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Vaccine trial participant and CNN correspondent’s big reveal. Was it the placebo or the real thing?

My Covid vaccine trial routine is automatic now. Twice a week, I attest via an app that I am not experiencing any Covid-like symptoms. Every 35 days or so, I head into the offices of Ark Clinical for a physical assessment and for the nurses to draw my blood — a chance to check on my antibody production or lack thereof.

But this appointment is going to be different. Since my last check-up, Johnson & Johnson has been granted emergency use authorization for its single-shot Covid vaccine. As a thank you for those of us who participated in the randomized, phase three vaccine trial, the company is unblinding participants and administering the vaccine to the placebo group.

I am looking forward to this unblinding with the same exuberance I had as a kid the week of Christmas. All of those presents under the tree just waiting to be opened! But this time, my present is protection against a deadly virus — an inoculation that is literally saving lives.

My goal from day one has been to help the nation overcome vaccine hesitancy and to encourage people — particularly people of color — to trust the vaccines. Since I joined the trial, my efforts have been highlighted on and in Essence magazine. I’ve had a few friends tell me that my participation encouraged them to get vaccinated. On social media, some people have said they would consider getting a shot now. I count all of these as wins, but I know there are some minds that will be harder to change.

Jamecka Britton, a 35-year-old Black woman living in Atlanta, is one of these people hesitant to get the vaccine. Originally from Memphis, TN, she has a bright smile that she says is consistently hidden behind a N95 mask everywhere she goes. She also has a warm sense of humor. I know because we have continued to message each other about the nation’s push to vaccinate as many people as possible — one making a point, the other countering. The messages are often dotted with goodhearted GIFs. What makes her stance more noteworthy to me is that she also happens to be a registered nurse.

Britton, who’s been treating Covid-19 patients since the pandemic began, says the virus has touched every part of her community.

“It’s been extremely, extremely difficult,” Britton told me. “When it first started, I remember I would come home just crying.”

She told me of the myriad of people she knows who have died from the coronavirus — beyond the patients she’s treated in the hospital. Their loss has also impacted her.

“To see patients in their twenties with no preexisting health conditions,” she said, adding, “…they walked into the hospital, thought they had a cold and the next day there was a ventilator and the doctor said basically there’s nothing else that they can do.”

Yet despite all she’s experienced because of Covid, she is still not vaccinated.

“I’m not against vaccines,” Britton clarified right away. “I just feel like there needs to be more testing done on the vaccine to ensure that it’s safe.”

As I’ve reported on vaccine hesitancy, I’ve spoken to many people of color about their fears and I’ve done some research to fully understand why this hesitancy persists. On my morning walks, I listened to Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” and from 2007, Harriet A. Washington’s “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.”

From the decades long Tuskegee experiment where doctors withheld treatment for syphilis from unwitting Black men to the harvesting of a piece of a cancerous tumor from Henrietta Lacks in the 1950s — tissue that came to be known as HeLa cells that continued to be the focus of study and medical breakthroughs for years — all without her knowledge, there are undoubtedly some high-profile examples of medical professionals using Black Americans for experimentation without their consent.

However, while speaking with Britton and thinking back to what I gleaned from my research, I realize that it’s likely that a less sensational and more personal history of individual infractions of the doctor/patient contract may really be the base for the suspicion of the science behind these new vaccines.

It is the myriad of surgeries, amputations and tests endured on a case-by-case basis by Blacks and other people of color that ultimately may have disrupted a relative’s quality of life in order for the doctors to study or perfect a technique before offering the improved skill or medicine to their White patients. Oral histories of medical wrongdoing and disrespect have been shared in many Black families, leading to generations of fear and mistrust.

“I talk about it daily with my family actually. And to be quite honest, we’re all very, very hesitant about getting the vaccine given the history of the malpractice and negligence in the African American community,” Britton shared, acknowledging this reality in her own roots. “I do have, you know, relatives who have expressed their concern to me about, testing and being, quote unquote, lab rats as Black people for vaccines.”

“I guess it would probably be shocking to you to know that I enrolled in a vaccine trial,” I told her, interested in how she would respond.

“No, seriously?” she replied, genuinely surprised. “I’m impressed. I’m honestly impressed.”

I told her that I joined the trial to help neutralize the fear — a fear I understand and that needs to be acknowledged. “But I also know that this is a different time. And the one thing that has happened in America that is the good is that we have lots of health professionals that look like you, that look like me, that look like our cousins, who are now at the forefront of designing and understanding the research and technology into making these vaccines,” I explained.

What I’m trying to figure out, I tell Britton, is what, if anything, could be done to get people to get their shots.

“I have seen many of my colleagues who have received the vaccine and that does sway me more toward being vaccinated. However, I would still like to see a large, number of African Americans receive the vaccine,” Britton explained. “A lot of physicians of color that I know are not willing to receive the vaccine so that still makes me hesitant.”

“So, if you saw doctors across the country and we got a lot of Black doctors, that would help?” I asked.

“That would help,” she replied.

This is an angle being addressed by the Black Coalition Against Covid and the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is highlighting Black scientists, doctors and nurses endorsing the vaccines in a question-answering montage of on-camera interviews and testimonials with comedian and host of CNN’s “United Shades of America” W. Kamau Bell.

“When the vaccine went in, I felt this intense amount of honor,” says Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, president of Morehouse School of Medicine, in the video.

Of course, I sent the video to Nurse Britton — followed by a picture of one of my doctors, who happens to be a Black woman, getting her inoculation.

The whole point is to add more voices to the mix from people of color who are proudly letting the world know that they got their shot and encourage others to do the same. The goal is to get more people vaccinated so we can live long and healthy lives and move on past this pandemic.

‘This is the big moment!’

As for me, as I wait to find out if I got the real vaccine or placebo in December, I go back and forth in my head about which category I think I fall in. The animals in the framed prints on the wall — and ode to Ark Clinical’s name — stare back at me. I hope the rising tide of vaccinations help lift us all.

“This is the big moment!” said Dr. Kenneth Kim, medical director and CEO of Ark Clinical Research, as he entered the room. Neither of us know my vaccination status yet. Nurse practitioner Amber Mottola hands him a sheet of paper. “Ok, so we will look at this together,” Dr. Kim said to me. “So what does it say?”

“I got the placebo!” I read out loud, Dr. Kim echoing the same words. I thought I had gotten the real thing.

While it turns out I wasn’t vaccinated before, I was about to be. Mottola already had a needle ready.

My Covid vaccine trial experience has been all upside. I got to see up close how these trials work; I feel better informed to have conversations about vaccine hesitancy and now I get the gift of inoculation. “Either way, today is a good day,” I tell them.

“Thank you for being a pioneer because if it wasn’t for people like you who volunteer we would never have gotten this vaccine approved,” Dr. Kim said in response before giving me the game plan. “We are going to mark down the time we administer your dose and then after that there will be an observation of 15 minutes.”

“Okay! I’m still very excited,” I exclaimed, the smile on my face evident even with my mask on.

“You waited a long time for this, and you deserve it!” Mottola said to me as she cleaned a spot on my arm and glided the needle in. “One, two — Full dose!”

“Oh yeah! That definitely felt differently,” I said, noting that the vaccine felt heavier going into my arm than the placebo had.

“Vaccinated!” both Amber and Dr. Kim said with cheer.

With just one shot, I’m now getting the protection I wish for all Americans. Over the next two weeks, my body will fully build up its response against the deadly coronavirus.

Under my mask, I still can’t stop smiling.

Article Topic Follows: National-World

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