As the state entered a new phase marked by a shortage of the COVID-19 vaccine and confusion about where and how to sign up for the inoculation, Jewish infectious disease doctors and elder care facilities are continuing their efforts to support preventative measures against the pandemic.
Dr. Mark Poznansky, head of the Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at Mass General Hospital, is working on the COVID response on multiple fronts.
Much of his time is focused on developing a vaccine in partnership with the Department of Defense. This work is currently in animal testing, with a goal of human testing for the third quarter of 2021 if everything goes according to plan.
He envisions the vaccine as easier to administer, in some ways, than the current Pfizer and Moderna models.
“It does not require specialized deep refrigeration, and it’s more stable than mRNA vaccines,” Poznansky said. “We would be one of the avenues, one of many platforms out there, to go get a vaccine that would be easier to deliver and deploy.”
Additionally, Poznansky and his MGH team are working with a company called Pinpoint Science Inc. on testing for the virus – “more rapid COVID tests in a very short period of time, real time, at point of contact places, schools, businesses, and so forth” – and on developing a new therapeutic for the coronavirus in collaboration with Drs. James Torchia and Gordon Freeman at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
“We must prevent as much moderate and severe disease as we can,” he said of the therapeutic project. “We’re not vaccinating enough people yet … It would be a direct, targeted therapeutic for people with COVID-19. It should be a simple drug. Monoclonal antibodies can be quite complicated and expensive. This would be simple protection, mass-produced, delivered at larger scale to people with COVID.”
MGH infectious disease specialist Dr. Camille Kotton is working on vaccination efforts at the hospital.
“We’ve been very busy with the vaccine rollout,” she said, as well as “taking care of patients with COVID. There’s a lot of patient education to make sure everyone’s questions are answered.
“A good amount of my time” involves working with Jewish institutions in the Boston area on COVID policies, including her synagogue, Temple Emanuel in Newton, and Jewish day schools in eastern Massachusetts. Kotton’s priorities in this regard include “keeping the schools open, keeping them healthy, in-person.”
Poznansky is also a member of Temple Emanuel, as is Kotton’s husband, Dr. Darrell Kotton, who works at Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine. A fellow temple member is Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the former head of the Infectious Diseases Division at MGH who in December was appointed the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by President Joe Biden.
Kotton and Poznansky praised Walensky’s work on the national COVID response.
“She’s off to a really good start,” Kotton said. “We look forward to really strong leadership from her,” including “with helping the new administration get things up to speed … [to] try to start to contain this horrible pandemic.”
Poznansky described Walensky as “science and data-driven.”
In an alarming recent development, new strains of COVID have been discovered, including in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil. The UK strain has been detected in two people in Massachusetts, among other states.
“We are in a race here between vaccination, treatment, and the infection rate to get the virus back in the box,” Poznansky said. “The problem in countries like Brazil, the UK, and the US is that it’s way out of that type of level of containment. The virus has infected millions of people, and is also slowly changing in respect to the way it interacts with our immune system.”
“We think the variant strains will likely have a significant impact,” Kotton said. “For now, we are recommending the same precautions. Keep wearing a mask, be careful with social distancing, and other preventive measures. We anticipate there are numerous virus strains out there. We don’t know what will appear on the horizon. Practice caution, be careful moving forward.”
On a statewide level, Kotton and Poznansky said that the rollout is improving. Availability is opening up, with large vaccination clinics for first responders, health care workers, and anyone over age 75 established at Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park. Closer to home, the state is booking appointments at the DoubleTree Hotel on Ferncroft Road in Danvers, including for the over-75 group.
“Now there’s a really organized, well-designed plan for the state of Massachusetts to have a rollout in many different centers across Massachusetts,” Kotton said.
“They’ve expanded who takes [the vaccine] under the Phase Two plan – people over 75 years old, and above 65 years old with two comorbidities,” Poznansky said. “The big issue is supply, transportation, and delivery. The vaccine needs to be delivered under deep refrigeration to locations and deployed from locations. It’s challenging.”
Among Jewish elder care facilities, Hebrew SeniorLife has already had nine vaccination clinics at five senior living campuses – including the Jack Satter House in Revere – with 20 more clinics planned because the vaccines are administered in two steps spaced two or three weeks apart. A total of 1,600 residents and 800 staff members are looking to get vaccinated at the five sites, with 1,300 residents and 700 staff and outside contractors having received the first dose.
“It’s made a really good dent in it,” said Kim Brooks, the chief operating officer for senior living at Hebrew SeniorLife. “People are really excited to get the vaccine.”
Chelsea Jewish Lifecare expects that in the near future, over 95 percent of residents and over 70 percent of staff will have been vaccinated, according to a spokesperson.