IBX: The Cover Story: COVID-19: How Will This Story End?

Graphic- IBX: The Cover Story Episode 3

In episode three of IBX: The Cover Story, I talk about COVID-19 variants and vaccines with my guests Dr. Reetika Kumar, Vice President of Strategic Clinical Solutions, Market Medical Executive at Independence Blue Cross; Lorina Marshall-Blake, Vice President of Community Affairs at Independence Blue Cross and President of the Independence Blue Cross Foundation; and Peter Hotz, President and CEO of vybe urgent care.

We also touch on the great work that is being done by vybe urgent care and Independence to bring COVID-19 education and vaccines to underserved communities. And we share how the COVID-19 vaccine has made a positive impact in our personal lives.

Listen to our conversation here:

A transcript of the episode is also available below.

Episode 3 Show Notes

Below you will find some of our favorite quotes from the third episode, sources that were mentioned, and a segment breakdown. Thank you for listening!

Quotes

“We now have enough evidence that shows the immunity you get from being vaccinated is much more effective than the immunity you get from having had the infection prior. And with the variants, we’re also seeing that the immunity from an old infection doesn’t really confer your immunity against the new variants because people are now getting infected again, whereas the vaccine immunity does.” ― Dr. Reetika Kumar

“We have a collaboration with the city of Philadelphia and the Public Health Department. They are maintaining lists by zip code of where the vaccination rates are high and where the vaccination rates are low. And so we are able to then look at specific targeted areas and bring this mobile unit into those areas.” ― Peter Hotz

“I know from my personal perspective, having been fully vaccinated, for the first time in over a year, my family and I got together at my cousin’s restaurant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. It was such, I can’t explain it…a relief. It just felt like a source of normalcy for us. And it wasn’t me just saying that. It was my entire family.” ― Peter Panageas

“Again, I call it, ‘High touch.’ It’s almost like there is a fire. Some people look at the fire and say, ‘Oh, there’s a fire over there.’ When I look at my partners around the country and what they’re doing, they’re going into the fire. In other words, they’re going in to make a difference in the community.” ― Lorina Marshall-Blake

Episode Segment Breakdown

0:00 – 10:34: Dr. Reetika Kumar discusses COVID-19 variants of concern and how they could impact our goal of reaching herd immunity. She also touches on how the COVID-19 vaccine protects people from the virus and the variants of concern and how herd immunity is like a team sport.

10:35 – 12:45: Peter Hotz talks about the partnership between vybe urgent care and Independence Blue Cross to get people vaccinated at Independence LIVE.

12:46 – 20:14: Peter Hotz and Lorina Marshall-Blake share initiatives that vybe urgent care, Independence, and Blue plans across the country are doing to bring COVID-19 education and vaccines to underserved communities.

20:15 – 25:03: Dr. Reetika Kumar and Lorina Marshall-Blake discuss how COVID-19 impacts multi-generational households.

25:04 – 28:09: Peter Hotz adds information about the vybe urgent care mobile unit to bring COVID-19 vaccines to underserved communities.

28:10 – 34:15: Peter Panageas, Dr. Reetika Kumar, and Lorina Marshall-Blake reflect on how the COVID-19 vaccine has made a positive impact on their lives.

If you have a question about COVID-19 that we have not addressed in the podcast episode, email us at thecoverstory@ibx.com.

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Full Transcript

Episode 3 Transcript: COVID-19: How Will This Story End?

Full podcast episode transcription 

Peter Panageas: 

Hi everyone. This is Peter Panageas. Welcome to episode three of IBX: The Cover Story. In last month’s episode, we talked about the post pandemic workplace and what we think it’ll look like. But the reality is we’re still very much in this fight against COVID-19. At least 60 to 70% of the population must develop an immunity, either through the infection or from the vaccine for us to achieve herd immunity. This is the key in returning to life as we once knew it. 

Peter Panageas: 

So for today’s episode, I’ve invited a few guests to help shed some light on where are we in our fight against COVID-19? How are the new variants impacting our goal of reaching herd immunity, and how the vaccines and other safety precautions can help continue in our fight against the virus? My first guest is Dr. Reetika Kumar, Vice President, Market Medical Executive at Independence. We also have joining us, Peter Hotz, President and CEO of Vybe Urgent Care, and finally Lorina Marshall-Blake, Vice President of Community Affairs at Independence and President of the Independence Blue Cross foundation. I want to thank you everyone for being with us today, and we’re really looking forward to an exciting discussion. 

Peter Panageas: 

So Reetika, thanks again for being with us. Can you first talk to us about the virus variants that are spreading across our country and how we are delaying our goal of reaching herd immunity? 

Reetika Kumar, MD: 

Peter, thank you for having me. What I will say about the variants is there’s many out there. The ones that are of true concern, we call them the VOCs, variants of concern. And there are three, there’s a UK variant also known as B.1.17, there’s the south African variant, which is the B.1.135 and then there’s the P.1 variant, which is the Brazil variant. As of March, we know that the UK variant is the predominant variant in the US right now. 

Reetika Kumar, MD: 

And the variants, by virtue of what they’re meant to do, is make the virus more resilient against the factors that have now come out that we’re using to fight it. The variants are much more infectious and contagious and are much more deadly than the original SARS-CoV-2. So it’s going to be so essential for all of us to get the vaccine and continue to do what we do so that fight between how fast the spread is versus how fast we can get people vaccinated, it’s going to be imminent to try and get as many of us vaccinated and to try and curb this spread. Otherwise, the variants will continue to mutate and we’re going to eventually land up with a variant that we don’t have a vaccine effectiveness against. Right now, we’re lucky our vaccines are effective against these variants. 

Peter Panageas: 

Reetika, I know that from my perspective personally, when word of the vaccines started to come out, I was initially just a little reluctant to get the vaccine. I wanted to see what happened and what was going to transpire. And ultimately, I did get it. I’m fully vaccinated and I’m thrilled that I am. Can you give us some insight from your perspective, the role that the vaccine’s going to be playing in protecting people against the virus. And certainly these variants that you just talked about, 

Reetika Kumar, MD: 

I think vaccines are going to be our true final armor. As much as all the things that we’ve done through the last year we know have worked and we need to continue to do them, i.e. social distancing, wearing your masks and wearing them correctly and taking all the precautions of hand-washing, et cetera. The vaccine is what is going to help us truly build that antibody immunity, T-cell immunity, to be able to fight the spread of the virus. And we now have enough evidence that shows that the immunity you get from being vaccinated is much more effective than the immunity you get from having had the infection prior. And with the variants, they’re also seeing some small pockets where they’ve seen that the immunity from an old infection doesn’t really confer you immunity against the new variants, because people are now getting infected again, whereas the vaccine immunity does. So getting vaccinated, and as many of us getting vaccinated is going to be one sure sort way that we can try and get ahead of this pandemic. 

Peter Panageas: 

Reetika, you and I have talked about herd immunity being a team sport. Can you give us your perspective on that as well? 

Reetika Kumar, MD: 

So this virus is like a forest fire, right? All of us have to try and do our bit to contain it. We can take a bucket to one set of trees and think that if we put it out, the rest of it’s not going to burn down. And what herd immunity does is if enough of us get vaccinated and build antibodies to the virus, then the virus’s ability to spread through the society or through the community is going to be limited. And once we stop its ability to spread and limit that, is where we are also curbing its ability to create more mutated strains that then may not be impacted by the vaccine. So it truly is that fight of, I would say good over evil and vaccines are the good, and we really, all of us have to participate in giving it a true chance for us to get past where we have been for this past year. 

Peter Panageas: 

Reetika, I’m sure like you, I’ve got people who are in my circle, who’ve said that they’re reluctant, or frankly, aren’t going to get the vaccine because they’ve already had COVID, they’ve developed, in their opinion, antibodies for having the virus. Is that true? Can you give us your perspective there? 

