Did We Miss Our Shot At Saving Even More Lives?

How did you spend your 15 minutes?


The handwritten sticky note said “2:19 p.m.,” but could have passed for “2:14,” so by 2:13 I began calculating how many seconds it would take to get from my socially distanced chair to the check-out desk. Realizing that someone might figure out I was leaving before others in the observation area with earlier appointments, I waited it out and spent the next six minutes scrolling social media, fidgeting and watching the clock.

That’s how I, and pretty much everyone else lucky enough to get the COVID vaccine passed the time on a recent afternoon at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood as EMTs kept a watchful eye on us during the 15-minute “mandatory observation period” recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC). They’re looking for rare adverse reactions to the injection and if you have a history of allergic reactions, they ask you to stick around for 30 minutes.

It’s time well spent, especially if you’re about to get behind the wheel of a car, but consider this: with roughly 80 million vaccines administered nationwide, Americans have now spent more than 20 million hours or 833,000 days being watched and whittling away the time by taking vaccine card selfies, making TikTok videos, and trying to score an invite to the Clubhouse app.

Keep in mind that the average adult already spends more than two hours per day on social media, nearly six hours per day watching tv and online videos, but just eight minutes per day showering. And being held captive for 15 – or even 30 – minutes should be a breeze for Long Islanders who annually spend an extra 81 hours a year stuck in traffic or at least we did, until COVID trapped us all in our homes starting about a year ago.

While vaccinations may provide a path back to freedom, the devastation associated with the pandemic — unprecedented illness, millions of deaths, job losses, economic strife and strict curbs on social interaction — has had a profound effect on people’s mental health. More than 40 percent of Americans are reporting an adverse mental health or behavioral health condition – typically anxiety or depression – that’s impacting their daily lives.  More than 13 percentsay they have started or increased their use of drugs or alcohol to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19 and a whopping 31 percent of those caring for another adult – usually an elderly parent – told interviewers they had “seriously considered” suicide in the last 30 days

That’s why we should have made better use of those 80 million opportunities to quickly and efficiently screen prioritized populations – like first responders and healthcare workers – for PTSD. We could have discretely screened seniors for depression and asked them about their alcohol use. We could have asked women with children about their soaring anxiety levels and maybe offered useful referrals. There are many easy screening toolsavailable and thousands of social workers would have volunteered to help, if asked.

We know that people who smoke, are obese or have high blood pressure face higher risk for COVID-related hospitalization, ventilation and death. Why don’t we offer blood pressure screenings or distribute free nicotine-replacement therapy starter kits to the millions of high-risk folks sitting idly in gymnasiums? They’re obviously interested in taking control of their health. Some privacy curtains and few volunteer healthcare professionals would do the trick.

The pandemic has left lots of Long Islanders unemployed, pushing hunger, homelessness and poverty to new heights. Why haven’t we invited the Island’s nonprofits to deploy staff to mass vaccination sites, where the inoculated could spend 15 fewer minutes on Candy Crush and 15 more learning about local food pantries, housing-assistance groups, childcare services, mental-health counselors and other agencies ready to help get them back on their feet?

Why haven’t we asked vaccinated-and-grateful Long Islanders to volunteer at local charities? Maybe deliver meals to shut-in seniors? Mentor an anxious kid?

This mass vaccination effort represents the single-largest public health campaign in American history. We have a captive audience and a unique opportunity to prevent and address both preexisting health conditions and a fresh mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.

We may have missed our best shot – the post-injection observation period isn’t necessary for the newly approved single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But with only about 8 percent of the nation’s eligible population vaccinated, there are still millions and millions of innovative opportunities to offer patients critical information, support and access to community resources.

We can still help protect them and their families from the life-threatening conditions for which there is no vaccine.

A version of this article appeared first on Innovate LI.