Greetings! I continue to marvel at the string of sunny, temperate days this spring and hope everyone is getting out to enjoy them. With the rise in percentage of the population vaccinated and the sharp decline in new cases, the CDC last week issued somewhat confusing new guidance for fully vaccinated individuals, and New York State followed up with its own updated policies, which went into effect this Wednesday. Rockefeller has adopted new policies that are in line with these guidelines. (See Tim O’Connor’s May 14 e-mail for details on our new campus policies.)
The bottom line is pretty simple: Vaccines are extremely safe, available, free, and highly, but not 100% effective. By far your best protection is to get vaccinated! Beyond that, wearing a mask indoors in any environment in which people may not be vaccinated provides additional protection. Outdoors is generally safe, but prolonged exposure to an infected person outdoors still confers increased risk.
On campus, many policies remain in place to ensure that the advances we are currently enjoying do not evaporate. Weekly testing continues to be required, masks must be worn in many settings, including non-private indoor areas on campus, and we should continue to be watchful for COVID symptoms and report all illnesses to Occupational Health. Importantly, those who are not yet fully vaccinated must continue to wear masks and practice physical distancing at all times; please remember that you get to high levels of antibodies about two weeks after your second vaccine dose, so you should maintain full precautions until that time.
Over the last two weeks, the remarkable decline in cases, hospitalizations, and death from COVID 19 has continued unabated. In NYC, since my last letter, the seven-day average of new cases has again been reduced by nearly 50%, continuing the torrid rate of decline seen since April 1, from about 4,100 cases per day then to about 575 now. And the national trend has been similar, with nearly all states showing marked declines and daily case numbers now around 30,000. At Rockefeller, we have had two new cases diagnosed in the last two weeks.
On the vaccine front, 59% of the adult population of NYC has received at least one dose of vaccine, and 50% are fully vaccinated, which is comparable to the national average. But whereas nationally 85% of those over 65 have had at least one vaccine dose, in NYC we are at < 75%, leaving too many people in the most vulnerable group unvaccinated. At Rockefeller, a remarkable 91% of us have had at least one dose of vaccine, and 81% are fully vaccinated. This is terrific progress, and a strong vote of confidence in the power of science and the transparent collection and review of data.
If you are one of the few who has not yet been vaccinated, please consider doing so as soon as possible. Although vaccination at Rockefeller is not mandatory at this time, many peer institutions are instituting this requirement. Appointments and walk-in hours for vaccination continue to be available at the BioLink every week, and everyone age 12 and older is welcome. Please bring your family, neighbors, and friends. Our community’s safety increases as we approach 100% vaccination, and I urge you to get vaccinated and encourage your eligible family and friends to do the same. In particular, there is a steep decline in vaccination among those over age 75, and this group is at particularly high risk of poor outcomes if infected. Special efforts to help people you know in this group to get vaccinated can be life-saving.
While hard to quantitate, it seems clear that vaccination has played an important role in the pandemic’s decline in the US. Caseloads in Europe have recently started to decline in many countries. The UK, which was early to implement aggressive vaccination programs, has been an outlier with very low case rates. In fact, their COVID death rate is now less than 10 per day.
Elsewhere, India and much of South America have had dramatic increases in case numbers, with much suffering as the ability to care for so many people with severe illness has overwhelmed many hospitals. Parts of Asia are seeing troublesome increases, and there is debate as to whether the Olympics should be held in Japan this summer. It is clear that scaling up the production and delivery of effective vaccines is a matter of global importance.
We are still not hosting visitors on campus at this time unless it is business-related and has RRC approval, a policy we are keeping in place to ensure that our reopening progress and the relaxation of our masking and social distancing policies don’t increase risks to our community. I’m pleased to note that the Faculty Club had a very successful reopening last week, and will be looking to expand its hours in the future. Thanks to everyone for following the rules as we renew in-person meetings. Additionally, yoga has resumed in the Great Hall, and outdoor fitness classes have started up on the tennis court. BBQs in the CRC Courtyard resumed this week, for takeout only for now. Additionally, the music room is once again available for reservation, and study space in the library is now open for use.
We have also opened the pedestrian bridge to Scholar’s for 24-hour use. Please remember that this is to be used by employees and CFC/RLC students and parents only, not by other family members. Please always swipe your ID to enter and exit. Every member of your group should swipe individually. Our goal is to have an accurate daily census on campus.
We are hopefully on the tail end of virtual meetings. Having spent 10 hours on one Zoom call yesterday, I am ready! Nonetheless, some of these have been great. Last week, our annual spring Women & Science lecture was phenomenal, delivered by Vanessa Ruta. Vanessa is not only a brilliant neuroscientist but also an immensely talented speaker, and her talk on the influences of nature and nurture on the development of social behavior was inspirational and engaging. I encourage you to watch the recording here.
Finally, we are looking forward to Rockefeller’s 63rd Convocation on June 10 at 2:30 p.m. This year we will be celebrating virtually the awarding of Ph.D. degrees to our 33 exceptional students whose hard work and achievements across the biomedical disciplines have provided important new insights into biomedicine and have set the stage for their future successes. At this Convocation, we also will be awarding honorary degrees to four remarkable individuals. Trustee emeritus Henry R. Kravis and Marie-Josée Kravis will be recognized for their extraordinary philanthropic vision, which was critical for making the SNF-DR River Campus a reality. They have also provided leadership and support for a wide range of educational and cultural activities in NYC and beyond. Additionally, honorary degrees will be awarded to two iconic scientists who have also been long-serving members of the Committee on Scientific Affairs, which reviews all Rockefeller faculty appointments and promotions. Tom Maniatis pioneered methods for gene cloning in the early days of the recombinant DNA revolution and disseminated them to the scientific community, spurring the wide use of this transformational technology. His research has made monumental contributions to our understanding of gene regulation, RNA splicing, immune signaling pathways, and neuronal development. Pippa Marrack has made foundational discoveries about the development and function of the immune system. She discovered that a single T cell receptor must recognize both a foreign antigen and the self MHC complex in order to be activated, and she went on to discover the T cell receptor itself. She also showed that T cells that recognize self antigens are deleted during maturation in the thymus. Her work thus provided the understanding of how circulating T cells recognize foreign, but not self antigens. I invite you all to register to attend this terrific event!
Please continue to stay safe and take care of one another.
Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics
The Rockefeller University