‘A great relief’

This article was written by Lindsay Kalter for the News Service of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts

When Dr. Simone Wildes arrived at her appointment to receive her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, she was wearing a smile of gratitude, excitement, and most of all, relief.

Simone Wildes, MD gets the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine
Dr. Wildes receives her COVID-19 vaccine at South Shore Health.

Wildes, an infectious disease doctor at South Shore Health who is a member of the Massachusetts COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group, has spent months fighting on the front line – watching patients die without family nearby, fearing for her own life, and living in the terrifying unknowns of a new pandemic.

Finally, there was a solution.

“I was just so excited,” Wildes said. “I was beaming from ear to ear." 

"Being on the front lines and seeing what was happening, knowing I was at risk – it was a great relief for me."

Now Wildes, who has received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine, is encouraging friends and family to get a COVID vaccine when the time comes. 

But she has a difficult task ahead of her. Despite rigorous clinical trials and high success rates, some members of the public are still skeptical of the vaccines, given their quick development. 

And as a Black woman, Wildes understands the earned mistrust of health care among communities of color. She knows well the ethical horrors of the Tuskegee experiment and Henrietta Lacks.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with different individuals, other African Americans, who are very scared,” Wildes said. “I get it. But we have to do things that will help us in the future. COVID has had a devastating effect on Black and brown communities.”

Safe and effective vaccines

Wildes’ confidence in both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines comes from hours spent poring over the data and examining the science behind them – genetic technology that has been around since the 1990s. 

Both vaccines contain messenger RNA, or mRNA. The mRNA is only in your body temporarily — just long enough for its genetic instructions to tell some of your cells to generate a harmless part of the coronavirus’s outer coating (called a “spike protein”), which then triggers the body’s natural immune response, including the production of antibodies to COVID-19. 

The vaccines are available now because the pandemic required an all-hands-on-deck approach, Wildes notes. Scientists developing the vaccines collaborated worldwide and were flush with resources that are, under normal circumstances, split among competing interests.

“Even though the vaccines happened quickly, it doesn't mean there was any compromise on the safety,” Wildes said. “What made it faster is, you have a lot of different people working together. People were pouring money into this. The science has been really sound, and they've been methodical in what they're doing to make sure all the regulation is complete and thorough.”

Every phase of every clinical trial has been scrupulously reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and an independent a safety board in a rigorous, transparent process.

Wildes notes that both Moderna and Pfizer reported high numbers of Black volunteers in their clinical trials, which – though it should be a given – is rare in drug development. In fact, Moderna slowed its enrollment in September to recruit more people of color and diversify the participant pool

Reaching out to the community

The next step, Wildes said, is for health care professionals to connect with people in their communities and educate them about the vaccines, particularly those in multifamily households who can experience devastating losses if the virus spreads among them. For now, it's still important to wear masks and maintain physical distancing measures, but vaccines will play a crucial role in eradicating COVID. 

The end goal is to get a large proportion of the community vaccinated so the virus can no longer spread, Wildes said.

"I just want to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible."

“We need to get out there, talk to faith-based and community leaders. We need to make it more accessible for people, make it more equitable. If this doesn’t happen, we’re going to have more deaths. We want to get back to living our lives.”

Coverage is a news service of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.