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COVID-19 Vaccine Volunteers Share Their Stories: One Year Later

Ann Evans
Ann Evans

Within the space of one momentous week in December 2020, vaccines to prevent COVID-19 from both Pfizer–BioNTech and Moderna became the first mrRNA vaccines authorized for widespread use. The rollout of the vaccine helped address the urgency of the pandemic and served as a testament to the scientific advancements made possible following years of mRNA research. The authorizations were based on data from tens of thousands of vaccine trial participants, some of whom participated in the Moderna trials at Penn Medicine. These volunteers played a critical role in providing much needed hope — in addition to crucial data showing the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines — as COVID-19 cases continued to surge.

As the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 vaccine authorizations approaches, we’re following up with several individuals who participated in the Moderna trials at Penn Medicine to learn about what motivated them to volunteer and how their experiences over the past year have changed now that growing numbers of people have had the opportunity to be vaccinated — and even boosted — to protect themselves and their communities from the worst effects of this disease. These selfless individuals participated in the trials to help others — and they’ve continued helping others even after the authorization of the vaccine.

“Everyone has a different reason for doing things. My reason was simple.”

For Ann Evans, a retired retail worker living in West Chester, Pennsylvania, participating in the Moderna trial was the perfect way to “get the vaccine out there” and show others that getting vaccinated was safe during a time when the United States was recording thousands of COVID-related deaths each day.

Evans was inspired into action after speaking with her brother, a biochemist and a dean at New York University. “When COVID hit, my brother said, ‘Watch. We’re finally going to have mRNA vaccines,’” Evans explains. “I did my research and I discussed the details with my brother. That was it. I said, ‘I’m in. What do I need to do?’”

During the trial, participants received either active mRNA doses or placebos. All trial participants, however, were offered the actual vaccine before most others received authorization, giving them an opportunity to help encourage vaccination among the public. Since the trial, Evans has committed herself to telling others about the benefits of the vaccine. “I don’t care where I am. I have an entire speech, and I am always ready to address concerns or misinformation.”

The support for Evans’ decision from friends and family has been largely positive, especially because the vaccines have allowed for a somewhat returned sense of normalcy. In fact, Evans received special recognition for her role during a wedding celebration. “I heard someone say, ‘We have someone here who took part in the vaccine trials,’ and I realized the groom had stood up and thanked me.”

“I am so glad I did it — and I would do it again.”

Ensuring Inclusivity

Suean Fontenard
Suean Fontenard

As a postdoctoral researcher with the department of Cell & Developmental Biology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Suean Fontenard has been participating in clinical trials since grad school. She was also already familiar with much of the research behind the vaccines. Her motivation for participating in the “high-stakes” trial was geared toward ensuring inclusivity while a global pandemic raged. 

“The Black population is underrepresented in clinical trials, which is very disheartening since we make up such a large portion of the population. I decided to sign up because I wanted there to be data across the board, rather than having one demographic primarily represented,” Fontenard shared.

Fontenard’s background as a scientist, coupled with her experience as a trial participant, has lent itself to education opportunities. “With COVID, person-to-person outreach is difficult. But I did an interview with ABC News, and I took part in two Zoom Q&A sessions with people in Saint Lucia, which is where I’m from originally. Because of my background, I can provide information about how vaccines work and their safety and efficacy. I think people have been really appreciative that I have shared my story,” Fontenard said.

Although Fontenard strives to educate others and answer questions, she still encounters vaccine hesitancy from others. “I am so encouraged that we have this vaccine, but I feel so discouraged when I see the number of people who have been hospitalized because of misinformation — the needless loss of life is extremely frustrating.”

Fontenard adds, “We have this great resource that people are ignoring for reasons that I can’t comprehend, both as a scientist and someone who took part in the trials. I do enjoy sharing my vaccine experience and I am so happy when others do the same — hopefully we can change people’s minds. Ultimately, this vaccine is just one more thing to add to the arsenal.”

Walking the Walk

Mary Kerstetter
Mary Kerstetter

Mary Kerstetter, a school nurse at Fountain Woods Elementary School in Burlington Township, New Jersey, decided to join the vaccine trials for the potential to help her third, fourth, and fifth grade students. “I saw how the kids’ education was getting disrupted, and I felt like I needed to do what I could to get the students back into school. Participating in the trial felt like a good way to do that,” Kerstetter explained.

Kerstetter’s participation paid off. “I feel proud of myself,” she says. “It was lovely when the students came back and it was so wonderful to see them doing better educationally and emotionally once they returned to their routine.”

Kerstetter has shared information about her trial experience with her coworkers and the parents of her students. She also tries to combat COVID-19 within her community. “I volunteered to do contact tracing with the county. I volunteered with the medical reserve to provide vaccines. I’ve really been trying to put it all out there,” Kerstetter said.

Kerstetter credits her willingness to jump into the trials to her mom. “My mom was a nurse in World War II, and she had so many stories about participating in trials before the war, before she went into the Army. It is really wonderful what trials can do.”

An extra motivation has also fueled Kerstetter’s passion for vaccination. “A year ago, I had my first grandchild, Georgia. By participating in the trial and encouraging family and friends to get the vaccine, we’ve been able to bond with Georgia. It’s a big family and no one has had COVID. We got our vaccines and our boosters. Georgia can’t so we all do our part to keep her safe.”

Kerstetter adds, “I walked the walk and didn’t just talk the talk.”

Up next on the Penn Medicine News Blog: Meet more Moderna vaccine trial participants and hear their stories in the final part of this two-part series!

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