It was in the lonely heat of the COVID-19 summer that vaccines began to feel like a real possibility, and I, feeling stuck inside and helpless, signed up for every clinical trial I could find. Facebook ads, newspaper stories — you name it — I chased down the phone number or online form that would allow me to raise my virtual hand. Although I could not care for the sick or swab nasal cavities or join the 7 p.m. cacophony of a city thank-you symphony, I could offer up my arm. The risk of an unproven dose seemed minimal compared to the unpredictability of COVID itself, which left some untouched and others struggling for breath. What was a poke, a few side effects, to all that?
In November, I got an invitation to join the Johnson & Johnson Ensemble trial at Rutgers University-New Brunswick in New Jersey. Forty thousand people around the world, half getting the vaccine, the other half sugar water or whatever they put in the vials. I’d have to drive almost two hours for each appointment, and my dread of needles and instinctive distrust of anyone in authority asking invasive personal questions resurfaced. While I sat waiting for my shot just a week later, poked and prodded, questioned and queasy, my blood pressure high, I was flooded with doubts. What if I had a reaction? Some unexpected health condition?
But what I felt in the days after I drove away from New Brunswick can only be described as elation. I was more energetic, clearer. My allergies even seemed to subside. I joked that this must be either the placebo effect or vitamin B12 they put in the shot. I felt so good, but inside, I was certain that I had gotten the vaccine and it was working its magic.
I had been shot with hope.
As the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines came out, and we all debated efficacy rates and eligibility categories, I was serene, even as people asked me: When will you know? What was important was that those most vulnerable were taken care of. I’d know soon enough. It wasn’t until my February follow-up, when I was told the sponsor expected to unblind the study (to inform participants whether we got the vaccine or the placebo) in early March, that the seeds of impatience sprouted. I imagined holding that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention card proving I’d gotten the vaccine. A friend extended an invitation to her place in Florida, and I could feel the sun on my skin. Freedom.
On the last Saturday in February, when the FDA announced that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had been approved for emergency use, I checked my email. Soon I was checking two, three times a day. Irritation set in. Then, 10 days later, New York State announced that workers like me were eligible. My university colleagues were getting appointments at Aqueduct Racetrack and upstate in Utica.
I called and demanded to be unblinded. I did not mention Florida.
An overworked clinician said I’d have to wait until the doctor called me. Probably next week, she sighed.
That night, as I was finishing dinner, my cellphone rang. It was the doctor in charge at the New Brunswick site. His voice was patient in what must have been Hour 12 in one of a yearlong series of long days. "I like to ask before I unblind people," he said, "do you think you got the vaccine? Or do you think you got the placebo?"
I said vaccine. I got the vaccine. And without hesitation, he said, "Nope. You got the placebo."
For a moment, I felt foolish, even deflated.
If you need to get the shot somewhere else, you can, he said. But we’d like to offer you the vaccine, next week, likely, and you can stay in the study for the next two years. We need to track people.
I thought about the long drive to New Brunswick, being poked, blood drawn, taking time off work, now for a vaccine I could get soon closer to home in Nassau County. I gazed out into the yard, the lights of my neighbors’ houses glowing warmly, and I imagined all of us throwing our doors open, out and about, and then even sitting across from an old friend in a restaurant, laughing with a crowd in a theater. Hugging someone.
I realized then this doctor had stayed long into the evening to deliver this news to me. Thanks to scientists like him, who are literally working day and night, and to all of us willing to roll up our sleeves and take a poke in the arm, we might see the other end of this. Live our lives with others, once again.
I decided I could wait. But it turned, I didn’t have to. On Friday, I made that long drive to Jersey and got vaccinated. Suddenly, that dinner with a friend didn’t seem so far off.
Melissa Connolly is vice president for university relations at Hofstra University.
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