Reetika Kumar, MD: 

So Peter, I think the one thing about SARS-CoV-2, is we’re still learning as we’re going. But here’s what we’ve learned from data so far. The antibodies that you get from having an infection start to wane at about 90 days out, we still don’t know how long that antibody protection lasts after an original infection. So after 90 days, depending on the dose that you get exposed to, you could get a re-infection then, or six months later. 

Reetika Kumar, MD: 

Two, we don’t know how high those antibodies need to be. But what we do know is for the variants, the immunity or the antibodies that you’re getting from a prior SARS-CoV infection are not effective against the variants the way the vaccine antibodies are. And we’ve also seen that the vaccine antibodies, the way they act and all the parts of the virus that they can identify is much broader than the immunity antibodies that we get from having the infection. So one take home point would be whether you’ve had the infection or not, it’s imperative that you still go ahead and get the vaccine. Right now, we know that all the three major vaccines available in the US are effective against these variants. So this is our chance to truly try and stop this. 

Peter Panageas: 

Reetika, it’s such a great perspective. And what I’m hearing you say is incredibly important that we continue to be diligent, right? We continue to social distance, continue to wash our hands, wear our masks, get vaccinated and, collectively we can together overcome this crisis that we’re facing, not only locally, regionally, nationally, but also internationally. And if you could give us some perspective beyond what we see here in our region, some of the things that you’re hearing and seeing in talking to your peers on a national basis, and certainly from a global perspective, a lot of what’s happening over in Europe, that we hear that there’s potential shutdowns again, and things of that nature. We’d love your perspective there. 

Reetika Kumar, MD: 

So Peter, I’ve been fortunate to be a part of some social media communities of physicians that are international. And we were about 40,000 doctors that have been collaborating across the world on everything that we’re learning about COVID. And then we’ve partnered with our various blue plans and leaders that are doing different things regionally. And because of our own membership being everywhere in the country, we’ve tried to keep an eye on national trends. Also because it’s a pandemic, it’s not a virus that can be contained by state boundaries or boundaries of countries and we know it travels. Hence the UK variant is the most predominant variant in the US right now. So what we’re seeing is that there’s a next wave happening, and we know that how these waves happen is they may happen in small clusters in regions. 

Reetika Kumar, MD: 

Right now we know Michigan’s feeling the brunt of it. You’ve had some outbreaks in Minnesota and what the new variant is showing is that it’s more contagious, it’s much more deadly, and it’s actually infecting children as much as it’s infecting adults, if not more. And we’re seeing that kids are spreading it. So what we’re trying to do in partnership with the community, the regional plans, physician practices, and anybody who can influence behavior or help educate people is help people realize that it is so important not to get the infection in the first place, because you’re going to help it from spreading. But also because we now know enough about COVID to know that the newer variants are causing more severe symptoms and longer-term consequences that you may be living with for a number of years to come, if not for the rest of your life. So there’s definitely surges happening. There are new variants coming up every day. 

Reetika Kumar, MD: 

We’re lucky the vaccines right now in the US are effective, but doing what we’ve done is going to be critical to say, “Are we going to win this or not?” We have done a lot locally with, which I’m sure Lorina is going to get into and partnering with providers and community organizations, but so have our other blues. And we’ve put a lot of effort around communities of color and helping educate people and helping remove that vaccine hesitancy and the distrust around the vaccines. And so I think our goal collectively should be to get as many people vaccinated as fast as possible.

Peter Panageas: 

Reetika, thanks for that perspective. And you’re right, we have done a lot here locally and at Independence, so proud of the work that we’ve done and the commitment we’ve made to helping the communities that we serve and getting vaccinated. As an example, we’ve recently opened up our own customer experience center, Independence Live, as a vaccine site. Blue plans across the country are helping communities they serve, their respective areas, in getting vaccinated. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona was asked by state officials to help manage volunteers at the State Farm Stadium vaccination site. Most of the volunteers their are Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona employees and their families. And out west in Pittsburgh, our friends at Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield partnered with the Pirates to use PNC Park as a large vaccine distribution site, exciting things that are happening regionally and certainly nationally amongst the Blue Cross Blue Shield plans. So Peter, thank you for being with us today. Can you tell us a little bit about the work Vybe Urgent Care is doing to get people vaccinated at Independence Live? 

