I got a shoulder full of sugar.
As a fully informed volunteer for the AZD-1222 clinical trial, I had a 66 percent chance of receiving the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine when I reported for duty on November 24, 2020 at a doctor’s office in Central Phoenix. As previously reported, within the first 48 hours, I suffered mightily most of the side effects associated with this vaccine:
- Muscle ache
Come to find out, those are also widely reported symptoms of middle age.
After my second shot on December 22, 2020, I experienced mild fatigue compounded by intermittent smugness: Though I brandished my gilded caveat of “well, we don’t really know for sure if I got the shot,” I was certain – certain – that I had been inoculated against the great scourge of the 21st century. I had put my body on the line again for SCIENCE and HUMANITY!
Yes, I continued to preach and practice the gospel of mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing, and I was certain I was doing my part to win the fight at both societal and cellular levels.
I certainly have an active imagination.
The placebo effect occurs when the brain persuades the body that a fake treatment is actually curative, triggering a physiological response. Here’s a fascinating study from Harvard Health about it. Though smarter people than I have confirmed this phenomenon, it doesn’t blunt the snickering coming from Pat Bertinelli.
“I’ve always said you have a really powerful brain,” he chuckled, as he departed to get his second dose of authenticated Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on March 31.
At my third blood draw in January to test for my imaginary antibodies, I was re-consented into the clinical trial. Because mRNA vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna had begun distribution and the single-dose Johnson & Johnson/Janssen jab coming online, the AstraZeneca trial could not in good conscience keep volunteers like me from accessing potentially life-saving treatments. At the same time, they needed to maintain participation in the trial to ensure the safety and efficacy of their vaccine. They had settled on an elegant and ethical compromise: As new each new demographic became eligible for inoculation, we would secure a vaccination appointment and then call the trial administrator to be individually unblinded from the trial. That way, if we were in the test group, we could cancel our appointment and free up a vaccine for another person, or if we were in the placebo group, we could go ahead and get our shots.
But this was all a moot point because AstraZeneca would soon apply for emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration and we would all be unblinded, likely as soon as early March.
We all know how that worked out: AstraZeneca vaccine tied to rare cases of rare blood clots. AstraZeneca reports dosing error in trial, delaying approval of vaccine. AstraZeneca misreports vaccine efficacy data in trials.
AstraZeneca’s crack team of communications “professionals” bungled basic communication practices and undermined faith in vaccines in general and their product in particular. Their jaw-dropping miscommunication has also thrown shade on the very good doctors, nurses and bench scientists doing the hard work on the ground to conduct the trial, and it’s annoyed volunteers like me who now get to field a ton of well-intentioned questions about a vaccine that I truly believe in because it SHOULD be easy to distribute to rural areas without a cold-chain infrastructure (if they can just get the damned shot approved).
I dedicated six years of my life to communicating complex scientific principles to everyday people. It’s not that hard to tell the truth in small words and big type so everyone can understand.
On March 24, Arizona opened COVID-19 vaccinations up to all adults, and I dutifully signed up and logged on, refreshing my screen about 200 times over two days and finally took the first available slot – 4:18 AM on Friday, April 2 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Sure, it was at an ungodly hour at a six-hour drive from my temporary residence, but I didn’t care. I was certain – certain – I’d received the AstraZeneca vaccine back in November.
So on March 26, I called the AZD-1222 hotline to get unblinded so I could cancel my Arizona appointment and do the big reveal.
“Stacy Bertinelli? And can I have your birth date again? And your participant ID, please?” the trial administrator said, as I doodled on my calendar, ready to scratch out April 2.
“You’re in the placebo group.”
“Wait, what? Placebo? Can you check the spelling. That’s B-E-R-T…”
“All the data is correct. You’re in the placebo group, Mrs. Bertinelli. Please do not cancel your regular vaccine appointment.”
“But I had all the side effects – chills, muscle aches, worst headache of my life?”
“Well, Mrs. Bertinelli, the mind is a powerful thing – but we appreciate your continued participation in the trial. Please bring your vaccine card to your next appointment.”
Suffice it to say, I rescheduled my Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine to a more godly hour, following our return from California. I got to do the drive-thru at State Farm Stadium on April 11 and then got to return for a walk-thru at the Gila River Hockey Arena on May 2.
And for the side-effects? I was tired, took a nap and went to be early after each one, and my shoulder hurt with both shots, but fatigue, aches and pains accompany me through middle age.
If this has taught me anything: Science is still wonderful and vaccines give us hope. Go get your shot so we can all get back to living.