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Meet two Tampa Bay residents who volunteered for the vaccine trials

The coronavirus vaccines can cause side effects such as fever and chills, but they don’t infect people with the virus.
Rev. Stephan Brown participated in the Oxford-AstraZenca COVID-19 vaccine trial. As a public figure who happens to be a priest and African American, Brown wanted to set an example for those in his church and community. He is seen here posing for a portrait inside his sanctuary at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, Fl. Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2020.
Rev. Stephan Brown participated in the Oxford-AstraZenca COVID-19 vaccine trial. As a public figure who happens to be a priest and African American, Brown wanted to set an example for those in his church and community. He is seen here posing for a portrait inside his sanctuary at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, Fl. Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2020. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Dec. 23, 2020

When Mike Hammonds heard about the coronavirus vaccine trials happening in Central Florida, the 46-year-old signed up for as many as possible.

“I just had such a difficult time with everything that happened with the pandemic,” said Hammonds, who lives in Tampa. “And then being in a high-rise (building) and being locked up for three months in the middle of the summer when we should be out enjoying it.”

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine trials recruited 38,000 volunteers and was granted emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 11. The Moderna drug trials included 30,000 participants and the vaccine was approved by the FDA on Friday. Now thousands of doses of both vaccines are being delivered and administered in Florida and across the country.

The trials determined a 95 percent effectiveness rate for the Pfizer-BioNTech shot and a 94 percent effectiveness rate for Moderna. It’s possible that six additional vaccines will be approved for early or limited use, while 18 more are currently in phase three of testing, which include trials on human patients.

Tampa Bay residents have been among those to participate in efficacy drug trials for the coronavirus vaccines. While they do not yet know whether they received placebo or the actual vaccines, two area residents said they decided to take part in the trials because they wanted to contribute to the cure for the virus.

Hammonds worked from home before the pandemic, so his day-to-day routine hadn’t changed much. But he felt isolated and worried about the virus that killed one of his friends in early April. After two health screenings — one by phone and one in person — Hammonds finally qualified to participate in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine trial in August.

Before receiving the first shot in early September, Hammonds said he didn’t tell anyone he planned to participate in the trial, as he didn’t want to be influenced in his decision making. After receiving the first vaccine dose in his left arm, Hammonds told a few loved ones, just in case the vaccine had any side effects. Luckily, he only experienced soreness in his arm, not unlike the mild the pain caused by a flu shot.

After months of isolation, Mike Hammonds decided he wanted to participate in a COVID-19 vaccine trial to help be part of the cure. He's seen the full spectrum of the virus, from asymptomatic cases to friends who have passed away.
After months of isolation, Mike Hammonds decided he wanted to participate in a COVID-19 vaccine trial to help be part of the cure. He's seen the full spectrum of the virus, from asymptomatic cases to friends who have passed away. [ LESLIE OWEN | Courtesy of Mike Hammonds ]

A few weeks later, he received the second vaccine dose, which caused him to experience chills and a fever for a few hours.

“I’m kind of freaking out at that point because, you know, at this time it was an unknown vaccine,” Hammonds said.

A doctor involved with the trial reassured Hammonds that the fever was a normal reaction. About 14 percent of those who received the vaccine experienced fever, while 32 percent experienced chills. The coronavirus vaccines do not contain the virus and do not infect those who are injected.

Researchers tested Hammonds for COVID-19 antibodies in a third meeting, but did not share the results with him. However, all participants who received a placebo and not the actual vaccine will be contacted, he was told. Hammonds said he has not received a call in the two weeks since his antibody test. Over the next two years, he will get blood work every three months to monitor his antibody levels as an ongoing part of the trial.

Hammonds said he trusts the vaccine and does not want to take any risks. He’s seen the full spectrum of its impacts, from friends with asymptomatic cases to those who have died from it. He said he’s lost six friends to the coronavirus this year and knows around 30 people who have been infected.

“You don’t know what you’re getting. It’s like reaching your hand into a bag of snakes and alligators,” Hammonds said.

As of Tuesday, Florida had administered COVID-19 vaccines to 49,932 people. The data did not say whether the vaccines were from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, though both have been distributed in the state. Florida is focusing on vaccinating health care workers and nursing home residents and workers in its first phase, and will then prioritize the wider elderly population.

Meanwhile, other vaccines continue to undergo testing.

Rev. Stephan Brown, pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, is participating in the Oxford-AstraZenca vaccine trial.

He considered joining a vaccine trial after his mother passed away at the end of February. While the family did not elect for an autopsy, Brown said his mother experienced coronavirus-like symptoms. And after Brown heard that the trials were looking for more African Americans to participate, he decided he wanted to do something.

“My thinking was I don’t want to simply sit around and wait — wait for a cure, wait to get sick — that I want to be a part of the cure,” said Brown, 57.

Coming from a family of medical professionals, Brown decided to discuss his options with his sister who is a physician in Annapolis and his father, a retired doctor. He signed up for the AstraZeneca trial over the summer.

“I can be a voice that says we need to trust the science,” he said. “And I do that both as a citizen, and a son of a doctor, and I do as a man of faith.”

Brown said the first injection felt slightly more painful than a normal flu shot. After the second injection, he felt some fatigue and pain where he received the shot for about a day. As part of the trial, he will continue to undergo blood work for the next two years to monitor for antibodies. He said he does not know whether he received a placebo or the real vaccine and will continue to social distance and wear his mask.

Some of Brown’s neighbors asked him about decision to trust the vaccine trial, given the medical community’s history of unethical practices in Black communities. They referenced the Tuskegee experiments, in which white researchers left 399 Black men with untreated syphilis, even after a treatment for the disease was discovered and without the men’s informed consent.

Brown said he wanted to show that the vaccine trials were different.

“We have come a long way and African Americans are a part of this solution,” he said. “They are doctors and researchers and scientists, as I said, I have them in my own family.”

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