When Moderna began enrolling volunteers in Phase III of its COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial, I felt compelled to sign up. I had never participated in such a study before. But as a physician who has traveled the world for work and pleasure, I am no stranger to vaccination. And I knew that I couldn't let this momentous opportunity pass, with science and public health under assault and the global death toll from COVID-19 unrelenting.
Still, my excitement was tempered by unease with this new science, and my vaccine history did little to assuage my fears. I am a 70-year-old, African American man with hypertension. This is a stage in my life when I should be taking fewer risks, slowing down to cherish time with my granddaughters.
And for many people like me, underlying our personal hesitancies is a health care system that has long exploited Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. The legacy of the Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male — practically shorthand for the medical abuse of African Americans — has persisted in hardships we still face receiving health care services.
All these considerations factored into my decision, which I can confidently say was the right one. Several months and one sore arm later, I am better protected against the virus that has robbed us of so many lives and livelihoods. I have walked the walk on vaccination. Now, I am using my experience to show that the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine immensely outweigh its risks.
I have shared my perspectives with the Council on Foreign Relations and staff of the Archdiocese of New York. I've also talked to patients at the Mercy Clinic in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where I regularly volunteer. Beyond spreading the word in formal settings, I bring my trial into everyday communication. Through touchpoints like book club membership, I can speak just as Clarion, someone my peers trust who is also living proof that vaccination need not induce anxiety.
Even when I am not in a white coat, I am a voice for science. I live it. I practice it. To me, serving as an ambassador for vaccine uptake is akin to rising in the early morning to pore over medical literature. It is part of the fabric of my being. And as someone who extols science, I also value thorough investigation.
At every step of the trial, I carefully observed my surroundings. I arrived early to appointments to glean how other volunteers were treated, listening in on sidebar conversations and examining how people looked when they entered and left. All my assessments confirmed that this trial was legitimate. Had there been any untoward behavior, I would have walked out.
You have that same prerogative to question any medical intervention or procedure, up to the last second. But the more you can prepare for an appointment, the more self-assured you will feel going behind the curtain. Lean on people in your networks to talk out your concerns. Your primary care physician is someone you may turn to, as is a teacher, faith leader, or neighbor who’s been vaccinated or is planning to.
Also take advantage of the free, abundant information available through science-backed organizations. Public health agencies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to local health departments have been informing the public of the latest evidence, distilling complex science into straightforward recommendations.
Alongside wearing masks and practicing physical distancing, the COVID-19 vaccine is the best tool we have for ending the pandemic. I want everyone to be afforded the same peace of mind that comes with being vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.
On the other side of fear is possibility — the possibility to hold our families and friends close, to resume the activities that make our lives worthwhile. Don’t let fear impede the progress we are making toward these goals. With every vaccination, we collectively move closer to a world of greater possibility.
Dr. Clarion E. Johnson is the former global medical director for ExxonMobil, where he oversaw the health of 80,000 employees and affiliate employees worldwide. He is a cardiology specialist in Fairfax, Va., and has more than 45 years of experience in the medical field. He is a board member of the Milbank Memorial Fund and the de Beaumont Foundation, whose focus is improving state and local public health.