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Stapleton strongly suggests getting a flu shot, as season is expected to be more severe
By Joshua Maloni
As summer ended in 2020, and again in 2021, an ominous cloud hung over the region, as the rate of coronavirus infection rose – and with it, restrictions and cancellations.
Elected leaders have expressed hope the 2022 fall and winter seasons will be better, with the recent announcement of a bivalent vaccine specifically targeted for more transmissible variants.
Earlier this week, Niagara County Department of Health Public Health Director Daniel J. Stapleton participated in a Q&A wherein he explained more about the new vaccine, lessons learned from the past two years, and what can be done better this time around.
Q: What can you tell me about the new bivalent vaccine?
Dan Stapleton: The new bivalent vaccine, it's a combination of the two variants. We've had the COVID vaccine omicron, which we are all familiar with. And then now there's been a new variant added. So, there's two vaccines in one. This new one is to help protect people from the BA.4 and BA.5 variants of omicron. It's a wider spectrum of protection than previously provided. It should offer a lot more protection than the older vaccine, which, over time, most vaccines, their effectiveness declines because the virus mutates to survive.
This new vaccine offers protection from the previous virus, but also the newer strain of the virus. Once again, that's primarily the BA.4 and BA.5 variant of omicron.
Q: And who is eligible for this new vaccine?
Dan Stapleton: Actually, all adults are eligible for the vaccine, as long as it's been two months since their last vaccine. Whether it's their very first vaccine or their second, or even their boosters, as long as it's been two months since their last COVID vaccine, then all adults are eligible for the vaccine.
We've been seeing a pickup over the past couple of weeks that we've had the vaccine available. Both the Moderna and the Pfizer. And so, we're happy that people are taking advantage of that, and getting that new booster.
We all know that, in the beginning of this pandemic, CDC said, “Well, if you get this vaccine, it'll protect you from getting infected.” And we know now, as we learn more – and it's been a long two-and-a-half to three years – we've seen that the ability to completely prevent infection is not realistic. But we have the ability to offer people extra protection so, if they do get infected, their symptoms are much less severe than they would be if they didn't have this new vaccine.
Niagara County Department of Health Public Health Director Daniel J. Stapleton
Q: I understand this is the only vaccine that is being offered now – it replaced the previous vaccine. That being the case, is it pretty widely available?
Dan Stapleton: Yes. We've got it available. We've done a few clinics over the past couple of weeks. We have a healthy supply of the vaccine – both the Moderna and the Pfizer are available. We have both. Pfizer is a little bit further ahead, in terms of the supply available, than Moderna is, but we've got both.
Q: What do we know at this point about side effects?
Dan Stapleton: I haven't heard anything about any major side effects from this new vaccine. Of course, you know, it takes a little bit of time to see that. Like I've said, it's only been a couple of weeks.
I got my booster just yesterday. My 90-year-old father got his booster yesterday, as well. So, we're telling people – anybody who might have been saying, “Well, let's wait until the new vaccine comes out. Let's wait until we get more protection against BA.4 and BA.5” – the time is now. There's no benefit to waiting. There's just increased risk by waiting.
So, we're telling people it's widely available, whether it's from Health Department – and we have all these clinics on our website. We're updating that daily. We're going to be adding probably a couple more in the next few days.
It's widely available for people to get through us, or also through their primary care doctor, or also through pharmacies. Pharmacies are now getting a pretty good supply of this vaccine, as well.
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Q: What was learned from last fall and winter, and why was it was so bad?
Dan Stapleton: Well, it's brand-new. Even though nowadays we have information readily available, when you're dealing with something that was so new – a new strain – you learn things from it. The information that we have improves every day.
I think that, in many ways, there's so much division within our world, our country, and how people are getting information. And we've all come to realize that, just because something's on the internet, doesn't mean it's accurate. A lot of people were making their health decisions for themselves and their family on information on Facebook and TikTok, and every other social media platform you can think of.
I have always relied on the experts, whether it's the CDC, whether it's the National Institutes of Health, whether it's the New York State Department of Health. I rely on my experts, the virologists, the epidemiologists, to educate me to make the best decision I can for the health of me, my family, my community, the residents of our county. We gather the information, and we get it from reliable sources, and then we make our decisions based on that.
It was a novel virus. It was brand-new – something that we hadn't dealt with in the past. So, I think that it takes time to get the information – to get widely verified information.
The days of just taking things at word is not always good. We get verified information, we get it from scientists that I mentioned earlier, in order to make the right decision.
I think we all learn together. And I think, in general, our community, Niagara County, has done a fantastic job of making sure we protect ourselves, our families, and our community.
I’m very proud of our county and our residents.
Q: I know it's certainly more challenging today to get a gauge on infections with the rise in popularity of at-home tests. But from what you know – from what you're hearing – how are our numbers these days?
Dan Stapleton: The two numbers I look at are this: I get the information about new daily numbers, and I guess that's helpful to a certain extent. But just like what you said, we aren’t capturing most of the positive tests, because they're being done at home.
The at-home test kits serve a purpose. It allows people to gauge where they are in their health, and whether they're affected right then and there. But we don't get that information. Very few people share the information, even though they're able to share with us on our website. So, I take those numbers with a grain of salt.
The numbers that are most important to me are the death rate – the tragedy of losing some of our fellow residents. That weighs heavily on all of us. That's a number I watch on a daily basis.
