The Pandemic

SMH’s Dr. Manuel Gordillo on New Vaccines and CDC Guidelines

Gordillo sees new hope in the eased restrictions—even as he reiterates the importance of continued diligence and pro-vaccine messaging.

By Hannah Wallace March 18, 2021

The CDC released new Covid-19 guidelines last week that reflect the effects—and effectiveness—of vaccination efforts throughout the country. Sarasota Memorial Healthcare System’s infectious disease specialist Dr. Manuel Gordillo sees new hope in the eased restrictions, even as he reiterates the importance of continued diligence and pro-vaccine messaging.

Dr. Manuel Gordillo

Dr. Manuel Gordillo

The new guidelines recommend, in part, that people who have received a full Covid-19 vaccination can socialize indoors, without masks, with other vaccinated people. Low-risk, unvaccinated people can also visit their vaccinated family members in small groups indoors. Vaccinated people should still only see high-risk, unvaccinated people outdoors, with masks and social distancing.

“This is going to change the face of the pandemic,” says Gordillo. “The guidelines are very rational, very science-based. Maybe even a little bit conservative, but you have to start conservatively.”

He says that these eased restrictions should be considered a “privilege” for vaccinated people, which he hopes will encourage more people to get vaccinated when they can. With the country currently vaccinating around 2 million people a day—and the potential to reach as many as 4 million daily—Gordillo estimates that in four or five weeks, those numbers will start to go down again as vaccination capacity bumps up against the portion of the population who are reluctant to get vaccinated.

“If we have all of this vaccine and people aren’t vaccinated, it’s going to be a tragedy,” he says.

Some people’s hesitancy centers on the reported safety of the various Covid vaccines currently available. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was made available for “emergency use” by the FDA at the end of February, uses a different sort of immunization “technology” from the established Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

Rather than using messenger RNA deposited in a lipid bubble to trigger an immune response, the J&J vaccine is what’s called a “viral vector”: a portion of stable Covid-19 DNA is carried in a genetically modified adenovirus (something like the common cold). That cold virus can get into your cells, but the genetic modification means it can’t reproduce.

“That is a very safe vaccine,” says Gordillo of the J&J technology. “Covid is not the first infection where [viral vector] has been tried. It was tried for Ebola in West Africa. It’s been given to millions of people there.”

J&J efficacy rates for moderate and severe cases of Covid-19 were only 66 percent, while Moderna and Pfizer both tested in the mid-90s. J&J was 85 percent effective in preventing severe cases of Covid-19, and some scientists argue that the lower efficacy was due to Covid-19 mutations that occurred after earlier vaccines had already been tested.

Additionally, the J&J vaccine only requires one shot and doesn’t need to be frozen, making it ideal for reaching certain parts of the population—including those who can’t (or don’t want to) commit to two shots a month apart. “We’re starting to have options,” Gordillo says.

Gordillo has seen the effectiveness of the vaccinations firsthand. “In the hospital system, we were getting a certain number of cases a week in our own employees. Those numbers have reduced tremendously—I would say at least a 90 percent reduction. And the 10 percent have occurred in unvaccinated employees. That tells you how effective those vaccines are.”

He adds that nursing homes, where a lower percentage of patients reject vaccination, are seeing their infection rates drop even faster than society at large.

“I love that analogy, ‘When we give the vaccine, we give the vaccine of hope,” he says. “We had no hope sometimes. With this vaccine we can make this virus [just] another respiratory virus.  And we can resume our normal lives.”

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