NYC Mayor to Get J&J Vaccine; Expert Uses ‘Mittens' to Demystify Variant Threat

The slower-than-desired national vaccine rollout got a major boost this week; the first Johnson & Johnson doses were shipped and Merck has signed on to help its rival manufacture more faster

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What to Know

  • Officials across the tri-state area are getting increasing numbers of questions about variants and vaccines as both become more prevalent across the U.S.; most new strains are not cause for concern
  • Top health officials say the vaccines that have emerged to date are still all expected to work on the variants that have been detected; that, and smart public behavior, are the best tools in the COVID war
  • The slower-than-desired national vaccine rollout got a major boost this week; the first Johnson & Johnson doses were shipped and Merck has signed on to help its rival manufacture more faster

Questions about coronavirus variants and vaccine efficacy have grown more prevalent in recent weeks. The emergence of the newly approved single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which clinical trials showed had reduced efficacy in countries with significant variant concerns, has only intensified public inquiry.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday he'd get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine himself, in large part to show people it's just as good as the others.

"Why would you wait when you can get protected right now? And with one single dose?" the mayor asked rhetorically. "Be protected against the worst effects of this disease. It makes no sense to delay. We're going to keep spreading the word."

Not everyone understands the "words" associated with the pandemic lexicon, though. Peppered again Monday by questions about whether vaccines will protect against COVID variants, New Jersey Department of Health's medical director, communicable disease, Dr. Edward Lifshitz took some "poetic license" to explain.

The emergency authorization of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine means that there are now three COVID-19 vaccines in circulation. And the J&J shot differs from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in some important ways that may make it a game changer. NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres joined LX News to explain.

Think of Lifshitz as a virus, he said. He infects cells by grabbing on them with his hands. There's billions of him floating around at any given time -- and with every new one of him that is created, there are minor changes or mutations. Maybe a finger gets a tiny bit bigger or smaller. Most of the time it doesn't matter because it doesn't change his ability to "grab on and infect," Lifshitz said.

"Every now and then a mutation that may come along makes it a whole lot harder for me to do that," Lifshitz said. "I might lose a thumb and all of a sudden my particular virus goes away and you're never going to hear about me."

Think of prevention -- like antibodies gained through natural infection or vaccination -- as a mitten used to cover the hand (the virus), Lifshitz said.

With new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus circulating, health experts are adjusting their recommendations for face masks. NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres joined LX News to explain why you should make sure your face mask is well-fitted and double up.

"What is a variant? A variant is one of these viruses that has managed to mutate in such a way that it can still grab on well, maybe even better than the other one, and that maybe something in the hand changed enough that those mittens may not fit as well," Lifshitz said. "That's what we're saying, when we talk about efficacy with some of these vaccines against some of these variants."

"They do still work they still are as effective but they're not quite as effective as they are against the normal strains because they don't make that quite snug fit as well," he added. "The more people who are infected, they're all reproducing their virus furiously and there's always the chance that any one of those viruses can come out and be a new variant, one that we haven't even heard of yet, that might grab onto you and those mittens aren't going to fit at all."

Dr. Anthony Fauci highlighted preliminary studies which indicate that coronavirus vaccines will have a positive impact in slowing the spread of COVID-19. “Vaccine is important not only for the health of the individual to protect them against infection and disease… but it also has very important implications from a public health standpoint for interfering and diminishing the dynamics of the outbreak.”

Lifshitz's mittens analogy Monday came the same day Dr. Anthony Fauci stood at a White House podium and said the Biden administration was taking a possible new New York City variant "very seriously." It was days after he had initially brushed off reports of the strain. Data on it came from unpublished studies.

Fauci said the "B.1.526" strain likely originated in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights before spreading to "multiple boroughs." He said U.S. officials need to "keep an eye" on the strain, including to determine whether it poses any potential additional risk to the public or Lifshitz's mittens.

Top city health officials took issue with the New York Times report on the Columbia University research last week, saying there no evidence to suggest the variant identified has had any impact on the city's case trajectory. There was no real-world evidence to suggest it could be more dangerous or resistant to vaccines, they said, noting some lab-produced data doesn't replicate in humans.

NIAID Director, Dr. Anthony Fauci explains why the results of a study into the efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine are encouraging even when comparing them to Pfizer and Moderna's vaccines which had a higher efficacy rate.

As Dr. Jay Varma, the mayor's senior public health adviser, said last week, "Not all variants are of public health concern." Some are just that -- variants, like the small changes Lifshitz referenced. Others, like the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the U.K. and the B. are "variants of interest" and have more science surrounding them. The third type can render the "mittens" ineffective.

At this point, more study and data around the New York City variant, called B.1.526, is needed to determine which of the three it is, officials say. They also stressed that vaccines are expected to work on the new strains that have been detected to date and those that will emerge over time. Vaccination remains the ultimate weapon, which is why officials are stepping on the accelerator as best they can at all levels of government and encouraging the public along for the ride.

Not sure how the process works? Check out our handy tri-state vaccine site finder and FAQs here

New York City and New Jersey Vaccine Providers

Click on each provider to find more information on scheduling appointments for the COVID-19 Vaccine.

