Editor’s Note: Rich Fitzgerald is the Allegheny County Executive in Pennsylvania. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
In June 2020, our new Health Department Director, Dr. Debra Bogen, whom I work closely with as the Allegheny County Executive, told me that the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) was going to be conducting multiple Covid-19 vaccine trials. She was applying for inclusion in the study and encouraged me to do the same.
In late August, I learned I was accepted to specifically be part of the Moderna vaccine trial and, in September, began the process. I won’t know until the end of the study whether I received the vaccine or the placebo, but it doesn’t matter to me.
What was important was that I participated fully in this process to address the virus that has impacted our community, county, country and world so drastically – and to know that I was part of the solution to put us on a different path. And as it turned out, the trial I took part in has turned out to be one of the ones that has been successful and will be considered by the FDA for emergency approval later this month.
To be frank, I was a little hesitant at first when I thought about participation in the vaccine trial. But Dr. Bogen had been working with and talking to the health professionals here on an almost daily basis since March.
If she thought it was safe, then I could trust in her opinion and the science. We both were selected for participation in the trial and began the 25-month process in September. The study includes seven in-person visits, 24 phone calls, two injections and weekly electronic diary entries.
I received both shots in September and while I won’t know for a while whether I received the placebo or the vaccine, I do know that I experienced exactly the symptoms that were described to me as side effects if I had received the vaccine.
The fever, achiness and fatigue all went away after a few hours and were very mild. Participation in the trial hasn’t impacted my daily life at all, but it’s staggering to think about what a vaccine could mean to people’s lives and this community, and beyond.
When it comes to medical innovation, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have been on the forefront. We have a great tradition here that dates back to the work of Dr. Jonas Salk on the polio vaccine and Dr. Thomas Starzl on transplantation. We’ve continued to build on that legacy. Pittsburgh is a destination for cutting-edge medical innovation and that’s seen in the continued development and growth of this region’s “eds and meds” and the spin-offs from that work.
As County Executive, I’ve seen first-hand the impact of the virus on our nearly 1.3 million residents and our economy. To date, more than 29,000 Allegheny County residents have tested positive for Covid-19 and we have experienced the loss of more than 500 of our residents.
We’ve gone through full closures and health orders. Residents have struggled to remain socially connected while physically distant. Our essential employees have been stretched to the limit. Organizations and businesses throughout our community have tested constraints and found new and different ways to deliver the services and programs on which our residents rely.
As an elected official, I’ve struggled with finding a balance between health concerns and people’s livelihood. It has been a daily challenge. Unemployment in our region reached 12-14% between May and July but has steadily dropped to about 7.2% in October.
We’ve also regained jobs since April with growth in health care, social assistance, retail, educational services and, yes, even government. We, like much of the country, are also seeing a surge in cases and community spread.
The data from our Health Department, presented weekly in briefings that are live streamed, tells us that the structures in place in our schools, businesses and organizations are working and are controlling the spread. Instead, much of the spread is occurring in private, social gatherings which we cannot regulate. As a result, although there have been some who object to the policies in place, we continue to hear calls from concerned residents to put more restrictions in place to prevent spread in places that we can control.
Working closely with Dr. Bogen and her team, as well as the world renowned health systems in our community, we have not closed down or placed widespread restrictions on our community again since the county specific restriction was lifted on September 24.
Instead, we have used data to provide guidance and specific, tailored measures to address where spread is occurring or where there are concerns – and working closely with the groups most impacted by those measures.
We will continue to be guided by that data and the science so that our community has the best chance to stay ahead of this virus and recover from its economic impact.
Mitigation measures are the first step in this fight. We are fortunate that Dr. Bogen and her team have been so dedicated to keep our residents, schools, businesses and health care facilities safe. We’ve done better than other areas, but we also have plenty to improve upon. We need the continued cooperation of our region in limiting the spread and protecting our essential employees and the most vulnerable in our community.
The next step in this fight is treatment and a cure – or a vaccine that can eradicate people’s worries. This work is being done quickly because of the gravity of this virus – our nation is losing on average close to 2,000 people a day to it and the last few days have been higher – but I am confident in and trust the science and the doctors conducting this work.
It’s exciting to me that there have been so many trials conducted in Allegheny County in partnership with leading drug companies from across the globe. I’m hopeful that their work can move forward with FDA approval and that we can begin to see distribution of a vaccine across the country in the coming weeks and months. And I remain proud to have played even a small part in work that can protect the health of current and future generations.