In July I received a telephone call from a Nurse Coordinator that I have completed several clinical trials with as a participant. In December 2019, I wrapped a two-year Chikungunya virus vaccine trail I was in. I always enjoyed my visits in person and by telephone with Deb over the years, and so we had become more friends than researcher and subject. She knew I had taken a job as a healthcare manager, primarily overseeing staff in the Emergency Room. She told me she was beginning research with the COVID-19 vaccine, and asked me if I would be interested in participating. It was an easy yes for me because coronavirus was consuming every aspect of my life, in both my City Council duties and in hospital administration, as well as personally thwarting my love for music festivals and gathering with my friends and family.
Within a couple of weeks I had my first appointment where I arrived early in the morning and drew some blood, took a pregnancy test, a deep nasal swab, and received my first vaccination. It was a double-blind study, so neither my nurse nor I would know if I received the actual vaccine or a saline placebo. I was sent home with a new thermometer, added the trial app to report my symptoms to my smart phone, and a caliper tool to measure the redness at the injection site. For seven days I was to report any symptoms on an intensity scale, as well as the highest recorded fever I experienced that reporting day.
The first vaccination was very uneventful. I had some minor injection site redness, which is common for an intramuscular shot, and not much else. I was being tested every work day at my employer, and checked my temperature myself throughout the day and entered the information into the application on my phone. The last couple of days of my reporting period, the Derecho hit Cedar Rapids, shutting down phone lines and internet, complicating my ability to report my symptoms, but I instead manually recorded them and emailed them into the research team when cell phone reception came back online. In between appointments, every Friday, I would report out any symptoms I was experiencing. I had a card and direct line to a healthcare professional, should something come up in between appointments so that I could receive the necessary care to keep me safe as a participant.
Several weeks later, I appeared again early in the morning for my next appointment, at which I received another vaccination. I went about my day monitoring myself for symptoms like I had the first time, knowing I would do this again for 7 days from the date of injection. That evening I remember wanting to go see the lights in downtown Cedar Rapids on a socially distanced outing that my friend and I had thought were going to be turned to represent the colors of the 100 year anniversary of women earning the right to vote. There must have been a miscommunication that Thursday, because the lights were not purple and yellow, so we decided to catch up outside nonetheless. That evening, I opted away from an alcoholic beverage, because I was starting to feel off, which I explained to my friend, can happen sometimes during a research trial. By the time I returned home shortly later I was feeling pretty gross. I was an uncomfortable combination of feverish and having chills. I took my temperature and it was 101. I couldn’t get warm even though I was overly warm internally. I could have gotten up and gone about my day, but it was bedtime anyway and I encouraged myself to sleep off whatever this was after reporting my symptoms into the application. The next morning, I woke up early, preparing to go to work at the hospital, until I took my temperature. I still felt unwell, but the elevated 101 temperature remained, and I knew I would not pass my hospitals strict screening measures to control any coronavirus contaminants from entering their sterile environment. I called my Employee Health Center to report what I was experiencing, and gave them the information the study had given me, should I feel ill. My pain never exceeded a 4/10 on a pain scale, but knowing I would be sent home from work anyway, I let my Director know what was going on and started to wait out the advice of my research team and Employee Health for what I should do next.
After speaking with the research team, a nurse from Employee Health directed me to stay home—I would not need a COVID test pending how I felt the next day—and should continue reporting and monitoring my symptoms. A follow up call was scheduled with me to check in the next day, a Saturday. I took it easy that day, and did normal “sick day” compassionate care for myself. The next day, when the nurse checked in on me, other than muscle site soreness, which is normal, I was feeling fine. A 24-hour bout of mild-to-moderate uncomfortableness, and then I was going about my business. A few weeks later, I had my third appointment with the University of Iowa Research team, and had some more blood samples drawn and a deep nasal swab. I continued reporting weekly into the application on my phone every Friday since.
I have been so encouraged to see the recent news at the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine trail I have been participating in, has yielded results of 95% efficacy. Not long after, I read that Pfizer would be preparing to seek an emergency approval to begin administering their vaccine to the public outside of the vaccine trial parameters. I received an email notice that week as a trial participant, that I would receive notice as to whether I had actually received the vaccine once the emergency application to the FDA was approved. A couple of weeks ago, I was on a call with the Iowa League of Cities Executive Board, and started encouraging my municipally elected colleagues to prepare their localities for the distribution of the inevitable vaccine—the specialty freezers that were needed to store the vaccine could be a barrier to equitable distribution. Last week on Iowa Public Radio, I heard an encouraging story about how public health departments have been readying their stations that would ultimately disseminate the vaccine once it was ready. They were taking inventory of the sizes of the gloves and eyewear of their teams and figuring out when and where specialty freezers should be located, and how many vials they could hold. Just recently, the CDC advisory panel determined the prioritization of distribution for various persons in the community with healthcare workers, and most at-risk being prioritized for first rounds of vaccination. Yesterday, the news reported that Britain has approved the Pfizer trail for emergency use—the same one I was just on a birthday zoom call with my British auntie telling her about that I was in. Now, that same research I participated in, will help protect her, my cousins, and their young children. I am so incredibly hopeful for the implications of what to me, was just another research trail I was in. I have done so many from the days of being a Psychology undergraduate student, to those I saw advertised in University emails when I worked for the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
It’s important for me to share the experience I’ve had as a vaccine trail participant, because I want people to understand that I took this risk, along with tens of thousands of other participants in a riskier phase of the vaccine research, and that I’m okay. This trial, was not my first, and although there are fears that this has been rushed, it feels the same as any other trial I have participated in. I have always felt that my safety as a patient was a priority. Additionally that necessary risk I chose to take, and even the 24 hours that I was uncomfortable and that, as I tell my friends, that I didn’t “feel cute” was worth it. I feel confident that I was given the actual vaccine, but will have to wait a little longer to know for certain. For 24 hours of not feeling your best, we could get our world as we remembered it back. As we know the second, more concentrated dose of the vaccine likely elicits symptoms, we can plan for it. I feel like this is an opportunity that helps to remove the barriers that have kept me from hugging my grandmother who means the world to me and from seeing my new nephew who I haven’t been able to meet yet.
On December 10, the FDA will review the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine trail and then soon after, determine its ability to receive permission for emergency use. I feel as those we have had a brick wall erected around life as we know it, but each of these advancements, preparations, and steps forward are removing a brick from that wall, allowing an optimistic light to pour through. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and over the next year we will need to work together to facilitate its distribution to those in our community. Until then, we will love those we care about from a far just a little bit longer knowing hope is around the corner.