Albanian Doctor: We Still Need To Be Careful, To Give Time To Science To Finalize The Vaccine

Dr. Pashko Rr Camaj is one of the public health authorities in the Albanian community in the US. During this year he has been at the forefront of efforts to educate Albanian-Americans regarding the coronavirus epidemic.
This interview with him, in addition to discussing some of the latest developments in this regard, also offers the opportunity to get to know him a little better as a professional, compatriot, and human being.
The conversation sheds some light on the extraordinary journey of his life, which starts from Tuzi to Malësia, in a regime and system where the opportunities of Albanians for education and political representation were limited and in some non-existent directions. She then goes on to emigrate across the border in the trunk of a car, to her doctorate at Columbia University and a life in the service of our community, public health and reputation.
These interviews that are about many things at once are not enough to give the full dimensions of this extraordinary life story. But it is a treasure trove of human events that sleep forgotten in our community.
The purpose of the conversation is certainly to continue educating our readers about the great dangers and opportunities that coexist in this period of pandemic, about the hopes of salvation from it and the measures we can take to ensure the survival of the most endangered people around us.

Doctor, New York was one of the world’s three largest epicenters of the spring epidemic, but we had a few quiet months as the numbers rose across America. Now it seems to me that a kind of second wave is coming here as well. (Since the beginning of November we have gone from 2000+ to almost 5000 per day new cases with almost 500 young people hospitalized with COVID-19.) How preventable or how unavoidable is this? What should be done?

This is true; In the entire region, including New York, after the outbreak of the pandemic, in the spring months, specifically during the summer months, we have seen a significant decrease in the number of infected. These declines were the result of several commitments that slowed down and controlled the spread of the virus and the number of those infected. The infection rate in the spring months was over 20%, while at the end of September it was about 0.5%. Undoubtedly, commitments, starting with quarantines, increasing testing, implementing physical distance and using face masks, and masks, have been key to slowing the spread of the virus, and reducing the number of infected, during this period. During the summer months, we were more out, and it was easier to keep our distance,
I want to emphasize that in the US, we are still in the first wave of the pandemic. In a way, the spread of the coronavirus so far continues to be more like a series of outbreaks than a wave. The Covid-19 pandemic, in the US, is affecting different areas across the country, in different ways, and at different times. We have seen that parts of the country that experienced severe outbreaks during the spring experienced a recovery. Other countries have not had many cases, and some states are only now experiencing an increase in Covid-19. Even in areas that have reported declining numbers of infections and deaths, localized outbreaks continue to occur “super-spreading” events – in which an infected person transmits the virus to many others, and these appear to be major drivers of outbreaks. that we see during this period. As well,
In response to the question of what will be done, the main strategy remains the elimination of conditions that favor widespread dissemination. Several factors have already been identified that increase the potential spread of the virus: staying indoors with poor ventilation, crowds close to each other, and close contacts. Therefore, to answer the question; should continue to be practiced with those actions that contributed to the decline in numbers, in order to “buy” time, until we end up with an effective and safe vaccine, which will stop this global pandemic.

Italy has had a trajectory similar to ours. There was a lot of talk about some statements of doctors where the virus is weakened, etc. However, just yesterday I saw that over 600 people had died in one day. We do not see anything similar in New York yet, but in the spring we were a month behind Italy on the “epidemic calendar”. Will we return here to the hundreds of dead a day?

-In its simplicity, viruses change or make multiple mutations in order for them to survive and spread. It is not ‘beneficial’ for the virus to kill its own (infected) host. It seems that the virus has ‘softened’ a bit, but not in the ease of its spread from person to person. I think in the US we are in a much better position to manage the situation now than we were a few months ago. And if we move on to a second wave, we have now learned a lot more about this virus. We have learned more about how the virus spreads and is exposed to it. We have learned that we need to take special care of people who belong to the most vulnerable group, the elderly and those who have weakened immunity as a result of diseases or pre-existing health conditions. But more, and just as important, we have learned to treat infections better, we have managed to improve medicines and find much more effective medicines, and all this is reflected in a relatively low mortality and virulence rate of this virus, compared to the spring months. All this gives me hope that in New York with districts, we will not go back to the months of last spring.

Albanians always seem to me more endangered than others mainly for cultural and social reasons. Large families live together or gather often. People are very sociable and gather in groups. Men are especially ashamed of protection measures in public, etc. What advice or message would you have for our community?

– This is true! We are generally a little closer than others, so we tend to hang out more with each other. I have noticed an interesting thing, that many of us tend to minimize this problem, especially with public statements, but privately we try to actually practice the recommendations we have talked about. So we notice very well that many of our cultural activities that are current during the ordinary years are not happening this year, including social events, weddings, etc. I see that these activities, even if they occur, are in much smaller numbers, and people are following the instructions, trying to practice social distance and the use of face masks and masks.

This ignorance of the risk is perhaps understandable that some public figures, including President Trump, who is relatively old in age, has entered for 75 years, and very overweight, passed it without much trouble. Now not everyone has the quality of the president’s health care, but the fact remains that many are recovering. On the other hand, we have cases of relatively young people dying. How should these cases be read?

-There are many factors that can play a role in the approach of infection. In the vast majority of cases, we have seen mortality in older people and we in pre-existing conditions with one or two comorbidities. We have also seen, people who have been healthy, but who unfortunately are seriously ill, some have even died. These can also be the consequences of various factors, starting with the ‘viral load’ and the period when medical treatment started and whether it was timely treatment or only when the initial symptoms were ignored, and medical care was delayed. The figures clearly show, however, that such cases are relatively rare.

