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How the Head of a Vaccine Research Clinic Spends Her Sundays

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As vaccination efforts ramp up around the city, Dr. Stephanie Sterling is well aware of the challenges ahead.

“We’re going to need more than one or two vaccine options to get out of this pandemic,” said Dr. Sterling, the chief infectious disease and hospital epidemiologist at NYU Langone Health in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and the head of its new vaccine research clinic. “We don’t know if one will have better long-term effects or work better in certain age groups or with certain populations, which is why we’re conducting our own trials.”

The clinic continues to follow shifts or evolutions of viral strains, according to Dr. Sterling, who was vaccinated last month. “I had arm soreness, but that was it,” she said.

Dr. Sterling, 45, lives with her husband, Bladimir Raúl Quijano Rondan, 46, also a doctor and an infectious disease fellow at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens Hospital, in a duplex on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with their cat, Gracie.

GOO ALL AROUND Gracie, who wants to eat, wakes me up at 7:30 by walking all over me. I feed her and drink a syrupy sugar energy goo, put on biking clothes and then my husband and I go biking. We enter the park by the Guggenheim and hit the Harlem Hill. Only serious bikers are out, which is very humbling because we are not.

COFFEE SNOB Back at the house we do some ab work. Sometimes Gracie jumps on me. That’s an extra eight pounds, which is really hard. I’m snobby with my coffee, which I make from my mocha express stovetop machine with coffee sent from a friend’s coffee farm in Colombia, or a company out of Denmark, which is super fresh and yummy. We order omelets — sausage, apple and cheese — from Barking Dog, a local restaurant. I shower and dress, and by the time I’m done, the food has arrived. We eat together with European soccer playing on the TV because we’re huge soccer fans.

THE COMMUTE Before leaving I log into the hospital’s medical hub to answer a list of questions, including where I’ve been in the last 24 hours, if I have a fever or other Covid-19-related symptoms. A text is sent to my phone with a green background; it’s a visual cue for security that says I’m OK. I’m out the door by 9. If my husband is on call he takes our Mazda CX-3, which is a great city car for potholes and parking. I’ll take the Q to the N or R or get more creative depending upon mishaps and weekend changes.

THE OFFICE I’m at the hospital by 9:30. For the next several hours I’m at my desk. I’ve brought coffee with me for a second cup. If there are no emergency consults, my day is spent reviewing patient charts. We’ve learned a lot about how to treat Covid-19 patients and the importance of steroids and Remdesivir. Most of ours right now have acute Covid-19 pneumonia and we’re seeing less people admitted for weeks at a time in the I.C.U.

ACROSS THE STREET I’ll go down to the cafeteria at 2 for soup, chili or veggies and hummus — it’s easy and quick. Then I walk across the street to our other building, which is where our vaccine distribution center is and where we are currently administering the Pfizer vaccine.

Covid-19 Vaccines ›

Answers to Your Vaccine Questions

While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.

Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.

Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.

No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.

AVOIDING A REPEAT All the vaccine trials have made a huge effort to enroll the minority population. Last spring, my hospital was full of nonwhite people gasping for breath and not doing well. We can’t repeat what happened in March and April. People who were barely able to breathe filled room after room. It was horrible. We’re still dealing with the trauma of having gone through it.

THE VACCINATION Once someone receives the vaccine we’ll observe them for 30 minutes. We are doing several hundred a day. So far it’s been incredibly smooth and filled with lots of emotion by the staff. The people giving it are so excited to be part of helping keep fellow workers healthy. And the opportunity to be part of history. There’s a massive amount of pride.

Credit…via Stephanie Sterling

RESEARCH I go to our vaccine treatment and evaluation unit. NYU is one of 10 in the United States. We’re participating in clinical research for the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is different and cheaper than the Pfizer and Moderna options. Those trials needed massive enrollment, which we started doing in November with over 150 people, have not stopped and are ongoing. Over the next two years we will be following those participants closely. No one knowingly had Covid-19, that’s part of the requirement for the trial. If there’s a specimen that needs to be processed I go to the freezer, grab it and head back to the hospital and drop it off in the lab.

PATIENTS I return to the hospital by the pedestrian bridge and start seeing I.C.U. and non-I.C.U. patients until 4 or 4:30. Before leaving for home I’ll go back to my desk and send messages to the teams if there’s anything crucial for them to work on.

FUTBOL I feed the cat, then for the next 30 or 40 minutes I’ll relax and watch TV; usually it’s Spanish soccer. Then it’s back to work on the computer to input all my notes on my patients in our second bedroom, which is our office-now-turned-gym.

Credit…via Stephanie Sterling

COMFORT FOOD, NOTHING VIOLENT At 8:30 or 9 I step away to eat dinner with my husband. We have a really tiny kitchen. We work long hours and we’re both too tired to cook so we order in. We like Felice 83, which has good fresh pasta, or Mission Ceviche, which has pretty decent Peruvian food. I’ll have a glass of wine and eat in the living room. Unwinding usually involves knitting, I’m working on a sweater. Maybe we’ll watch a movie. During the worst part of the pandemic I couldn’t watch war movies or anything violent. I saw so much badness in the hospital. I couldn’t watch the news either. There was a lot of misinformation, which was frustrating. It’s better now, but I still can’t watch it.

Credit…via Stephanie Sterling

A LITTLE SCI-FI By midnight we’re both in bed. Bladimir falls asleep first. I read for 15 minutes to help relax. I’m rereading “Dune,” which I haven’t read in a long time. They’re coming out with a new version of the movie. In the mists of Covid-19 it was hard for me to read. I needed more mindless activity. I knew I was returning to myself once I started reading it again. Then it’s lights out.

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