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Nearly 10 months after being the first person to receive a shot in the first U.S. clinical trial of a vaccine for coronavirus, Seattle’s Jennifer Haller is concerned less about her own experience than she is about the struggles of so many during the pandemic.
Haller told GeekWire on Tuesday that she is feeling great and has had no side effects from the vaccination she received on March 16 as part of Phase 1 trials of the Moderna mRNA-1273 vaccine at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute.
“I’ve felt perfectly healthy, very normal,” Haller said. “For the rest of it, I’ve just been taking it in stride as everybody else has,” she said of all the challenges of the health crisis.
When the pandemic hit earlier this year, Haller was operations manager at Attunely, a machine learning company focused on the financial services industry. The 2-year-old startup raised $6 million this summer and Haller was promoted to people operations manager, taking on a human resources role at the growing company.
The day she received her shot, Haller, a 44-year-old mother of two teenagers, told GeekWire that she felt privileged to be in such a position. With the health and economic toll of the pandemic so fully realized as 2020 draws to a close, she reiterated this week how eye opening it has been to understand that privilege, for herself, her family, friends and the tech community. Many others have lost jobs, exhausted savings or are hanging on by a thread, she said, especially in the entertainment and service industries.
“I and many around me have great jobs in the tech industry and we are all able to work from home and stay safe, and so many other people in Seattle are not able to do that,” she said. “The reason that I put myself out there is because I want to recognize the privilege I have and I want to use it in a way that can help others.”
Being involved in the clinical trial has kept Haller focused on vaccine development throughout the pandemic. She didn’t have any real insight or predictions back in March about how fast a vaccine might be developed, and figured that the chances of her getting one that ended up gaining approval would be “pretty slim.”
“I knew that there were a lot of vaccine trials going on, so I wasn’t too hung up on this particular vaccine,” Haller said. “Thank God it turns out that this is showing a 95% efficacy rate, which is amazing.”
With vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer now being distributed in the U.S. and elsewhere, Haller is hopeful that the path she took does some good in convincing more Americans that the vaccine is safe and effective. After early polls showed alarmingly high numbers of people who were opposed to being vaccinated, recent numbers illustrate more willingness.
“If somebody is anti-vaccination I’m not going to convince somebody to change their mind,” Haller said. “But if somebody is uncertain or on the edge or open to considering it, I can say that in my experience, it felt safe and I feel healthy.”
She called the vaccine the best way for individuals to protect themselves, their families and communities. And she encourages people to do some research and look critically at sources they are using for information.
Haller’s responsibility as a trial participant hasn’t been a very heavy lift these past nine months. In her Phase 1 group of 45 participants, she was among 15 people to receive doses of 25 micrograms in March and April (later phases of the trial introduced a placebo). There were blood draws after those shots, and follow-up visits at three and six months. She’ll go back for another blood draw in March. She only has to report back if she gets sick or is hospitalized for any reason.
As for whether Haller will need to get vaccinated with the 100 microgram doses being distributed now, she was unsure. And Kaiser’s Lisa Jackson, the senior investigator leading the Phase 1 trial, said Kaiser is “working on options for trial participants” with the other trial sites, the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.
“I don’t want to jump the line on anything. I know that the vaccines are going out to the people that need it most right now,” Haller said. “I’m fine. I’m not in a hurry to figure it out.”
“If somebody knows me, it’s just one more data point for them to feel a little bit more comfortable about getting the vaccine. … ‘Well, Jen’s still doing OK, maybe it’s fine,’” Haller said.
And she’s been working from home the entire time — also pretty normal when it comes to the tech industry. Like many, Haller called being away from an office surprisingly more doable than she thought it would be. Attunely employed around 14 people in March, is now up to 22 and is still hiring.
“We’ve doubled our company remotely, so I think that’s pretty remarkable and I’m pretty proud of that,” she said.
When she does leave the house, she still resembles most of us who haven’t been vaccinated.
“I’m still practicing social distancing and wearing a mask and everything,” she said. “I still act as though I don’t have the vaccine.”
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