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First-person essay: Doing my part to end the pandemic 

Dec. 28, 2020, 2:32 PM

Kevin Johnson, MD, MS, took part in last summer’s Moderna COVID-19 vaccine trial. (photo by Susan Urmy)

by Kevin Johnson, MD, MS, FAAP, FACMI

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” In that spirit, please allow me to be vocal, opinionated, hopeful and forgiving.

From the beginning of the pandemic, it was clear each of us had to join ranks to save our loved ones and society from the ramifications of COVID-19. We could wear masks, social distance, and dispel myths and skepticism about the vaccine. As a pediatrician, chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics and member of the health care, LGBTQ, and African American communities, I am compelled by duty to do more. So in August 2020, I joined the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine trial. I’d like to tell you why.

Before joining the trial, my family and I were quick to find ways we could actively fight against the pandemic. We recognized many people in our country, including the African American community, were skeptical about the impact of this virus, so we used social media to magnify important messages to local and national audiences. I pivoted the focus of my podcast Informatics in the Round to issues around data sharing, mask-wearing, research on COVID-19, and finding trustworthy information about the virus. I eagerly wanted to give blood to mitigate the national blood supply shortage  but as a gay man that’s not an option for me. Restrictions prevent my husband and me from contributing in that way. It was then when we heard about the Moderna trial.

Vaccine studies are generally very safe; the study participants and I understood the risks were low. I also was fully cognizant that participation in the trial could improve the validity of the study — perhaps even the outcomes for underrepresented groups. The importance of showing the African American community that one of its members was a willing participant in the trial was not lost on me. It was an easy decision to enroll in the study to help our society get back to some semblance of normal.

The vaccine trial was incredibly well run. I enrolled online, attended an hour-long group Zoom call, completed a two-hour visit with the study team, and, finally, received an injection of either the vaccine or a saltwater placebo. I was required to report symptoms into a diary using a simple app on my phone. I also had periodic phone check-ins with the research team. There were some blood draws, too.

Here, I should note that while I can tolerate needle sticks, I don’t like pain. Drawing blood from a turnip is easier than getting it from me! Despite this, I believed my “voice” in the trial mattered too much for something as small as a needle to silence me. The four or so blood draws were a small price to pay.

I had no symptoms following my first injection. Two days after my second injection, I had some symptoms. I developed a mild fever (100 degrees) and chills, some underarm gland tenderness, and skin redness and swelling at the injection site. I also felt more tired than usual, but I was in touch with the study team, who was supportive and reassuring throughout this whole process. By day three, all of my symptoms disappeared!

I am honored to be a piece of the solution to a pandemic. I would do it again for all of us: my husband, our children, my parents, my friends, our patients, and our world. I’m sharing my story in hopes that you’ll get vocal to your circle of friends, family, and neighbors about why you’re getting this vaccine. I also realize that there are some who are either unwilling or unable to feel comfortable about this vaccine, even after reading the CDC website or the state of Tennessee COVID website. This is, of course, your choice. I’ll hope that through our action, the rest of us will help keep you and your loved ones safe.

We’re all in this pandemic together and thousands of us banded together to test the safety of these vaccines. I encourage everyone to receive this vaccine if you can do so. I want to particularly encourage the African American community, which has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, to step forward, receive this vaccine and spread the word to your families. Let’s put this pandemic behind us in 2021 — together.

Dr. Johnson is the Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics; professor of Pediatrics and Informatician-in-Chief, VUMC

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