Peter Hotz: 

Yeah. Happy to be here and really thrilled to talk about this collaboration, because I think it’s a great example of how a healthcare provider and a health plan can collaborate to address a public health need and to serve the community. As you mentioned, Independence has this wonderful space next to its corporate headquarters, which was not being used because it’s an event space. So we got a phone call asking if we would be interested in setting it up as a mass vaccination site. And I think both parties really leveraged their assets. You had this wonderful space, you had the infrastructure, you had a lot of the marketing that we could put behind this, and we obviously are a healthcare provider. So we had the ability to deliver vaccines and we had an agreement with the city to do that. 

Peter Hotz: 

What was amazing is it was only 34 days from the first conversation about this happening to us being live and actually dispensing vaccines. And so both parties really said, “This is a priority for us, we’re going to put a lot of energy behind it.” What also was important to us and to Independence was that we were not going to take any public funding for this activity and it was going to be open to everyone, regardless of what their health insurance was, or even if they had health insurance. And so that was important to us and it was important to Independence, and we’re thrilled to serve the community in this way. 

Peter Panageas: 

Peter, Lorina, this next question is for the two of you. And Peter, I’m going to ask you to start and Lorina, I’d also welcome your insight here as well. COVID-19’s brought to light the racial disparities in healthcare in our region and obviously nationally. Peter, can you touch on Vybe’s doing to bring COVID-19 education and vaccinations to underserved communities? 

Peter Hotz: 

I’d be happy to. One of our founding mission statements was that everyone deserves great care. And we’ve specifically located a number of our urgent care centers in underserved areas of the city and the region. When COVID first started however, we realized that just our network of centers was not going to be enough. So we launched a mobile health unit and we signed a contract with the city to bring testing into underserved neighborhoods. So we did that from September through the end of March. And we were out there five days a week in areas like Kensington in Southwest Philadelphia, where there just aren’t enough healthcare providers, so that we could again, bring access to testing to those that needed it. 

Lorina Marshall-Blake: 

Thanks so much. Peter, I join you in talking about the community. And again, Peter, thanks for the opportunity to tell the story. When I look at what we’ve been able to do through the foundation and working with the black COVID doctors. Again, they’ve been at The Liacouras Center, they’ve been at Deliverance Baptist Church. And the important thing is going where the people are. And I’m excited to say that we were the first funder of the black COVID doctors. And it’s hands on, it’s going where the people are. I often say, and Peter you said it, don’t tell me you care, show me you care. And that’s what I love about how we’ve been able to go out into the community and be the boots on the ground, going where they are, not just through the black COVID doctors, but even through the faith-based community. 

Lorina Marshall-Blake: 

Was just recently on a call, we were talking about doing a, I’ll call it a vaccination campaign, faith-based vaccination campaign, in the community, looking at dates like Memorial Day weekend or Juneteenth, when we know that communities of color are especially going to be celebrating. And then in addition, when we worked with the PHL COVID Fund, I think funding’s important as you have these community-based organizations, you have to make sure that they’re going to be around because that’s where people are going to go. When I look at our network of 50 community-based health clinics, and that they are boots on the ground, they’re there in the community and that’s where we are, and that’s where we have been from the beginning. I call it the partnerships with purpose on purpose. And that’s what I love about what Independence and both the Independence Blue Cross Foundation have been able to do during this time period. 

Peter Panageas: 

Lorina, I say this lovingly, you are such a pillar in the community in so many ways. You wear so many different hats and I don’t say that just figuratively, literally for those of you who are blessed enough to know you so well. And you’re such a voice for the community here in Philadelphia, an amazing voice for us. I also know that you have peers around the country, around the Blue Cross Blue Shield association and I’d love for you to talk a little bit about some of that experience that many of our members nationally are seeing. 

