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Tulane Begins Vaccinating Medical School Staff

Paula Burch-Celentano
Tulane University
Tulane University COVID-19 vaccination event at JBJ building on the downtown campus. January 2021.

Tulane University administered the first of two Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine shots to roughly 50 employees of its School of Medicine yesterday, from custodial and food service staff to campus health services physicians and researchers studying the vaccine’s efficacy.

The school hopes to vaccinate 5,000 students, faculty and staff within its allied schools of health in the next three weeks.

Tulane is enrolled in the Louisiana Department of Health’s database of vaccine providers and is therefore authorized to receive vaccines directly from manufacturers. It has entered into a partnership with Xavier University to vaccinate the HBCU’s allied health school employees, including those within the College of Pharmacy.

At age 75, Marion Young, a campus custodian, accepted the offer to receive the vaccine.

“I got family and I live with my wife and grandkids,” he said. “I think it’d be safer.”

Young said he wishes his whole family could receive the vaccine.

Campus Health Medical Director Dr. Marius Commodore said it was a “nice surprise” when he learned on Monday night, the evening before the doses arrived, that he would be vaccinated.

He hopes his staff members who have been caring for students and employees who are potentially infected with COVID-19 — some of whom have contracted the virus in previous months — will be vaccinated soon.

Credit Paula Burch-Celentano / Tulane University
Tulane University
Lisa Morici, a Tulane University associate professors of microbiology and immunology who is studying the COVID-19 vaccine, receives her first shot. January 2021.

Associate professors of microbiology and immunology Lisa Morici, PhD, and James McLachlan, PhD, who were also vaccinated on Tuesday, are studying the first generation COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. They’re researching a second-generation vaccine to potentially improve the efficacy of the first ones.

“These first-generation vaccines have set the bar quite high, with 95 percent efficacy,” Morici said. “However, there are a number of things that we still don't know. We don't know how long the protection lasts.”

Morici said it’s possible the current vaccines will need to be replaced with new ones that last much longer. She added that the science is still unclear on whether or not the vaccines prevent transmission of COVID-19.

“If we can still transmit the virus to people who haven’t received the vaccine, then we probably haven’t achieved herd immunity,” Morici explained.

Morici said she and McLachlan will know within the next two months whether or not the first generation vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are highly effective at stopping transmission of the virus.

Another aspect they’re focused on is whether they can direct the immune response triggered by the vaccine to a specific organ. In COVID-19’s case, the response would go to the lungs, where the virus wreaks the most havoc.

“We're not sure if the current generation of vaccines is able to induce an immune response in the lungs, or if it just induces an immune response in your whole body and your blood, mostly,” McLachlan said.

The pair have been thinking about this type of organ targeting with vaccines for several years, McLachlan said.

While they do wear full protective gear when handling live viruses, the Pfizer vaccine they received will provide them with added protection from serious illness associated with COVID-19.

In compliance with the CDC’s recommendation that essential workers within medical schools also be vaccinated in the Phase 1B Tier 1 group, Silas Teems, 61 and a cook at the medical school, was one of the first to receive the vaccine on Tuesday.

Credit Paula Burch-Celentano / Tulane University
Tulane University
Silas Teems, a cook at the medical school, prepares to receive his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccination. January 2021.

Aside from feeding faculty, staff and students, Teems cooks at two restaurants in Mid City.

“You don’t know what’s going on with people who you’re around and who’s sick and who’s not sick,” Teems said.

James Zanewicz, chief business officer at the medical school, said Teems is everyone’s favorite cook.

“When he’s not there people are sad [because] the food’s not as good,” Zanewicz said.

Commodore, the campus health physician, said he is hoping to experience few-to-no side effects from the first shot, and that he’s been warned by his peers who have already received both injections that the second one is more challenging.

“So I'm going to gird my loins in anticipation of the second shot,” Commodore said.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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