program, Tabak explained, was guided by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, which were adapted and applied to NIH’s unique 40,000-person workforce—staffers located not only in Bethesda and other parts of Maryland, but also in Montana, North Carolina, Arizona and at NIH facilities in other regions across the country.
In addition, the planning team considered staff members’ position and work environment, nature of responsibilities, return-to-workplace designation as well as exposure risk, underlying medical conditions and age.
McGowan detailed how the phases will work. Gilman provided an update on vaccinations of NIH’s health care staff.
“Please, NIH family,” Collins emphasized, “give the hardworking team that is implementing these plans your support and the benefit of the doubt. Be patient and we will get through this.”
Uneasy Atmosphere Addressed
Collins began the live broadcast by reflecting on “the terrible consequences of [the Jan. 6 riot] at the U.S. Capitol as well as the continued tragic toll that Covid-19 is taking on our nation…Along with all Americans who believe in democracy, I was outraged and sickened by last week’s violent insurrection by an angry mob that aimed to overthrow the results of a fair election…My anguish runs very deep and has been hard to shake.”
He encouraged employees to use the various workplace resources and counselors available to cope with the myriad emotions and mental stress NIH’ers may be experiencing.
“Against this deeply troubling backdrop,” Collins acknowledged, “our nation is also reeling from the unprecedented surge of Covid-19 and a personal and economic devastation that goes along with that. This week, levels of new infections and hospitalizations have reached the highest levels since the pandemic began and deaths have climbed to more than 4,000 per day—that’s 3 Americans dying every minute. So, it’s more important than ever that NIH continue to move forward swiftly to protect its frontline workers.”
Pandemic Answer Man Makes Cameo
NIAID director and the nation’s go-to pandemic authority Dr. Anthony Fauci made a cameo appearance during the first half hour of the meeting.
“When your time comes to get vaccinated, please show up and be on time,” he stressed. “It is going to be very important as we get the vaccine [doses] that have been made available to us administered. [Keeping to the appointment schedule] will hasten and facilitate the next round of doses coming in.” There’s a concern that all scheduled appointments are kept and that no amount of vaccine goes unused, given the limited supply.
Nationwide, we’re pushing to reach “herd immunity” for coronavirus, Fauci said. CDC describes community or herd immunity as when “a sufficient proportion of a population is immune to an infectious disease (through vaccination and/or prior illness) to make its spread from person to person unlikely. Even individuals not vaccinated (such as newborns and those with chronic illnesses) are offered some protection because the disease has little opportunity to spread within the community.”
“We need about 70 to 85 percent of the population of the country vaccinated in order to get a degree of herd immunity,” Fauci pointed out. “[At NIH] we would like to get as many people protected as we can in our own community, so we can get to our own mini herd immunity.”
Before departing the video conference, he also answered a few questions that were emailed in advance—about getting the second vaccine shot on time, about children being vaccinated, about coronavirus variants and about the versatility of NIH’s mRNA vaccinology approach.
In addition to adhering to scheduled appointments at NIH, employees can make the immunization program succeed by getting vaccinated as soon as they become eligible, no matter where vaccine doses become available. Staff were urged to let OMS know if they get vaccinated in the community, so the next eligible employee in the queue may move immediately into the available NIH slot. Also, it will be important to take both doses at the same location, for accountability purposes.
In opening remarks, Collins had alluded to the tremendous value of extraordinary efforts across the entire agency in extraordinary times.
“We deeply appreciate all the sacrifices that NIH staff have been making to protect safety while still trying to keep our mission going,” he said.
The vaccines are here, Collins noted. NIH played a central role in new therapeutics and new diagnostic technologies as well. Thanks to efforts by NIH’s own Intramural Research Program and partners, two vaccines to prevent serious Covid infection are now available, he continued, with a third hopefully on the way soon.
“To have [research] data in less than a year showing 95 percent efficacy and an excellent safety record is simply astounding!” Collins enthused. “You should feel very proud, NIH’ers, to be part of an institution that is playing an absolutely central role in providing this lifesaving hope to the nation and to the whole world…Contrasting with all the things that have been terrible about 2020, the scientific response has been nothing short of amazing, and you did that!”
The town hall was held on the same day that then President-Elect Joe Biden announced that Collins would stay on as NIH director. Also, longtime friend of NIH, geneticist Dr. Eric Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, was named presidential science advisor-designate (with a cabinet-level position for the first time) and nominee for director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House.
“I was deeply honored and humbled that [Biden] asked me to remain as the NIH director to lead this great agency, especially at a time when NIH’s role in fighting this pandemic is so critical,” Collins wrote later in a message emailed to all staff. “…NIH will be here, bringing the best science to bear on these biomedical challenges, and seeking to live up to our reputation as the National Institutes of Hope. I will consider it an enormous privilege to serve the new president and the NIH community.”
For details about the vaccination plan, NIH’ers can visit https://employees.nih.gov/pages/coronavirus/vaccination-plan-nih-staff.aspx. To watch the entire town hall recording, go to https://videocast.nih.gov/watch=41396.