Lorina Marshall-Blake: 

Okay. Again Peter, you had mentioned Arizona in that we have worked with them and also with Pittsburgh. I was looking at Minnesota and what they’re doing with regard to going out to the people, using the stadium, using the church building. I keep saying you have to go to where the people are. They’re not always going to come to you. They’re mobile units that are going out into the community. Again, I call it high touch. It’s almost like I was talking about earlier today. There’s a fire, some people look at the fire and say, “Oh, there’s a fire over there.” When I look at my partners around the country and what they’re doing, they’re going into the fire. In other words, they’re going in to make a difference in the community. 

Lorina Marshall-Blake: 

So again, when I look at those others, even we look at Highmark again, we look at Arizona, we look at Premera, they’re boots on the ground everywhere, and everybody is just not even walking away, but they’re walking toward. So I applaud them and everything that they’re doing and we’re partners together. We share information. So if something works for you, then let me try it and see if it works in my place. 

Peter Panageas: 

Yeah. You just touched on Premera Blue Cross, who are joining your peers and community leaders across Washington State to launch a new initiative, ensuring equitable COVID vaccinations for communities that are really devastated by the impact. And certainly our friends at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts have invested in helping target vaccine efforts in some of the most impacted communities in the state. Amazing work that they’re doing there. 

Lorina Marshall-Blake: 

And Peter, just to add to that, I think you said a key word, target, and that’s what we have to do. I heard Dr. Kumar talk about data. Again, the data is important. But one of my favorite sayings comes from Dr. Maya Angelou, where she says, “People won’t remember what you did, they won’t remember what you said, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.” Everybody, no matter where they are in the compendium has to know that they matter and that they’re important. And again, whether it’s the foundation or Independence or Vybe, it’s all about the community and how do we help the community to be healthier. 

Peter Panageas: 

Peter, if I can pivot back over to you, incredible work that Vybe has been doing in our region. Can you talk a little bit about what your experience nationally as well from your organization and partnerships that you’ve established? 

Peter Hotz: 

Sure, I’d be happy to. I actually serve on the board of the North East Regional Urgent Care Association, which as the name implies, is a group that represents urgent care centers. And it’s been interesting from the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of private physician offices had challenges staying open because of the community spread, because of the lack of PPE. And you also had a lot of individuals that just did not want to go to the hospital. And so they weren’t accessing the emergency room because of all the fears of contracting COVID. 

Peter Hotz: 

And urgent care centers have really stepped up and are proven themselves to be a great bridge between the hospital and the provider community, because of our presence, because of our access, because of the fact that we’re open seven days a week, and many other urgent care providers have been on the front lines of testing and are now on the front lines of vaccine administration. So it’s really great to see this industry, which this niche of healthcare has only been around for about 20 years, really step up and play a very prominent role as we all work to try to contain COVID. 

Lorina Marshall-Blake: 

Peter, I am so proud of the partnership that we have with CHOP and Penn, where we went out to vaccinate the teachers so we can get our children back to school, back in a safe place. I just think that has just been a wonderful partnership for the teachers and the professionals. And I’ve actually been on site at South Philadelphia High School where they’ve been vaccinating teachers. And again, they’re coming in, they’re excited about getting the vaccine and getting back to work and to getting back in place. I just think that has been such a phenomenal partnership that I wanted to make sure that I mentioned. 

Peter Panageas: 

Lorina, thank you for that. And yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think the three-pronged attack that we worked with the Philadelphia school district and certainly the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Independence and the work that we did there was really, really incredible work and really proud of the work that we did. And I know that you and your team was a really big part of really helping us orchestrate all that. Let me pivot here and ask Dr. Kumar, you and Lorina this question. When we talk about COVID-19 and the realities of the underserved communities and really targeting as we had talked about, Lorina just a minute ago, the element of just multi-generational families living in the same home. Lorina, if you can give us that perspective. And then from a clinical perspective, Dr. Kumar, the realities that we face there as well. 

Lorina Marshall-Blake: 

Thank you for asking me that, Peter. Even when you look at the housing in Philadelphia is row houses and the many cases, especially in your communities of color, you have these multi-generational families where you have the grandmother, because often the grandparents are the ones that look out for the children when they come home from school. And then you have their children, the sandwich generation I call it, that are taking care of them. But again, you have all of them in one house. So often when COVID occurs, I just spoke to someone the other day, it went through the whole family. Not only the mother, the father, the grandmother, but also the children got it too. So again, it’s just so important that they get the information, and I think that’s one of the things I say, communication, communication, communication. 

Lorina Marshall-Blake: 

When I look at what the Latinx community, where we go through CATE, which is the Community-Accessible Testing and Education group, where we’re working along with the Latino community and they especially are very family oriented and multi-generational families. Again, you go all the way from the children all the way up to the grandparents and great-grandparents. So I think it’s just important that we get that information to them and how important it is. And I’m going to pivot to Dr. Kumar, that they get tested, again, that they get the vaccine. And I think we have to be the leaders. I look at the Lorina Marshall-Blake, multi-generational family, where she has gone out and has in fact been on Instagram. Now, I haven’t been on TikTok and I’m not trying to get onto this point. Okay? But I’ve been on Instagram and I’ve been on Facebook talking about how important it is. And actually, there are visuals with me getting the vaccine. So again, that gives them again, trusted messengers with trusted messages. So I think that’s just so important. 

Reetika Kumar, MD: 

Can I just say I will pay to see Lorina on TikTok. 

Peter Panageas: 

I’ll echo that. As a matter of fact, maybe as a takeaway from our podcast here, because I’m not sure any of us here are on TikTok. So maybe the four of us should do some type of TikTok type of video and send that out. That would be classic. But Lorina, great perspective. And Dr. Kumar, love for you to pick up off of that. 

Reetika Kumar, MD: 

So I couldn’t agree with Lorina any anymore. We’ve seen that the COVID pandemic, it’s been devastating to families of color or communities of color and the racial disparities we’ve seen is the virus has been about four to nine times much more infectious or deadly in these communities than in their white counterparts. And a lot of it comes from it’s multi-generational families, it’s people working in those essential jobs and not having the adequate protective equipment when we needed it. It’s folks not having adequate testing. We knew from early on that 40% of disease spread happened from asymptomatic individuals. And now with the variants, we know that a lot of the spread is happening from kids. So it’s these older individuals that are probably still not vaccinated that are going to be at such high risk from the kids that are going to bring it from schools and from sports, especially contact sports. 

Reetika Kumar, MD: 

We know kids aren’t good at social distancing and keeping their masks on. If I had to get a dollar for every time I tell my kids not to touch their face when we’re outside and they have their masks on, I could probably retire tomorrow. So the reality is, is this pandemic has highlighted for us what we already knew, but it’s brought it to the forefront that there’s such racial disparities. And now we’re seeing it in the vaccine efforts. The access to vaccines is so limited for communities of color, just by virtue of how the system is structured. So I do know that a lot more thought is going into trying to combat that and thoughtfully coming up with access to care and setting up centers where people can easily go and get vaccinated and looking at mobile clinics, looking at home visits through home care, we’ve got to try and understand the problem because the solution has to be creative for everybody, it has to be different. And we really do need to pay attention to our communities of color. They’ve suffered a lot through this pandemic. 

Peter Panageas: 

Reetika, I appreciate you bringing that up. And this question will go over to Peter. We’re talking about making sure we can get access for individuals. Can you talk a little bit about the work that you all are doing relative to your mobile unit and how you’re going into the communities and making sure that we are targeting and hitting certain specific areas? 

