COVID-19 Updates from Dr. Smith: 7/29/21

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Dr. Craig Smith, Chair of the Department of Surgery, sends updates to faculty and staff about pandemic response and priorities. Stay up to date with us.

​​Dear Colleagues,

Today I interrupt my long silence to acknowledge that we might be facing a third surge. Through the last half of 2020 I confidently blustered that we would avoid a second surge. I reasoned that the uniquely high rate of antibody positivity in New York, courtesy of the first surge, would provide some protection, even though far short of the requirements for true herd immunity. I may have been half-right, since our new-case rate was lower than many regions much less impacted by the first surge. But I was too much of a Pollyanna. This time I’m guardedly optimistic that we’ll avoid anything like surge one or surge two. 

This time I’m also more realistic. We’re already witnessing another kind of surge—a sudden surge of increasingly muscular vaccination mandates—driven by an atmosphere of barely contained panic over the rapid spread of the Delta variant through unvaccinated populations. With only 50% of the US population vaccinated (57% in New York), no one should be surprised by that development. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Delta, Lambda, or the original Covid strain, this virus will keep burning through unvaccinated populations as long as unvaccinated populations exist. Tragically, the very populations that experienced disproportionate impact from Covid previously will suffer the brunt of it again, not just because of their underlying medical vulnerabilities and access disparities, but because of relatively low vaccination rates in those populations.

As you know, Columbia University was a relatively early adopter of a vaccination mandate. All employees lacking an approved exemption must be vaccinated. Employees seeking exemptions must apply immediately. Each non-exempt employee must upload proof of vaccination into the Reopen CU app by August 2. Those who haven’t been vaccinated by September 1 will not be allowed to enter the campus on September 2. An allowance might be made for people who have only received their first dose by that time. It is very clear that the University is not bluffing. Noncompliance will result in termination.

I don’t enjoy delivering such a harsh reminder. Fortunately, compliance in our Department is already quite high. Subtracting exemptions, I want us to reach 100% by the deadline. If we don’t, sadly, terminations guarantee that we will reach 100% after the deadline. Think about everything we’ve been through together since March 2020—I hate to leave even one member of the family behind!

5 weeks ago a 12-story condominium in Miami Beach (Champlain Towers South) collapsed without warning in the middle of the night. 98 people were killed. Preventive maintenance might have prevented the tragedy. The building’s twin, Champlain Towers North, along with hundreds of other buildings are wondering what to do. Imagine a form of preventive maintenance that reduces the risk of condo collapse by almost 95%. It’s a simple procedure that’s done twice, 3-4 weeks apart. It discolors the stucco for a few days, but it’s free, and only takes about 5 minutes. Which condos would pass that up? The leading SARS CoV-2 vaccines are equally effective in protecting individuals from preventable catastrophe. My metaphor would be complete if applying the procedure to one building helped protect its neighbors, because vaccines have the added altruistic benefit of helping to protect everyone. “We all we got” (Yung Bleu).

Craig R. Smith, MD
Chair, Department of Surgery
Surgeon-in-Chief, NYP/CUIMC