These days there was hopeful news about the vaccine. One of the four or five main competitors seems to have successfully passed the final stage. Or so it claims (I read some reviews waiting for more details from Pfizer, which may come out when they apply for FDA approval). What is the perspective with this? Will it come on time? When can it be mass produced? Will people accept it?

– From the beginning, in all my writing I have done, I have said that an effective and safe vaccine is essential, controlling, and ending the pandemic. This week’s news is welcome and great news. Not only Pfizer but also other pharmaceutical organizations are on the verge of vaccine discovery. Efficacy above 90%, and without obvious side effects, which are the two main factors that are needed to approve a vaccine, are promising news, not only for the US, but worldwide. As an illustration, the effectiveness of the flu vaccine for the seasons ranges from 30-50%, and very rarely, it can reach an efficiency of 60%. The research that has been done in this area is unprecedented. For an ordinary vaccine, it takes years. This time, it looks like we will have the vaccine in less than a year! Although we are very skeptical, not only about this vaccine, but about vaccines in general, I believe the vaccine will be ready before the new year, and we expect millions of doses in early December. They will initially be given to those most at risk (the elderly and the medical and emergency staff), and later, until the beginning of spring, this vaccine will be in use for the general public, which will enable the start of the return to normalcy.

Doctor, I would like to know something more personal about you. Because you are on the path of doctors and community scientists who have tried to educate Albanian-Americans about health problems, like Dr. Agim Leka etc. When did you come to the US? Did you come with family or yourself? How is the story? Can you also tell me from which national lands the parents are?

– I came to the US through the southern border, in the trunk of a car when I was 20 years old, obviously like many others from our generation, through difficulties, but thankfully we found support from family and relatives who were here before. My family originates from our autochthonous part in Montenegro, from the area of ​​Malësia, respectively from Tuzi. There we have our almost millennial roots. Unfortunately, the events that took place in these places during the last century caused a large number of us to end up in this country. As a teenager, I started life in the US like many others, work and commitment. I was lucky enough to start a family at the same time and continue with my dream, schooling in this country that gives you the opportunity to achieve what often seems impossible!

How did you decide to enter the field of public health? What motivated you to choose it as a profession and where did you study and work?

– As a young man, in my hometown, I wanted to study medicine. My education in Montenegro ended in a pre-medical school, with the hope of being able to enroll in the medical faculty, which I tried in 1983 at the medical faculty in Prishtina. Unfortunately, and due to various factors, including the fact that we were thousands of applicants for only 300-400 places, I was not accepted. It was one of the most depressing days of my life! After 2 years, I decided to leave the country and ended up in the United States. At age 28, I began my undergraduate and graduate studies at New York City University in the field of environment and public health sciences. Later, and as a result of my university path, I received my PhD from Columbia University. I want to say that my scientific work has been exactly related to Kosovo, so in a way complete my mission from early youth. My scientific work with researchers from Columbia University has dealt with the long-term effects of lead air pollution from lead smelter operations in Mitrovica. One of these studies was published in the “Journal of Environmental and Public Helath” in 2018. I was lucky to continue my professional and academic career along with these. Namely I am a senior director in the health and safety office at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (a public transportation organization with 60,000 employees, in New York). I am also an external professor in public health, ecology and epidemiology at Lehman College and William Paterson University.

You are also active in the community, as vice president of Vatra. Recently you were in Washington before the talks with Kosovo and Serbia. How important is this participation to you?

– I have tried to contribute to our national cause in the ways I have had the opportunity. I did this as a member of the leadership of the Pan-Albanian Federation-Vatra, now also in the capacity of one of its vice presidents. I think that the participation in Washington during the US-Kosovo-Serbia talks was important, not for myself, but to show that the Albanians in this country will continue to be a bridge and supporter of our national cause. We must be willing to support our people, to negotiate, to be able to speak, and to be deciding factors for their future. We have seen that for several years, almost nothing has been done on the issue of Kosovo, we have seen a stagnation, which harms our future. I believe that the talks with Serbia, especially when we have our lifelong friend the US,

I thank you for the information and articles you have shared with the newspaper “Illyria”, in the media, on Facebook and other social networks, to educate the public. In this period of disbelief and false news, baseless hysteria, and magic recipes and cures, we desperately need reliable and professional information. What do you think is the best way to find out?

– As you know, we live in the ‘information age’, whose speed, unfortunately, can often be misused. In particular, on social networks, but often in other, more credible circles, we see false stories and information. I think these platforms are important, but we have to be careful how and from whom this information comes. We must use these platforms to disseminate information, but be careful that the information is relevant, as accurate as possible, and most importantly, relevant and useful to humanity.

What is your short message to Albanian-Americans in New York and the US? But even for our readers everywhere, in terms of pandemic risk?

– From the beginning, and during all this dark time we have all lived, my message has been clear and consistent. I encourage and urge your readers to continue to be vigilant as much as possible, to continue with the practices of these past 8-9 months; by practicing good hygiene, by maintaining social distance, and by using masks or face masks. As we continue our search for a more effective therapy, and now that we are on the verge of a vaccine, which will soon be available, we must be extremely careful. Give time to science in finalizing the vaccine, the distribution of which will be the last beginning of this pandemic — and a return to normalcy for all mankind. Ruben Avxhiu / Illyria