Peter Hotz: 

I’d be happy to. As we mentioned, we have a collaboration with the city, the City of Philadelphia and the Public Health Department. And so they are maintaining lists by zip code of where the vaccination rates are high and where the vaccination rates are low. And so we are able to then look at specific targeted areas and bring this mobile unit into those areas. We work a lot with the groups that Lorina mentioned. We work with churches, other faith-based organizations, other community associations. 

Peter Hotz: 

And we actually, rather than just making the vaccination appointments open to the public, because what happens then is the people that are the most facile on the computer, find the appointment and get there. A lot of times, the people in these areas don’t have access to the internet. They don’t understand how to get on there and get the appointment. So rather than making these appointments available to the public, we go to these organizations and say, we have 100 slots, we want you to fill these 100 slots with people from your church or your community association that most need the vaccine. So that’s how we’re reaching out in that type of partnership to bring the vaccine to the people that need it the most. 

Lorina Marshall-Blake: 

I just want to applaud you. Just before I got on this call, I was on the phone with our pastor and he was just saying that a mobile unit had gone out to one of our members who’s home bound and she was so excited and she was like 92 to get her vaccine. So I just want to say thank you because I’m sure it was one of your units and one of your nurses. So again, I think it just emphasizes that we have to go to where the people are. They’re not necessarily going to be able to come to us because of barriers with regard to transportation or the fact that they can’t even get out of their homes. That just happened before I got on the call. So I just want to say thank you, Peter, for all the great work that you’re doing. 

Peter Hotz: 

Thank you. I was particularly struck by the comments that Lorina and Reetika made about the communities. As we mentioned, our centers are throughout the city and we try to employ our clinical staff from those communities so they can relate to the people that they’re serving. Many of our frontline clinicians, both our medical assistants and x-ray techs, as well as our physician assistants and physicians are younger adults that have kids and are also living with their parents. 

Peter Hotz: 

So these stories of people being concerned, and we lived this from the very early days of the pandemic with people being so concerned about having PPE and being safe and not bringing this home to their families. And now to have this flipped to where those same individuals, our employees are at the Independence Live site are giving the vaccines, are seeing the joy in people’s faces from getting the vaccines, are seeing children bringing their grandparents in to get the vaccine and they’re hugging, and it’s really touching for our staff. And they’re getting such personal satisfaction out of being on the frontline of hoping to help us move beyond this pandemic with the dispensing of the vaccines. 

Lorina Marshall-Blake: 

Peter, you just triggered another thought. I participated with our national sorority, The Divine Nine, which are all the Greek organizations around the country. And we actually had a day where we brought our parents and our grandparents to a site, and it was a church site, so that they could get vaccinated. And so again, when I look at this, it really is a family affair, whether you’re in business, whether you’re the community, whether you’re faith-based. In other words, the family has to rally so that we can ensure that everyone has the opportunity to get the vaccine. 

Peter Panageas: 

The element of getting the vaccine, I know from my personal perspective, having been fully vaccinated via the Moderna vaccination recently, as early as last Sunday actually, for the first time in over a year, my family and I got together at my cousin’s restaurant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. And it was incredible to be with my aunts and my uncles and my cousins, my wife, my sister, we were all together. We were obviously social distanced. We wore our masks going in and out of the restaurant. We took all the protective measures that one would normally do. Thank God my entire family is vaccinated. And from a mental perspective, a mental and behavioral perspective, it was such a, I can’t explain it, like a relief, right? It just felt like a source of normalcy for us. And it wasn’t me just saying that, it was my entire family who was all saying that. So Reetika, I’d love to get your perspective on it and certainly Lorina, you as well. 

Reetika Kumar, MD: 

Peter, I’ll say vaccines have truly been that ray of hope through this pandemic. In April, June of 2020, a lot of us as clinicians, and you know me, I’m a glass half full kind of girl, but most of us were a bit skeptical that we’d have a vaccine by the end of the year and be able to get it in arms beginning of ’21, but we made it happen. We made it happen because of the immense amount of funding that went into it and all the scientists actually collaborated instead of everybody doing their own. And here we are. And I, like you, got both my shots and last Monday marked my two weeks post my second shot. So I’m considered fully vaccinated. And it’s a great feeling. 

