Ten months ago, Layal Helwani ’16 found herself in the center of the response to the coronavirus pandemic. A health educator for the Clifton Health Department, her work as the first cases emerged in New Jersey focused on tracing the contacts of the ill and getting people tested to control the outbreak.
It was, she said at the time, a call for “all hands on deck.”
Now, faced with staggering death tolls, the stakes climb higher. As vaccinations begin, Helwani remains on the front lines, her role shifting to help administer the shots at a drive-through immunization site in Clifton, New Jersey.
Helwani, who balances the work with continued studies as a graduate student in Montclair State’s Master of Public Health program, is among the University’s students and faculty playing essential roles by providing education, commentary, leadership and most recently, planning for vaccinations. That work is central to the distribution that ensures the vaccines get to where they need to go.
The drive-through vaccination site run by the Clifton Department of Health provides a snapshot of how the process works. Helwani has been assisting Health Officer and alumnus John Biegel ’89, ’00 MS, with the rollout, among the big decisions being the site itself in the parking lot of the local high school.
“We feel more comfortable being outside, even though it’s 30 degrees and windy,” Biegel says.
Drivers remain in their cars, and a team of health-care workers take information, screen for existing COVID-19 conditions and other health concerns, explains Danielle Jones, another of the Montclair State Public Health graduate students working at the clinic. Nurses from Clifton’s school district administer the dose, after which drivers wait to determine whether there are any adverse reactions.
“The health department works nonstop and it’s inspiring to see after all this time it’s still 100% focused,” Jones says.
Months of planning has gone into the process, Helwani says. “It’s great having a team to work with because everybody brings something to the table. But it’s been challenging because unfortunately the demand for the vaccine is high and is outpacing our supply.”
Last March, Professor Lisa Lieberman, chair of the Department of Public Health, recalls, “COVID testing was just rolling out and the hardest thing to do was to find a test. Here we are again, talking about vaccinations, and the hardest thing to do is get a vaccination.”
President Biden has promised to deliver 100 million vaccines into the arms of Americans in his first 100 days in office. Public health workers will play an important role. “It’s not enough to have an available vaccine,” Lieberman says, “but what does it take for all of those people to be vaccinated?” That requires infrastructure – enough doses, along with syringes, refrigerators, shipping, and staff to process and vaccinate hundreds of millions of people.
“Just because a vaccine exists doesn’t mean we’ll all be safe tomorrow and we can stop taking precautions. It’s going to be many months before we can safely go back to weddings, parties and dining, doing all of the things that we’re used to doing together,” Lieberman says. “Until we get there, it’s going to require convincing a whole lot of people about vaccine safety, continued masking and other precautions, and meeting the enormous challenges, both in logistics and equity, of vaccine distribution.”
Education remains a key component. “We do our best to get the message out,” Helwani says. This includes newsletters and phone calls, posts to social media and the department’s website. Mask requirements are supported in President Biden’s coronavirus strategy and he has asked Americans to wear masks for the next 100 days. But questions persist on how he will persuade people skeptical of masks to wear them.
“The best we can do is get the message out about the importance of taking preventative precautions to reduce your risk of coming into contact with the virus,” Helwani says.
“Public health, almost by definition, is political,” Lieberman adds. “It relies on laws, restrictions and enforcement. It asks people to do things, like getting vaccinated, or to obey laws, like wearing seatbelts, and often raises controversy. So it’s not new that people are resisting mask wearing. They’ve resisted efforts to take precautions in every public health crisis we’ve had for centuries.”
Reflecting on the past 10 months, Biegel admits “it’s been hellish at times, very sad at times. As a health department, what we have gone through together, thank God we have each other, because some days we laugh, some days we cry, sometimes we get mad at each other, but in the end, we’re always there for each other.”
Helwani adds, “To see everything play out the way it did, I’m almost speechless to describe how far we’ve come and how much of our resources and time this has taken.
“Between the case investigations, the contact tracing, coordination of testing at our senior facilities and the planning and the implementation of mass vaccination clinics, it’s been a lot. I’d like to hope that we’re getting closer, but there are still challenges we’re trying to work through.”
Story by staff writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren