Like the rest of the nation, the people of Erie County have suffered devastating effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. We have lost hundreds of lives, and our way of life has been impacted in negative ways that we could not have predicted in early 2020. While we are encouraged by the newly approved vaccines, we pause to mourn with those who have lost loved ones, and to applaud the commitment of front-line healthcare workers and other essential worker heroes.
As the leaders of Live Well Erie, our mission is to ensure that no one is left behind as we rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects. The new year brings with it a renewed sense of hope and optimism, but it will still be many months before Erie County is able to put the pandemic behind us.
For now, we are asking people to honor the bravery of the thousands of healthcare professionals in Erie County who have put the community’s needs before their own. To recover as a community, we are imploring all residents to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in order of priority as determined by New York State officials. Data are clear that the approved vaccines are safe and effective. Lives can be saved, and our lives can start to return to normal only after enough people receive the vaccine.
Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County Commissioner of Health, highlighted some facts surrounding the vaccines. “All COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States have been shown to be highly effective at preventing COVID-19. Vaccines work with your immune system so it will be ready to fight the virus if you are exposed.” She continued, “Wearing masks and social distancing help reduce your chance of being exposed to the virus or spreading it to others, but these measures are not enough. The combination of getting vaccinated and following CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommendations to protect yourself and others will offer the best protection from COVID-19.”
“There has been misinformation and skepticism surrounding the vaccines,” Dr. Burstein noted. “The U.S. currently has the safest vaccine supply in its history. The nation’s long-standing vaccine safety system ensures that vaccines are as safe as possible,” Dr. Burstein continued, “COVID-19 vaccination will help protect you from getting COVID-19. You may have some side effects, which are normal signs that your body is building protection.” Common and mild side effects may include soreness in the arm where the vaccine is administered, and in some cases people may develop fever, chills, tiredness or headache. These side effects may affect your ability to do daily activities, but they should go away in a few days.
Live Well Erie leaders have adopted a specific focus on racial and ethnic disparities. Co-chairs Erie County Commissioner of Social Services Marie Cannon and Population Health Collaborative Executive Director John Craik recognize that COVID-19 has taken a hard toll on members of racial and ethnic minorities who suffer from structural racism, poverty and other social determinants of health. It is, therefore, imperative that community leaders from all backgrounds speak with one clear voice and strongly encourage people to receive the vaccine. Cannon recognized, “There is a still skepticism and mistrust toward public health issues based on historical racial disparities.” But she noted, “We know that the vaccines represent a way forward for the entire county if we all agree to receive them in priority order and when they are available.”
Reverend Mark Blue, Second Baptist Church pastor, Buffalo Branch NAACP president, and New York State Vaccination Taskforce member states: “We have an opportunity to get through the pandemic and save lives and it is imperative that those at the greatest risk of exposure and of medical complications receive the vaccine as soon as they are eligible.” He also encourages African American leaders to lend their voices to this effort. “We want to make sure that the message is loud and clear: we all need to be vaccinated,” noted Reverend Blue.
While vaccine availability remains an issue, it is important for people to continue to follow recommended public health measures, including maintaining a safe distance from others, wearing masks when contact with others is unavoidable and avoiding gatherings with people with whom you do not live. Dr. Burstein hopes that federal and state leaders can accelerate the rate at which vaccines are made available, but until that time these common-sense safeguards are crucial.
Cannon and Craik also offered, “We have seen thousands of people die or become seriously ill, businesses have suffered, schools have been closed and most of us have not seen such a destructive or devastating period in our lifetimes. While there is work to do, we can and must unite to get vaccinated when we are eligible so that the new Erie County reemerges as soon and as healthy as possible.”