Reetika Kumar, MD: 

My kids have not seen their grandma, my husband’s mom, in over a year, in person. And so I had to bring certain family members across the finish line and convince them why they should get the vaccine. But a lot of it has to do with the human connection and being able to go back to some normalcy of a life, being able to feel and touch the people that we love and get to hug them. Your mental health, the pandemic has really shown us its impact, not just on physical health and sickness that you can see with respiratory conditions or people dying. It’s the immense impact it’s had on people’s mental health. Mental health conditions have gone up almost five-fold in 2020 than they were ever before. So it’s the anxiety, it’s the depression, it’s the social isolation. It’s the feeling of the unknown, not knowing what lies ahead, feeling like you’re constantly fighting this demon that you can’t see, but you’ve given it a name. 

Reetika Kumar, MD: 

But we’re not alone in it and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s our choice to make it a true light or an incoming train. And that’s why I say let’s all get vaccinated. The CDC guidelines laid out. If you’re vaccinated, you can hang out with other people that are vaccinated, without masks. But if you’re around people that are not vaccinated, it’s so important to keep doing what we’ve done, keep wearing your masks, keep social distancing, and we can together beat this thing. 

Lorina Marshall-Blake: 

Yes. You know what? I put on my Reverend Blake hat. I can’t help but say amen. 

Peter Panageas: 

Amen. 

Lorina Marshall-Blake: 

To everything that Reetika said. Again, many of you know, I am a hugger. So the hardest thing for me is not to be able to see either Reetika or Peter in the parking lot and just hug them or just reach out and touch them. And I think what the vaccine has offered for all of us is, to some degree of normalcy, that we can hug again. 

Lorina Marshall-Blake:

I was with my niece and nephew the other day and we had a meal together, and we were hugging. And again, it’s that, I call it the human touch, or you heard me say earlier the high touch. And it was funny this morning, I have this little box. And when you started talking about light Reetika, the quote for the day in my little box which is called shine, it says, “The sunshine’s not us, but in us.” So we have to be the light. We have to be the ones to show folks that yes, the vaccine, the efficacy, the importance of it, it’s important that you do it now. And the other thing, take what we’ve said in our commercials that together we can beat COVID-19. And I’ve said it over and over again, I hear it when I’m in the car, but I just believe that we can. And I think the human spirit is how do we get across this finish line? And more importantly, how do we get across it together and preferably hugging? 

Peter Panageas: 

Well with that said, I want to thank Reetika, Lorina and Peter for being with us today. An incredible discussion on an incredibly important topic and your contributions today were so invaluable. So thank you all so much for being with us. 

Reetika Kumar, MD: 

Thank you. 

Lorina Marshall-Blake: 

Thank you. 

Peter Hotz: 

My pleasure. 

Peter Panageas: 

I also want to thank our listeners for tuning in and listening to our podcast. And please check out the show notes for more information at insights.ibx.com. So if you have a question about COVID-19 that was not addressed today, simply email us at thecoverstory@ibx.com and be sure to tune into next month’s episode, where we will be celebrating the nurses who’ve been on the frontlines in our fight against COVID-19. Thanks everybody again for joining and have a great day. 

Peter S. Panageas

About Peter S. Panageas

Peter Panageas is senior vice president and market president — national for Independence Blue Cross. In this role, Mr. Panageas has profit-and-loss responsibilities focused on new business and retention for all groups 1,000+, including Large Local, National, Health & Welfare, Education, and FEP. Mr. Panageas joined independence as vice president of Sales in 2010. During his tenure with the company, he has implemented significant changes to the sales incentive program and improved the membership reporting capabilities to increase sales force effectiveness. Mr. Panageas is a respected client relationship leader with recognized expertise in new business creation, client relationship management, and innovative client solutions. Mr. Panageas received a bachelor of science degree from Rutgers University.