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Changing Hearts and Minds, One Conversation at a Time: COVID-19 Vaccine Volunteer Stories, Part 2

As the nation marks the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 mRNA vaccine authorizations, the Penn Medicine News Blog reached out to several individuals who participated in the Moderna vaccine trials to learn about their experiences over the past year and how being vaccinated has impacted their lives. In the first part of this two-part series, we met a retired retail worker, a Black scientist focused on vaccine equity, and a school nurse.

Adrian Reynolds
Adrian Reynolds

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

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. “My wife to this day laughs at me: ‘You thought you had the real shot!’” Reynolds chuckles. “I guess I psyched myself out.” 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.

Being fully vaccinated was “like an anchor off my mind, so my attitude kind of changed and I focused on getting all my family members vaccinated,” says Reynolds. Indeed, in the past year most of Reynolds’ family members have rolled up their sleeves, even the sister who’s a nurse practitioner in Las Vegas and who initially warned him against being in the Moderna trial: “She started seeing people coming in with COVID so she did some more research and got it as soon as it was available, no hesitation.”

Although Reynolds was delighted to finally gather with his family for the holidays this year, after celebrating with just his mother last Christmas, he is wistful about the ways the pandemic has changed so much. His younger daughter missed out on many high-school senior milestones — no prom and a virtual graduation celebration — and though she’s now flourishing in-person as a Penn undergrad, some of her friends “were never the same,” as Reynolds puts it. He also misses workplace camaraderie, as most of his team are working from home some days, making in-person meetings and events moot: “Cohesion isn’t as tight as it used to be.”

Looking back over the year, even though Reynolds didn’t get the vaccine his first go-around in the trial, he’s glad to have participated in the research. “If I could do it again, I’d do it again,” he muses. “If you have the opportunity to get something that might protect you, why not do it?”

For Family, For Community

Miguel Paniagua
Miguel Paniagua, MD

That was top of mind for Miguel Paniagua, MD, too. The adjunct professor of Palliative Care in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, 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.

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.” Participating in the study would also allow him to “walk the walk and talk the talk when trying to speak with patients and others about why it’s important to get the vaccine and why it’s important to do things like enrolling in studies.”

Paniagua has done a lot of talking since being in the active-vaccine group of the trial over one year ago.

He’s talked to elected officials — a first for him — after his son, a Marine, caught COVID-19 at boot camp. “I was so frustrated because at the time I had gotten a vaccine, but yet he was amongst all these young men spreading the virus around,” Paniagua says. “I called my Congressperson and my Senators and said, ‘You know, we need to take better care of our military.’”

He has talked to people he meets in daily life, like the vaccine-hesitant Uber driver who listened to Paniagua’s story about his son: “By the end of the trip he wanted my cell phone number. He wanted me to talk to his family and he was going to go get his vaccine also.”

He has talked to patients and their families. “Over the course of the last 18 months, I was seeing younger people healthier than me that were dying of complications of COVID on the palliative care service, and it was crushing,” Paniagua recalls, his voice pained. “A year ago, our list of patients was half- or more filled with COVID-positive people. Today, there’s typically not a single COVID patient on that list.” He uses this example to show how the vaccine has protected people from the worst that the virus can do.

Being vaccinated has allowed Paniagua to resume, in a cautious way, some semblance of a normal life, like going to restaurants or concerts that require proof of vaccination. “When they check my ID and my vaccine pass, I’m always very deliberate about thanking them for doing that,” he notes.

Paniagua was “doubly thankful” at Thanksgiving and delighted by the idea of spending this Christmas with family members: “If the pandemic has taught us anything as a family, it’s that we need each other and we need the closeness and we need the togetherness. It’s not the same over Zoom.”

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