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BY STEVE KRAUSE| January 13, 2021

The presence of a COVID-19 vaccine will go a long way toward alleviating the scourge that has turned our lives upside down since last March, but there are a lot of other things that have to happen as well.

Those were the words of Dr. David Roberts, president of Mass General Brigham North Shore Hospital, which includes Salem Hospital; and Phil Cormier, the retired president of Beth Israel Lahey Health Beverly Hospital. The two got together with Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll Wednesday for a webinar on all things COVID-19, hosted by the North Shore Alliance for Economic Development.

Both medical officers said that the recent spike in COVID-19 cases is taxing their capacity not only for treating patients with the virus, but to administer in other areas, including intensive care and emergency services.

But those who think that merely receiving two vaccination shots will solve the problem are mistaken. And both Roberts and Cormier have seen that attitude in people.

“They say ‘I’m sick of wearing masks. I’m sick of social distancing, and what difference does it make anyway, because there’s a vaccine.’ I’m telling you, that is wrong thinking,” said Roberts.

They say it’s wrong on a number of levels, and it speaks not only to a lack of perception on the part of some people, but also in the skepticism and reluctance people show in taking it.

First, said Roberts, the vaccine is more effective in lower-positivity settings. That means that, regardless of anything else, the curve that has been spiraling upward ever since the middle of the fall has to be flattened out for vaccinations to work better.

And that means practicing the same health directives that the experts have been preaching since the first day of the pandemic.

“It’s no fun,” he said. “I don’t go anywhere either. We still need to stay in our bubbles. Stay in your places. You should not swap air with people you don’t bubble with. I don’t go indoors for more than 20 minutes with people I don’t live with. This will increase the efficacy of the vaccine.”

Roberts compared the progress the medical profession has made in this area to a football game.

“We’re in the red zone,” he said. “If we could just stay tight with masking and distancing, we may just get over the goal line.”

From what the two officers say, that touchdown can’t happen soon enough.

“Right now, our volume is 66 COVID patients,” said Roberts. “In the spring it was 120, with 30 in intensive care.”

“We have about the same type of census points at Beverly,” said Cormier. “And our busiest days were the three days after New Year’s because of holidays and social gatherings. There’s a dramatic impact on patient hospitalizations after those types of things.”

The good news, said Cormier, is that “recent data from the state indicates there’s a leveling off of hospitalizations. That is a good thing. We were at a point where if it went any higher, as it had been projected … that is not sustainable.”

There are some differences between the COVID-19 spike now and the one that was seen last spring.

“In the first wave, we didn’t know what to expect,” said Cormier. “It hit us hard, in terms of severity of the illness. We weren’t doing any distancing, masking, (and) didn’t understand public health protocols.

“I think the Massachusetts healthcare system has some of the best (facilities) in the country. And that was a huge advantage for us. We were able to work cooperatively.”

Still, he said, “we saw a lot of mortality and death, because of the severity of the illness.”

The biggest difference now, though, is that the median age of COVID-19 victims skewed higher in the spring. Now, Roberts said, the median age is in the 30s and 40s.

Another difference, he said, is that more hospital workers are getting sick all over the country, “which makes it harder for us to recruit nurses. Whereas before, there were parts of the country that weren’t hard hit, now everybody is.”

Cormier said the vaccines will take care of a lot of that, but Roberts isn’t sure he likes how the rollout is being handled.

“We should get rid of that risk factor thing,” Roberts said. “Do it by age. To say that you have obesity. What’s obesity? Who makes that determination? I like the idea of simplicity. The age is a better way to do it.”

Both understand the skepticism among people of color to the vaccines, and both understand the reluctance some people might show for taking it for various reasons.

“I can understand minority feelings after some of the things they’ve experienced in their lives,” Roberts said. “But I’ve had pretty good success in talking to people about it.

“I tell them ‘this isn’t about you. It’s about your elderly relatives. It’s about the common good. It’s about society. You’re doing the right thing because you’re part of society.’ That opens up some eyes.

“If we don’t get at least 70 percent of the population vaccinated, we’re going to live this way,” he said. “We’ll be living in a masked environment, no visiting relatives, no ball games, semi-closed restaurants, for two more years. Whenever I say that out loud, they all say they don’t want to live that way through 2021.”