Data: City of New York, State of New Jersey • Nina Lin / NBC

While the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine has lower efficacy rates than the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna ones, Varma said the numbers are misleading. The J&J vaccine trial was at a "disadvantage" because it was conducted later, meaning it was conducted in places like South Africa and Brazil, where those so-called "variants of interest" had originated and proved a test to some vaccines.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of the J&J shot is still high across the board. Most importantly, it has proven equal effective as the others at preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19, officials have said. And more than 260,000 shots are bound for the tri-state area this week, a welcomed boon for the rollout.

Drugmaker Merck & Co. will help produce its rival's vaccine in an effort to expand supply more quickly, a Biden administration official confirmed Tuesday. President Joe Biden also announced Tuesday that the U.S. expects there will be enough COVID-19 vaccines for all adults by the end of May, two months earlier than anticipated.

Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region

Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here


Health officials in New York and elsewhere will continue to track the New York City variant and the others, where the scientific database is much larger. The U.S. prevalence of the other variants, especially the U.K. one, is also more profound.

According to the CDC's latest data published Tuesday night, the nation has detected at least 2,500 cases of the U.K. variant in positive U.S. samples across 46 states, covering nearly the entire country. New York has reported 154 U.K. strain cases to date, while New Jersey's count is up to 63 and Connecticut has 42.

The South African variant remains rarer. It has been identified in 17 states, up from about four less than a month ago, including New York and Connecticut. The Brazilian variant, meanwhile, has only been found in five states to date: Maryland, Florida, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Alaska, according to the CDC.

The agency only updates its variant data three times weekly, which means its numbers often lag state data. That's happened to an increasing degree as of late as states ramp up there genetic sequencing capacity; the initial onslaught of COVID-19 cases in March followed a similar pattern.

The increasing prevalence of the variants, combined with an apparent leveling off of U.S. COVID cases at a "very high numbers" after the latest surge, has the head of the CDC "really worried" about states rolling back COVID-19 restrictions.

New York City has seen a number of major reopenings in the last few weeks and has another on tap (movie theaters) later this week. Cuomo announced a new pilot program Tuesday that could help fast-track reopenings by using a COVID passport of sorts. For his part, de Blasio has said the incremental reopening steps are fine in the city -- for now. If the data starts to trend in the other direction, though, adjustments need to be made ASAP, he says.

Meanwhile, de Blasio is acutely focused on the vaccine rollout -- and he wants Cuomo to cede more control over that process to locals. He says the city is on pace to hit his goal of 5 million vaccinations by June and expects the additional anticipated boost from the J&J single-shot vaccine will further enhance the effort.

"This is an example of getting it right," de Blasio said Tuesday of Merck's willingness to help its rival manufacture the single-shot vaccine. "As a result of this partnership now, the projection is 100 million of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine available nationwide by June. What a difference that will make."

Not sure how the process works? Check out our handy tri-state vaccine site finder and FAQs here

To date, New York City has administered more than 2 million total doses, the five boroughs' latest milestone, Mayor de Blasio said Tuesday. One million-plus people have gotten at least one shot, about 13.5 percent of the city's population. Nearly 600,000 have gotten both shots, which is nearly 7 percent of the population.

The city hit a new single-day record Friday at more than 76,000 shots. It hopes to scale up even more with the infusion from Johnson & Johnson adding to supply from other manufacturers. The city has the distribution capacity to inoculate a half-million a week, de Blasio has said. Last week, it got the closest to that half-million weekly mark it has so far, with 338,000-plus shots done, the mayor said.

Not sure how the process works? Check out our handy tri-state vaccine site finder and FAQs here

To fortify the effort and ensure equity, de Blasio announced Tuesday the city would open yet another vaccination site in a high-priority community -- Co-op City. That site will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday (including this one) through Tuesday at 131 Dreiser Loop in the Bronx (ZIP code 10475), the mayor said.

Statewide, about 15.2 percent of the population has had at least one dose, while more than 8 percent of New Yorkers have completed their vaccination series. White people have been disproportionately represented in vaccination rates compared with their share of the eligible population across this state and others.

Across the river, New Jersey has fully vaccinated nearly 700,000 people. That's roughly keeping pace with the country as a whole, which has vaccinated a similar percentage of people, about 7.7 percent, according to the latest CDC data. The state also held its first professional sporting event with fans in the stands Tuesday, the New Jersey Devils took on the New York Islanders. Fewer than 2,000 fans were allowed back inside Prudential Center, with a 10 percent capacity limit, temperature checks and touchless concession stands all part of the new COVID game day experience.

The Biden administration is expected to release on Thursday new guidelines for Americans who have been fully vaccinated, which would allow them to gather in small groups indoors without masks — assuming everyone present was also fully vaccinated. On Monday, Dr. Fauci said that the risk for such small gatherings for those fully vaccinated is "so low that you would not have to wear a mask."

The U.S. has lost more people than any nation in the world to coronavirus, doubling the losses in the second-deadliest country (Brazil) with a toll of nearly 515,000 as of Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins. It also has reported the most cases -- 28.7 million, more than two and a half times India's 11.1, which is No. 2.

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