Virgin Islanders are not going to be guinea pigs for a COVID-19 vaccine, the medical director of the V.I. Health Department said on Thursday.
Dr. Tai Hunte-Caesar appeared on The Press Box – the virtual town hall held weekly at Government House on St. Croix – to dispel rumors circulating on social media following an episode of 60 Minutes on Sunday in which the Virgin Islands was mentioned.
“I was pleased to hear we were mentioned in the 60 Minutes interview” about COVID-19 vaccines in development by Pfizer and Moderna that could be ready for distribution soon as part of the federal government’s “Operation Warp Speed” initiative, said Hunte-Caesar. “Usually we are left out of the conversation.”
However, “I was very troubled and concerned about what was circulating after the interview,” which mentioned the Virgin Islands in relation to vaccine distribution when one becomes available, said Hunte-Caesar.
Rumors circulating on social media – mainly that Virgin Islanders would be test subjects for a vaccine – are unfounded and untrue, Hunte-Caesar told Dodson James, who hosted Thursday’s town hall. The misinformation also prompted Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. to address the issue in a statement on Tuesday.
“Vaccine hesitancy in the territory is not anything new. I try my best to educate every patient I interact with and inform them,” said Hunte-Caesar, an infectious disease specialist who served as the Health Department’s Territorial Infectious Diseases physician and the medical director of the Communicable Disease Division prior to being named to her current role in 2017.
“As an infectious disease physician, I am a strong supporter of vaccination,” said Hunte-Caesar. “Vaccination saves lives. And it will continue to. Vaccinations have been one of the greatest health achievements of the 20th century.”
In fact, it is a testament to the hard work of the Health Department and its partners in fighting the pandemic that the Virgin Islands is figuring prominently in the federal response as the drug companies look to roll out their vaccines ahead of schedule, said Hunte-Caesar.
“We are so part of the process that we were mentioned on 60 Minutes,” said James.
“I’m happy we’re going to be considered for mass vaccination,” said Hunte-Caesar, adding that the territory’s COVID-19 task force has met daily for months in preparation for the moment a vaccine becomes available and has a draft plan for how distribution will work.
Dispelling another rumor, Hunte-Caesar said the U.S. Virgin Islands “does indeed have the capability of storing the vaccines in the territory.”
To remain stable, the vaccines developed to date must be stored at around minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit, and there was concern that the U.S. Virgin Islands lacked the necessary “ultra-cold” facilities.
“We do have ultra-cold freezers in the territory,” said Hunte-Caesar, and Puerto Rico is able to supply dry ice to keep them cold for transport.
As for an arrival date, the doctor said that will depend upon how quickly the Food and Drug Administration approves a vaccine as safe for all humans, but it could be as soon as the end of the year, or early 2021.
“I wish I could call up Dr. Fauci right now and he could tell us,” Hunte-Caesar said, jokingly, referring to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has been at the forefront of the federal response to the pandemic.
How many vaccines the territory will receive when they finally become available also is unknown, so the Health Department will target the most at-risk populations to receive them first, said Hunte-Caesar.
In the meantime, the doctor urged Virgin Islanders to remain vigilant against the virus by wearing their masks, social distancing, washing their hands frequently and sanitizing their surroundings.
“Our numbers have remained relatively low. We did have a small increase last week, but our numbers came back down to the 2 to 3 percent positivity rate,” said Hunte-Caesar. While the territory has so far avoided a third spike, as is happening on the mainland, “we are at risk for having increased numbers and spikes,” she said.
“We are going to get in trouble as we head into the holiday months” if people do not follow the mitigation guidelines, said Hunte-Caesar. While she realizes people are tired of the many precautions and want to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, private parties will become “micro-spreading events,” she warned.
“Just stay strong a little longer,” said Hunte-Caesar. “We cannot return to normal unless we continue to do the things that we know to stop the spread of the infection. That is by wearing a mask, by socially distancing, frequent hand hygiene – washing your hands – and also cleaning the environment frequently,” she said.
“The medical countermeasure that we are speaking about, in the form of a COVID-19 vaccine, is also going to be an additional resource that will stop the spread of the infection,” said Hunte-Caesar. “If we are able to immunize as many people as possible within the territory, that will allow for the reduction in the spread of the virus, and that is going to be an effective way for us to effectively get back to normal. We have thousands of visitors … that are going to come within the next coming months, and the only way we will be able to stop an influx of infection is by mitigation and with a vaccine.”