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‘A Sense of Security’: First Harvard Undergrads Receive Covid-19 Vaccine

Several Harvard undergraduates join the first wave of Americans to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Several Harvard undergraduates join the first wave of Americans to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. By Allison G. Lee
By Alex Koller and Taylor C. Peterman, Crimson Staff Writers

For David A. Tanner II ’22, the decision to receive the Covid-19 vaccine was “pretty straightforward.”

Tanner, who works in a coronavirus testing laboratory in West Virginia, qualified to receive the Pfizer vaccine early as a frontline healthcare worker.

Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization in December for two coronavirus vaccines — one produced jointly by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech and one produced by Moderna Therapeutics — several million Americans have been vaccinated against Covid-19, while the rest await their turn.

Though the federal government deferred to states to decide who receives the first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published recommendations encouraging states to prioritize healthcare personnel and long-term care facility residents in the first phase of vaccination distribution. The CDC suggested that subsequent phases focus on frontline essential workers, people aged 65 years or older, people aged 16 or older with underlying medical conditions, and other essential workers.

Tanner, one among the several Harvard students who have been vaccinated, said receiving the vaccine was “a bit of a game of cat and mouse” due to delayed communication.

“We knew that we were going to be getting it for several weeks before we actually did. It was just a question of when,” he said. “My boss was working with the National Guard, people at the [federal] health department, state health directors, just to kind of make sure that there was enough available for us.”

Tanner said it was rewarding to receive the vaccine after months of handling Covid-19 test swabs.

“To be able to top it off with this vaccine at the end, knowing that after all this time I was working with a really dangerous virus this entire time and I was exposing myself, it’s a nice payoff to be able to have a little bit more of a sense of security,” he said.

Jessica P. Miller ’21, who took a leave of absence during the fall semester to work as an emergency medical technician in her home state of West Virginia, also said her decision to receive the Pfizer vaccine was “really obvious.”

Miller said she posted photos of her vaccination on Facebook to help quell concerns about the safety of the vaccine. She said she hopes once the vaccine is widely available, a “bandwagon effect” will encourage skeptics to get vaccinated.

“It’s a lot more obvious for [healthcare workers] to get it,” she said. “Hopefully by the time it gets to the general public, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, all these people have taken it and they’re fine.’”

Jennifer J. Near ’22-’23 also qualified for the coronavirus vaccine as a patient-facing frontline worker. Near, who is spending a gap year working as a medical lab technician at an urgent care clinic in Alpharetta, Georgia, received her first dose of the Moderna vaccine in December.

Near said studying the mRNA technology behind the Moderna vaccine allayed her initial concerns about the vaccine’s safety. Unlike conventional vaccines that use a weakened or inactivated form of a virus, mRNA vaccines instruct cells to create a harmless protein that induces an immune response.

“Since the Covid-19 virus is so new, I’ve had reservations about essentially putting that into my body,” Near said. “When I had gone and read the science and realized it’s an mRNA vaccine — it’s a lot safer than typical vaccines are because you’re not putting a weakened form of the actual virus — I had no reservations after that.”

Near said she experienced no side effects from the vaccine other than a mild fever.

Rafael Treviño ’22 said he qualified to receive the Moderna vaccine in his home state of Texas because he has two underlying medical conditions that may place him at greater risk for severe illness from coronavirus. He said he identified a clinic nearby that vaccinates people with Covid-19 comorbidities.

Texas residents 16 and older with one or more chronic health conditions that put them at risk for severe illness from Covid-19 currently qualify to receive the coronavirus vaccine, per a Texas Department of State Health Services website.

Treviño said that although the vaccine will provide him greater “peace of mind,” he intends to remain vigilant to prevent the spread of the virus.

“I’m still obviously going to be careful,” Treviño said. “I’m not gonna go out and start going out without a mask, like, ‘Oh, I only have a six percent chance of getting it,’ right? That six percent chance is still pretty scary.”

Similarly, Near said she will continue to practice preventative health measures, including social distancing and mask-wearing, even after receiving her second Moderna vaccine dose later this month.

“I haven’t changed anything in terms of my lifestyle, and I don’t think I will even after receiving the second dose until enough people are vaccinated and public health experts say that it’s okay to change the way we are currently living,” she said.

Unlike his vaccinated peers who know they have increased protection against Covid-19, Reese M. Caldwell ’22-’23 — who participated in the Pfizer vaccine’s phase three clinical trial — does not know whether he received the actual vaccine or a placebo.

Caldwell, who is working at a biotechnology company in New Haven, Conn. during his gap year, said a sense of duty prompted him to enroll at a local clinical trial site.

“I thought that it was important to do whatever I could,” he said. “There was a clinical trial site and they needed volunteers and so I felt it was natural to step up and help test it.”

Caldwell, a Molecular and Cellular Biology concentrator, said he trusted the trial would be safe.

“I’ve been pretty well-versed in the development process and so I felt pretty confident going into it that these vaccines would work and that they’d be safe,” he said.

Pfizer is informing trial participants whether they received the vaccine or placebo in waves, starting with those at high risk for contracting or falling seriously ill with the disease, as determined by local authorities. Since he may be categorized as an essential worker, Caldwell said that he could be unblinded and given the vaccine as early as this month, in the case that he was in the placebo group.

“Everyone is going to have to wait a while to get unblinded and get the vaccine if they’re on placebo,” he said.

—Staff writer Alex Koller can be reached at

—Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.

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