A year ago, a day after the holiday Shavuot, Congregation Bais Abraham in University City hosted four infectious disease doctors — all of them Bais Abe members— for a panel discussion on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, a year later, a handful of days before Shavuot, the synagogue against on Monday night hosted the doctors for a discussion on the improved state of the pandemic.
Though some may see those as bookend events, Dr. Morey Gardner, who recently retired as director of infectious disease and infection prevention at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital, does not view the threat of the virus as something situated firmly in the rearview mirror.
Instead, Gardner insists that even vaccinated individuals need to continue “to be as careful as you can be” in part because of the risk of a variant emerging that “can evade the vaccine,” he said.
To get a sense of why Gardner continues to insist on a cautious approach, the Jewish Light spoke with him in advance of the virtual event.
Bais Abe and the Conservative synagogue Kol Rinah will also hold an in-person “celebration of Torah learning” for Shavuot on Sunday, May 16, beginning at 8:45 p.m. There is a limited capacity and pre-registration is required. For more information, visit https://www.baisabe.com/event/Tikkun2021
(Gardner’s responses have been edited for space.)
In spite of the declining number of COVID cases and deaths and increasing number of people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine, you say that people need to continue to be careful. Why?
There is a tendency to think that once you are immunized, everything is good and you can just go back to normal, but you have this responsibility, if you want the pandemic to end for everyone, including yourself, to do your best to minimize the risk. The really huge, very important group of unimmunized individuals in the United States — and around the world — are children. Fortunately, children have the least likelihood of becoming ill, and the least likelihood of dying, but children are still capable of becoming infected and then acting as vectors and are able to spread disease to individuals who are then at higher risk of disease and death.
The good news is we probably are going to have a vaccine approved within the next week for children above the age of 11, and things are looking very good for having a vaccine for children under the age of 11 down to six months by August or September, so we have a responsibility to minimize the infections among children until they can be vaccinated.
When leadership of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] comes on and says they have a sense of impending doom, that somehow we will lose control of the pandemic here in the United States because of a lack of developing herd immunity and the evolution of the virus becoming more infectious and virulent and ultimately evading our vaccines — when someone states that, they state it for a very good reason. What I have been trying to do is explain why they are so concerned.
Still Gardner says, “Every bit of data suggests that [the vaccines] are doing exceedingly well against the dominant strains that are circulating in the United States. Things are bright and the future looks great, but if people completely let their guard down, totally, then the risk is there for a reversal, so it’s a matter of continuing to be careful until the end of the summer.
What’s going to happen at the end of the summer?
If vaccine distribution and vaccine acceptance continue to improve, if children begin to be immunized and we get to an appropriate level of herd immunity — which doesn’t require that everyone be vaccinated, just that people who have been vaccinated or infected and recovered within the previous six months reaches somewhere around 80% — then the epidemic spread will come to an end. COVID may still be around, but the spread will be sporadic, low level and the likelihood of a resistant variant emerging is dramatically reduced.
How do you weigh your call for continuing to be careful against the psychological toll of people having to isolate from one another and having their routines continue to be disrupted? Because that has a negative impact on public health too.
I think the most important aspect of that is to have this come to an end. If it continues, then the cumulative stress is ultimately worse than some additional stress for a circumscribed period of time.
Utilizing masks when you are inside, having masks available to pop on when you get very close to someone else when you are outside, continuing to use masks in that fashion even after you are immunized when you around individuals you can’t be confident are vaccinated — that isn’t anywhere close to the level of isolation that was a function of being absolutely terrified by the unknown and the instructions that were leveled before —which basically were: lockdown in your house — are very, very different.
You can now return to almost normal if you take what we view now as basic precautions.
People in the Orthodox community celebrate Shabbat each week, so what has the last year been like for you? Have Jewish holidays been as enjoyable? Has Shabbat been as enjoyable?
No, I have really missed the community aspect, which is very important to me, and I think to most Jews who participate in organized religion and certainly the tighter the community, the more one misses the community.
I have personally missed it a great deal, but being a physician selects for individuals who more easily embrace delayed gratification. We are willing to invest for a better outcome.
On Shavuot, there is a tradition of staying up all night and learning Torah. What do you enjoy about Shavuot and the studying?
Communal study can go on all year. It doesn’t have to be on Shavuot, but there is a special mitzvah for doing it on Shavuot. There is something special about staying up beyond your usual bedtime and participating communally in that time. It’s certainly unique during the year, and like all holidays, it’s a worldwide, communal experience. Jews all over the world are doing this and that to me is really very meaningful.