We’re very happy to report, as of today, we've had no new deaths in the past week.
That's an important number I look at.
The other number I look at is the capacity of the hospitals. I talked to one of our hospital CEOs just this morning. We want to be able to know where the hospitalization rates are, and what capacity is available. Because if you remember, on day one with the pandemic, we talked about our goal was to make sure that the hospitals weren't overwhelmed – that there was capacity at the local hospitals for people to be able to be seen for any number of illnesses. Not just COVID, but, of course, all the other illnesses that people get and experience on a regular basis.
The hospitals were never overrun. We got low on capacity available. Absolutely. There's no doubt about that. But that's the numbers I look at. And our capacity, if you looked at our most recent report, Eastern Niagara Hospital is 72% (of beds available); Niagara Falls Memorial: 46%; Mount St. Mary's: 13%.
I look back to the days when we had very little capacity at our local hospitals. That's changed significantly. And so, I see that as a major improvement. I look at the amount of our fellow residents that we lose to COVID. That number is much better than it's been.
Those are the numbers I look at, because they really mean the most to us, and they're the ones I can get firsthand information right from the hospitals. I talk to the hospital CEOs on a regular basis. I talked to one this morning. I met with two last week. So, to be able to have those kinds of partnerships with the hospital and the leader of the hospital is key, because we wanted to make sure those hospitals were never overwhelmed.
And thankfully, while capacity was stretched, it was never zero. When you put all the hospitals together, we never had run out of hospital beds. It was getting tight. But we never completely ran out.
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Q: What are some tips, or some best practices, we can employ for this fall and winter?
Dan Stapleton: I've been leading this department for over 15 years now. I've been with the department for 25 years. And what I've always said is it's too late to build a partnership when you're in the middle of a crisis. You need to have those partnerships built, strengthened, before you call on one of your partners for help.
We've always had strong partnerships with our hospitals. That's important. We've worked very, very closely with the superintendents of every one of the local school districts. While we have relationships with them and their nurses, we really strengthened that relationship during this pandemic.
Partnerships with people like yourself, the media. I had relationships before this pandemic started, and that's really when you need it. So, those things have always served us very well.
We just had a meeting just a week ago with a lot of these stakeholders from the local health care organizations, and partners, hospitals, schools, not-for-profit health organizations. We met with all those individuals just last Monday of last week, to go over what are some of our priorities, and to rebuild those relationships. When we had this meeting last week, I said to the group, 50 or 60 people who attended, that, although we want to continue to strengthen relationships that we have with these organizations, we also want to introduce these not-for-profits to the hospitals, to the schools, to each other – to strengthen their relationships, their partnerships, as well.
Partnerships are a big part of it. I could not have led this effort at the pandemic without my partners like Jonathan Schultz from emergency management; without Mike Filicetti, the sheriff, with his office; public works; mental health; the chairwoman of the legislature, Becky Wydysh, was so supportive of us. Those things are really what you need when you're put in this situation. The partnerships, from the drive-in, to the Kenan Center and all the other schools, those things really are what helped us get through it.
We'll continue to build and nurture those relationships, because that's what got us through so far.
Q: What's the best place, or places, for people to find more information or resources?
Dan Stapleton: Our website is filled with information on COVID, on vaccinations, on monkey pox, on the flu season. Of course, our website; our Facebook page is very active. We just started up with Instagram to get that going, as well.
Have your trusted sources. By that, I mean have your CDC; have your New York State Department of Health, but also have your Niagara County Department of Health be a resource. We know our communities better than anyone else. I think we're better equipped to serve our communities then any anybody else.
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The seasonal flu season is upon us now. There's a very good supply of seasonal flu vaccine available, whether it's through us, whether it's through your pharmacy, whether it's through your doctor.
But this year is supposed to be one of the most aggressive flu seasons we've had in a long time – in years and years. We see what Australia does. Australia is a good sign; they get their flu season before us; and then we can see kind of what are the strains of the flu. How active is the flu; how aggressive.
All evidence is pointing to this is going to be a very, very aggressive flu season. So, we tell people there's no time to wait. Get your flu shot today. It's not too early.
Get your flu shot and your COVID. Whether it's your first, initial COVID shot, or whether it's your boosters. Those are available – and there is no need to separate out the dates of receiving your seasonal flu shot and your COVID shot. It can be done the exact same visit. There's no negative impact by getting them the same day.
So, I'm telling people don't think that the COVID vaccine is going to prevent you from getting the seasonal flu – two different viruses, two different vaccines. And now's the time. And I really hope people don't wait, because it's not something you want to play with.
Q: That’s interesting – I was going to ask if you could get them at the same time. So, they play nice with each other, is what you're saying?
Dan Stapleton: Yeah. Actually, they'll do one in each arm. That's what they do.
The studies have shown that they do not impact each other. The effectiveness remains strong.
And I tell people, when it comes to the seasonal flu shot, that strengthens your immune system. That allows you to fight off a number of challenges to your immune system that happen throughout the year, but especially the flu virus.
There's really no reason to wait – and you can get both at the same visit.
For More from the Niagara County Department of Health:
√ Website: www.niagaracounty.com/health
√ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/niagaracountyhealth/
√ By phone: 716-439-7435
•The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, coronavirus page: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/
•National Institutes for Health, https://www.nih.gov/