COVID-19 vaccine volunteers share their stories, one year later

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The FINANCIAL —  Within the space of one momentous week in December 2020, vaccines to prevent COVID-19 from both Pfizer–BioNTech and Moderna became the first mrRNA vaccines authorized for widespread use, according to University of Pennsylvania.

The rollout of the vaccine helped address the urgency of the pandemic and served as a testament to the scientific advancements made possible following years of mRNA research. The authorizations were based on data from tens of thousands of vaccine trial participants, some of whom participated in the Moderna trials at Penn Medicine.

These volunteers played a critical role in providing much needed hope—in addition to crucial data showing the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines—as COVID-19 cases continued to surge.

Several individuals who participated in the Moderna trials at Penn Medicine share what motivated them to volunteer and how their experiences over the past year have changed now that growing numbers of people have had the opportunity to be vaccinated—and even boosted—to protect themselves and their communities from the worst effects of this disease.

For Ann Evans, a retired retail worker living in West Chester, Pennsylvania, participating in the Moderna trial was the perfect way to “get the vaccine out there” and show others that getting vaccinated was safe during a time when the United States was recording thousands of COVID-related deaths each day.

As a postdoctoral researcher with the department of Cell & Developmental Biology in the Perelman School of Medicine, Suean Fontenard has been participating in clinical trials since grad school.

She was also already familiar with much of the research behind the vaccines. Her motivation for participating in the “high-stakes” trial was geared toward ensuring inclusivity while a global pandemic raged.

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“The Black population is underrepresented in clinical trials, which is very disheartening since we make up such a large portion of the population,” Fontenard shares. “I decided to sign up because I wanted there to be data across the board, rather than having one demographic primarily represented.”

Adrian Reynolds, area manager for Facilities and Real Estate Services at Penn, was the first in his family to get vaccinated—despite several obstacles, according to University of Pennsylvania

For one, his friends and family members urged him not to sign up for the clinical trial of the vaccine to help collect the data that led to its authorization. “In our community there’s always this level of skepticism, and it’s sometimes difficult to get past that,” Reynolds explains.

But being a person of color is one of the main reasons why he actually decided to participate in the trial, so that his community would be represented. “Also, I had read up on the vaccination process and wanted to see if something could help me not get COVID,” admits Reynolds.

He didn’t know about his second obstacle at the time: He ended up in the placebo arm of the trial—even though he was so fatigued after the first shot that he was sure he’d gotten the vaccine. Luckily, study participants in the placebo arm were then offered the actual vaccine before most other people were authorized to receive it. That’s when Reynolds got his COVID-19 vaccine.

Miguel Paniagua, an adjunct professor of palliative care in the Perelman School of Medicine, who also serves as associate vice president of Assessment, Operations, and Medical Education for the National Board of Medical Examiners, enrolled in the Moderna study to protect himself and his family from COVID-19.

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He also did it because as a Latino, he saw the way “people of color are having the most devastating outcomes from this disease”; and because as a health care provider, he felt it was a duty “much as it is to decide to give a unit of blood every few months.”

Mary Kerstetter, a school nurse at Fountain Woods Elementary School in Burlington Township, New Jersey, decided to join the vaccine trials for the potential to help her third, fourth, and fifth grade students.

“I saw how the kids’ education was getting disrupted, and I felt like I needed to do what I could to get the students back into school,” Kerstetter says. “Participating in the trial felt like a good way to do that.”

Twelve months into the vaccination effort, the focus on health equity has led to tangible results, as Penn Medicine distributed more vaccine doses in Philadelphia than any other health system or nonprofit, with its ratios of vaccinations close to the city’s racial and ethnic make-up. Roughly one in 20 people vaccinated in Philadelphia received their shot from a Penn Medicine provider.

 

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