• Lisa Fitzpatrick, MD, MPH, is an infectious diseases doctor and medical epidemiologist living in the Congress Heights area of Washington, DC. 
  • She's participating in the Phase 3 Moderna mRNA-1273 vaccine trial, which she signed up for to demonstrate her confidence in vaccine science during a time when "fear and distrust are flourishing."  
  • It's been an easy process so far, though she did experience mild side effects like soreness in her arm and fatigue. 
  • She wants people, especially those in the Black community who may be reluctant to get a vaccine, to understand that her participation in the trial is voluntary and safe.
  • It's impossible to determine exactly when the results will be ready, says Dr. Fitzpatrick, who believes we should stop listening to politicians talk about science because it leads to fear and misinformation.
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I'm a 52-year-old woman and board-certified infectious diseases doctor and medical epidemiologist. I trained in public health at the CDC in the Epidemic Intelligence Service program, also fondly and playfully known as the medical CIA. 

I also happen to be Black. I enrolled in a COVID-19 vaccine trial to show other Black people how much I believe in science and the importance of vaccines and that I trust the vaccine research process. A recent survey by STAT and The Harris Poll found that the share of Americans who say they're likely to get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it's available is dropping — and that the decline is more pronounced among Black Americans than white Americans. 

As a Black woman whose work traverses clinical medicine, entrepreneurship, healthcare policy, and community outreach and engagement, I know this to be true. I've probably talked to over 1,000 people during this pandemic. These conversations have shown me that at a time when community solidarity and trust are most needed, fear and distrust are flourishing.  

During a chat with one middle-aged gentleman, I asked what it would take for him to accept a vaccination. He said, "If I could see other Black people working on it and associated with it." 

A week later, I spoke to a group of seniors, many of whom were similarly skeptical of the vaccine because of how highly it's been politicized. Every chance I get, I try to remind people that despite what they hear on the news and social media, this is a scientific process, not a political one. I'm not sure they believe me. 

Read more: Inside the rise of Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick: How a local DC doctor and business owner became one of Biden's top healthcare advisers 

The day I chatted with those seniors, I went online and completed the George Washington University eligibility questionnaire for a Phase 3 study. 

I wasn't afraid, because Phase 3 means the vaccine has already been shown to be safe.

I believe the best way to understand, learn, and educate someone else about something is to experience it myself. Even though I've had over a dozen vaccines, I'd never been a participant in a research study until now. 

I got a call two weeks later.

My vaccine trial is sponsored by Moderna, and my first visit as a trial participant was four weeks ago. 

I went to the infectious diseases clinic at GW. It felt just like any other visit to a doctor; the first step was to get my questions answered about the study and sign an informed consent form.

I stress this part to people because many of the questions I get from people are about distrust related to the 40-year-long Tuskegee Syphilis study, during which treatment was withheld from Black men with syphilis to learn about its effects. This study ended in 1972, which is in my lifetime — so it's understandable why people remember and are distrustful.

But it's important to know that times have changed. Given the protections like informed consent coupled with involvement and participation of Black scientists and researchers like me, I want people to understand the process is voluntary and safe and that at any point I can refuse participation. I also want people to know that if there's a medical complication during the study, care will be provided for me.

Other than having a clinic appointment, there have been no disruptions to my life except one — a few minor side effects.

Logistically, the experience has been super easy. There was no waiting in the clinic; everyone has been friendly, supportive, and helpful. The process is well-organized and easy to navigate.

I've had two clinic visits and two shots — two vaccinations, one month apart. At each visit, I get my vital signs taken, the doctor asks about any symptoms I have had and whether I have questions. At each visit I had a coronavirus test with the nasal swab, which I admit is not pleasant, but it's important — this is how we'll ultimately determine if the vaccine works. 

The second night after my first vaccine, a throbbing pain in my arm woke me up at 2 a.m. Soon after, I started to feel achy, so I took some ibuprofen and went back to bed. When I woke up a few hours later, my arm was much less sore; the aches were gone, but I felt tired. The symptoms lasted 12 hours; by 3 p.m. the next day I felt fine. 

Other than feeling a little fatigued after my second shot, I had no side effects except a sore arm. 

When you participate in a trial like the one I am in, you have a 50/50 chance of getting the vaccine. 

Half the people get the vaccine, and half get a saltwater shot or placebo. If over the next year or two people who got the vaccine also get COVID-19, this suggests the vaccine does not work. On the other hand, if COVID-19 cases are all or mostly in the people who got the saltwater shot, it suggests the vaccine is a success. 

For me, the hard part is done; the remaining part of the trial is observation. Monthly, we check in with the study team by phone and they assess us for side effects or concerns; this will happen until the study naturally ends or they stop it because the data indicates they should. 

That's why no one can predict when the vaccine will be available. It's a natural process that has to play out, and it's impossible to determine exactly when the results will be ready. 

Overall, I want people to stop listening to politicians talk about science. 

I'm confused about why people in the media interview politicians about scientific processes. They're not experts in this area; doing so only serves to confuse the public, just as we are seeing now.

I'm committed to using my expertise to help people understand coronavirus and the vaccine trial process. I've also added my voice to a multi-sectoral, multi-disciplinary consortium founded to address COVID-19 misinformation in the Black community, the Black Coalition Against Covid (BCAC). Among many successful efforts to raise awareness, in collaboration with Black Doctor.org, the organization has convened two virtual town hall meetings featuring Black doctors and scientists like me from across the country to help educate the community. 

Ultimately, I believe the most impactful thing I can do to educate others and encourage participation is to demonstrate my confidence in vaccine science by creating transparency around my experience. I want people to reach out to me with questions, concerns, and comments. I believe showing what's behind the curtain is the best way to gain trust and encourage participation. 

Not to mention, it's Health Literacy Month. What a great way to celebrate. 

Lisa Fitzpatrick is a board-certified infectious diseases doctor and medical epidemiologist. Follow her at @askdrfitz. 

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