Estes Park Doctor Enrolls In Coronavirus Vaccine Trial, Encourages Others To Get Vaccinated
It was early fall, and Dr. Erika Norris’ community was in crisis.
The East Troublesome Fire had jumped the Continental Divide. Norris and her family packed up their belongings and found themselves in a traffic jam on U.S. 36, evacuating alongside thousands of other Estes Park residents.
While scanning the news for updates about the wildfire on her phone, Norris noticed something that caught her eye. A headline advertised that UCHealth was looking for volunteers to take part in a phase 3 clinical trial of one of the world’s leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates.
As a family primary care physician, she was well aware of the disease’s devastation within her community. Hospitals were filling up. Neighbors were losing their jobs. School schedules had been upended.
She knew immediately she wanted to sign up.
“I was relieved to finally see something concrete I could do to help,” Norris said.
A month after reading about the trial online, Norris drove to The Ranch Events Complex in Loveland to get her first dose. There, a UCHealth doctor gave her a brief presentation about the vaccine candidate and answered her questions.
The dose was the first in a two-part series developed by drugmaker AstraZeneca and Oxford University. It was one of more than a dozen candidates being developed at breakneck speed across the globe.
Norris didn’t have a lot of questions, she said. One thing she wanted to know was what happened if an effective vaccine came out from another company. What would she do as a healthcare provider?
The answer: Participants would be allowed to leave at any time.
“If you feel like for whatever reason you just are done, they will break the secret seal to let you know if you received an actual vaccine or placebo,” she said.
After having her concerns addressed, Norris sat in a chair in a small curtained-off room. A nurse walked in, carrying a vial containing the vaccine and a syringe. The nurse lifted Norris' sleeve and and stuck the needle in her shoulder.
“As somebody comes at you with a syringe and you don’t know what’s in it, your life flashes before your eyes for just a second,” Norris said. “But then I just felt really excited, actually. So no regrets.”
A day later, Norris said she started to feel strange. She had some body aches and a headache. She took it as a sign she may have gotten the actual vaccine, instead of a placebo. Two days later, she felt fine again.
“The mind is a powerful thing, so who knows,” Norris said. “I won’t know for a long time.”
First Doses Days Away
Dr. Norris is sharing her story with KUNC to encourage others to get a vaccine once one (or multiple) is approved for emergency use, she said.
“I do trust the process,” Norris, who is also an employee of UCHealth, said. “I’m comfortable with what the scientists are doing.”
Early data shows that AstraZeneca’s vaccine is overall 70% effective at preventing COVID-19. Other candidates, including Moderna’s and Pfizer’s, are more than 90% effective, per preliminary data from their trials.
While most Coloradans will need to wait until sometime next year, the state’s first doses could arrive later this week. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering emergency approval for Pfizer’s vaccine candidate on Thursday, and Colorado has already placed an order for 46,800 doses.
Once the doses arrive, shipments will be stored in secret locations for security reasons, according to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. Shortly after, they’ll be distributed via special freezer trucks to Colorado hospitals. Staff will then begin administering the vaccine to frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents, according to recommendations outlined by the CDC.
Colorado so far has not specified exactly what communities it's sending the first doses to—or which nursing homes.
A spokeswoman for the Colorado State Joint Information Center, which is helping organize the vaccine rollout, declined in an email to offer more specifics.
“We will let you know as soon as we have more information,” the spokeswoman wrote.
Local health officials who spoke with KUNC are confident the first doses will arrive later this week, but they say much of the responsibility of early vaccine rollout lies with the state.
“A small number of doses (we don’t know the number) will be made available to Boulder County hospitals (frontline health care workers),” said Chana Goussetis, communications director for Boulder County Public Health. “The vaccine is going directly to them per the state’s vaccine prioritization plan.”
Roberta Smith, director of Routt County Public Health, said in an email she was expecting her community will get a portion of the state’s first vaccine shipment, but couldn’t give an exact number.
“At this point, as with all counties, we are unsure,” Smith said. “Routt County has around 1,500 people that would fit in the first phase.”
Vaccine Confidence Remains Low, But Is Increasing
As supply of the vaccine increases into the new year, more residents will have access. Colorado’s draft vaccination plan has some specifics on who is next in line after frontline health care workers and nursing home residents. The second group includes essential workers and higher-risk older adults, but the order is likely to evolve in the coming weeks.
Regardless of order, public health officials face a huge challenge: Recent polls suggest a shrinking but sizable portion of Colorado’s population doesn’t want to roll up their sleeves for a shot (or two).
Only 60% of Coloradans say they would get a free COVID-19 vaccine once one is available, according to a recent poll of registered voters. The poll, conducted by Magellan Strategies and Keating Research and published by Healthier Colorado, a Denver-based health advocacy nonprofit, shows that vaccine confidence rates are especially low in Black and Latino communities.
Another poll from the Pew Research Center shows Colorado’s level of skepticism is on par with the rest of the country. However, the level of confidence is likely to increase in the coming months, according to researchers’ findings.
“People’s views on getting a coronavirus vaccine that is not yet available to the general public remain fluid,” the Pew researchers wrote. “Among the roughly four-in-ten Americans who say they would not get the vaccine today, 46% says it’s possible they would do so once others start getting vaccinated and more information becomes available.”
Scientists from the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization estimate that approximately 70% of the country’s population needs to achieve immunity—either from infection or vaccine—in order to stop the disease from spreading. The CDC’s current estimate of the number of immune Americans hovers around 10% of the population.
To increase vaccine confidence, Colorado is planning to launch a COVID-19 vaccine education and outreach campaign in the coming months, but details remain scarce.
Dr. Norris, the Estes Park physician, said she’s begun telling her patients about her experience in the AstraZeneca vaccine trial, with the hope to make it less scary. She even designed her own Zoom version of a “TED Talk” that she’s been giving to friends and family.
“It’s one thing to read the news and hear statistics and wonder if you want to take part in this option,” she said. “I think it takes it down to a human level. People are generally pleased and interested to have a touch point to know what this is really all about.”
Trial Continues, But Struggles To Recruit Black and Latino Residents
The UCHealth/AstraZeneca trial will continue to enroll residents even once vaccines are deployed, and is looking for more participants from Black and Latino communities.
Dr. Gary Luckason, medical director of UCHealth’s clinical research program in Northern Colorado, told KUNC the current makeup of participants in Northern Colorado skews heavily white, and that’s a problem.
“When you look at the hospitalizations (from COVID-19) in Northern Colorado something close to 40% are Hispanic, and that's much higher than the percentage of the population as a whole,” Luckason said. “So they are much more vulnerable to this illness.”
Other vaccine trials have faced similar problems in recruitment, due to longstanding distrust of vaccines and research in many minority communities.
Luckason said traditional venues for recruitment, such as places of worship, aren’t options due to the region’s coronavirus restrictions. So, his team has reached out to employers and local health care clinics to try to engage residents from underrepresented communities, but the response has been meager.
“Any sort of vaccine trial would be very appropriate to them to help protect them and their families,” Luckason said. “I think it’s a horrible number of people to be impacted by COVID in that one segment of our population. And it’s not changing.”
More information about UCHealth’s vaccine trial is available on the hospital system’s website.