Vaccine Insight With MSU Leaders: President Dr. Stanley Samuel and College of Nursing’s Dr. Randolph RaschFebruary 25, 2021
Dr. Stanley Samuel Jr., president of Michigan State University, and Dr. Randolph Rasch, dean and professor at the university’s College of Nursing, joined Tammy Carnrike, chief operating officer of the Detroit Regional Chamber, to share medical expertise and insights on the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines currently being administered in Michigan. The two MSU leaders also shared their thoughts on how herd immunity can effectively be achieved.
Leading a university through a pandemic
Samuel was selected to serve as MSU’s president in 2019.
“I think when the Board of Trustees hired me, probably being an infectious disease doctor was maybe not highest on the qualification list. Of course, who could predict what was going to happen and that things would change?” said Samuel in relation to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has, so far, claimed the lives of a half million Americans.
Samuel said his extensive background in infectious disease has aligned well with his work in leading a Big Ten university through a pandemic.
“Fundamentally, the principles for me and any other university president during this time has remained the same which is, ‘How do we keep people safe while delivering our content, delivering our wonderful education mission, as well as our research mission,’” said the MSU president.
How the COVID-19 vaccine works
Samuel has also closely followed the development of research meant to address the SARS virus, going back to years before his appointment to MSU. Samuel said, “I ran a large center devoted to ways in which we could help prepare for this. Things I’ve thought about before has come to past.”
However, in regard to the COVID-19 vaccine, Samuel pointed out that many people are not aware that research to develop a safe vaccine addressing the SARS virus (i.e. COVID-19, which is also medically known as SARS-CoV-2) began as early as 2002 when SARS-CoV-1 first caused an outbreak.
“And we learned a number of things about [the SARS virus], including how it entered into cells, what were the key proteins, and there was actually some early vaccine work done on SARS-CoV-1, and so that really set the stage for SARS-CoV-2,” explained Samuel. He also explained how the COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna work inside the human body.
“[The vaccines] are based on messenger RNA (mRNA) that’s from the virus, but they don’t involve the virus in our cells”, explained Samuel. “It involves introduction to the cells of this mRNA, but no live viruses are there at all. That’s one of the things that makes the vaccines so safe going forward.”
Samuel also stated that current data suggest the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 95% effective at preventing SARS-related disease and hospitalizations
Work underway to improve perceptions held by communities of color about vaccine safety
Rasch co-chairs Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities.
Rasch’s task force work over the last year has focused on addressing COVID-19 testing needs and improving testing infrastructure for marginalized communities.
“We’re also using our testing format to think about vaccinations,” said Rasch while also pointing to an apparent mistrust of immunizations held by African Americans and other diverse ethnicities.
In November, the Chamber conducted a statewide poll of Michigan voters, where 57.8% of white voters indicated that would get the COVID-19 vaccine, but only 32.9% of Black voters said the same.
Rasch described the work underway at the state-level to build trust among Black and other diverse populations to encourage belief in the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, saying:
“There are community organizers and organizations who have their thumb-print on the beat of what’s going in the communities and are listening to what the concerns are.”
Rasch continued, “In real-time, we are adjusting messages to get the word out and build trust. Some of it is basic understanding of what immunizations are and what they are not.”
Best route to effective herd immunity
Herd immunity is when a large part of a population of an area is immune to a specific disease, and if enough people are resistant to the cause of a disease, it has nowhere to go. Both doctors agree that 70% of adults in the U.S. will have to be vaccinated for the country to reach herd immunity, and what Samuel called “a very good place.”
“The effective, safe way to get herd immunity is to get the population immunized,” concluded Rasch.