Black Journalist Documents Journey in COVID Vaccine Trial to 'Demystify' Process for Skeptics
A Black journalist is pulling back the curtain on her experience taking part in a coronavirus vaccine trial in the hopes that it’ll “demystify” the process for those with some hesitation.
Stephanie Elam, a CNN correspondent based in Los Angeles, received a shot on Dec. 9 as part of a phase three, randomized COVID-19 vaccine trial at Ark Clinical Research in Long Beach, California on behalf of Janssen Vaccines & Prevention, a unit of Johnson & Johnson.
Elam, 46, was careful to document the entire process, and even filmed her experience and wrote about it in a first-person piece for CNN.
“As a Black American, I do hope that other Black Americans will see this and say, ‘Okay, I can have more faith in our science here,’” she tells PEOPLE. “But if there’s anyone who connects with this or feels influenced by this, that is fantastic.”
As someone who’s covered the pandemic first-hand, Elam says she’s seen up close and personal just how devastating the virus can be, particularly on people of color.
An August report from the National Urban League found that Black people and Latinos are four times more likely than white people to be hospitalized for COVID, and Black people are twice as likely as white people to die of the virus.
Even so, a survey published this week found that 35 percent of Black adults said they definitely or probably would not get the vaccine, with a majority citing fear of possible side effects, a lack of trust in the government to ensure the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness, concerns that the vaccine is too new and concerns over the role of politics in the development process, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor.
While Elam says she can understand why some people are “wary and scared,” she didn’t think twice about diving into the trial after hearing about it a week earlier from a friend who’d participated in the Pfizer trial.
“I’d already heard that so many of these researchers were saying that we need more Black people, we need more people of color to participate to make sure there aren’t any adverse effects, that it works with the population equally,” she says.
After deciding to get on board, she reached out to Dr. Kenneth Kim, the medical director and chief executive officer of Ark Clinical Research, to talk about documenting her journey as a way of helping others navigate and “demystifying” the vaccine process.
“I did have a few friends speaking to this like, overwhelming hesitation and fear of testing in the Black community. I did have a couple of friends who were like, ‘Why would you make yourself a guinea pig? How do you know what this is going to do to you down the line?’” she says. “But even after I got the injection, I was still feeling really solid about my decision to do it.”
Elam says it’s important for people to have faith in tried-and-true science, and says she hopes politicians and influencers alike will follow her lead in making their own vaccine experiences public.
She adds that she’s had just one negative comment throughout the process, and that people from all different demographics have thanked her for her transparency.
“I understand why people are wary and scared, but it could save lives,” she says. “I’m rooting for Americans to have nice, long, fulfilling lives, and if I can do this one thing and it helps people get back to living…”
The trial is double-blind, so Elam does not know if she got a sterile saline placebo shot or the actual vaccine, though either way, she says she’ll still be wearing a mask and following safety protocols.
She says that so far, she hasn’t experienced any aches or other side effects, and has been monitoring her symptoms — or lack thereof — twice a week on an app.
Though it’ll need several more months before it can be approved, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is different from Pfizer and Moderna in that it does not require a follow-up shot, and does not need ultra-low temperature freezers like Pfizer.
As of Thursday, there have been 17 million reported cases and 307,642 deaths attributed to the coronavirus in the United States, according to The New York Times.
Multiple large-scale studies have found that vaccines are safe. There is no scientific link between vaccines and autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
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