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Robert Gehrke: These Utahns are among the thousands who helped advance a coronavirus vaccine

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

COVID-19 had already claimed the life of a 22-year-old neighbor and a distant relative. Another friend is now intubated in the intensive care unit.

So when Steve Eliason heard researchers were looking for volunteers to test a possible coronavirus vaccine, he signed up.

There was a predictable sheaf of disclosures, waivers and so forth. Then he had his blood drawn — quite a bit of blood, it turns out — and was given an injection, not knowing whether he was getting the experimental vaccine or a saline shot doctors use to compare the test group to those who get nothing.

That night Eliason, a member of the Utah House of Representatives, got some chills that passed by the next day — an indication, he assumed, that he was not in the placebo group.

Several weeks later he was back at Foothill Family Clinic for a booster, a shot that Eliason said he had heard from others in the study (via a private Facebook group they have set up) might be a little more intense.

“The people who thought they got the real thing said the second one kind of kicks your butt, and it did,” Eliason told me. “I got chills and a fever of 101, but I took Tylenol and Advil and it was one evening of discomfort and then it was basically gone.”

On Monday, a follow-up test found he had coronavirus antibodies — and a lot of them it turns out, about seven times the amount detected if he had caught the virus and beat it on his own.

“It gives you stronger immunity than someone who is just recovering,” Eliason said.

He is one of 60,000 volunteers taking part in the trial of Moderna’s vaccine candidate. On Monday, Moderna made international headlines when it announced that its early data found the vaccine to be nearly 95% effective.

A week earlier, Pfizer announced its vaccine had been 90% effective.

“I think everyone is extremely excited about the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines,” Dr. Mark Harrison, CEO of Intermountain Healthcare said in a call Tuesday, describing the early reports of their efficacy as “absolutely extraordinary.” He said the common flu vaccine is about 50% effective.

More study is needed before these vaccines will be distributed, but that could start before the end of the year.

Brian Joyce took part in the Pfizer study. He was at a routine doctor’s visit back in July when he was handed a slip of paper suggesting he could be a candidate.

It wasn’t an easy decision to let them shoot something into his arm that may or may not work and may or may not have serious side effects, so he talked to his family, he talked to friends, he talked to his boss.

“It was about 50-50,” he told me Tuesday. “The reason I decided I wanted to do it is, first, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and second, it’s doing my part. That’s really what it came down to. Doing my part.”

He went through the same process, also at Foothill Family Clinic, which is administering the trials for both Pfizer and Moderna. He got his first shot in early August and went back a little over a month ago for the booster.

He was asked to use an app on his phone to record any reactions he might have, but he experienced none. Joyce said he’ll likely find out in February if he was given a placebo.

The parallel vaccine announcements are the first good news we’ve had on the coronavirus front in weeks, months even, and it comes thanks to thousands of people, from the researchers who developed the vaccine, to the tens of thousands of people who stepped up to be the human guinea pigs for the tests, and people like Chris Mickelson.

Mickelson is a nurse at Foothill Family Clinic who administered the vaccines — he was the one guy at the clinic who knew who got the vaccine and who got the placebo — and recorded and reported the results for the roughly 650 Utahns enrolled.

“The last week-and-a-half, maybe two weeks, we’ve been down to [working] maybe 55- or 60-hour weeks,” he told me Tuesday. “Before that, there was a 12-week stretch where I was doing 15-hour days.”

I asked him what he thought when he heard that the vaccines appear to work. He said, “I don’t know how to describe it. It was a happy moment. Like, ‘Hey man, you busted your [tail] for a reason.’ ”

Plans are in the works to distribute the vaccine, but it will take time. The first doses are expected to go to medical personnel and vulnerable populations. Harrison, with Intermountain, said he anticipates it will likely be the middle of the year before it is available to the general public.

“So what we have to do in the meantime, we have to hunker down and particularly protect the frail and the vulnerable,” he said.

We should also prepare for a crazed backlash from the fringes. If you thought masks were politicized, watch people lose their marbles when they’re asked to take a vaccine that some people already believe is a government mind-control plot.

And we’re going to have to be resilient, because these next few weeks are shaping up to be the worst we’ve seen in the pandemic so far, with intensive care units that are already beyond capacity in many cases and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that 323 Utahns will die in the next four weeks. Other models put the death toll considerably higher.

It is likely to be the bleakest winter any of us have experienced and hopefully the worst we will ever have to endure.

But for the first time since this began we can see the daylight, a potential to save lives and gain back some sense of normalcy, thanks to the thousands of people who helped make this remarkable achievement a reality.

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