Let's take a moment to honor the unsung Moderna vaccine trial volunteer who died of COVID-19

It's been nine months since we found ourselves thrust into a global pandemic the likes of which the world hasn't seen in a century. Now here we are on the precipice of administering vaccines that will hopefully put an end to it, many months ahead of the expected schedule.

The speed with which scientists and pharmaceutical companies have raced to figure out how to make a novel virus vaccine both safe and effective has been impressive to say the least. It's a testament to modern medicine, innovation, and dedication on the part of the scientists who have worked tirelessly to bring it to fruition.

As of today, Moderna is asking for FDA approval of its mRNA vaccine, which trials show to be 94.1% effective in preventing coronavirus infection and 100% effective at preventing severe cases. Pfizer's vaccine has shown similar effectiveness.


While many people may be skeptical of a vaccine created in such a short period of time, experts have expressed confidence in the safety data that's been released so far. But there's one big element to the safety data that doesn't get focused on nearly as much as it should—the courageous volunteers who literally risked their lives so that scientists could learn whether their work actually works and the rest of us can feel safe (or at least safer) getting a new vaccine.

When people volunteer to test new vaccines, they're not only agreeing to whatever surprise side effects the vaccine might cause, but they're also at a higher-than-average risk of being exposed to the disease the trial is testing for. And since trial participants don't know if they are receiving the actual vaccine or a placebo, there is very real risk of having no protection whatsoever from said disease.

While the numbers from the Moderna trial indicate a resounding success, it came with a tragic-but-necessary cost. The way a trial works is that some participants receive the vaccine being tested, and others receive a placebo that doesn't do anything. While none of the actual vaccine recipients became severely ill with COVID-19 in the Moderna trial—which vaccine researcher Paul Offit says is "absolutely remarkable"—30 of the 185 people who contracted symptomatic cases of the virus in placebo group did develop severe cases. And one person in the placebo group died what Moderna has called "a COVID-19-related death."

We don't know the name of the individual who died. But we do know that they knowingly and willingly risked their own life to save millions more, and such a sacrifice should not go unrecognized. Whoever this nameless, unsung hero was, we salute them.

Our gratitude must also extend to those who became severely ill from the virus in the trial, as well as everyone who volunteered to take on the risks to help science do its thing.

So far, there are reported side effects that one might expect from any vaccine—tenderness in the injection spot as well as some people reporting flu-like symptoms for a day or so as the vaccine kicked their body into fighting gear—but they didn't know what unexpected reactions there might be going into it. Volunteers get compensated for travel and time they have to take off of work to go to appointments, but it's not like they're making real money. It's a real sacrifice with an unknown outcome, and many volunteers express that they signed up because they wanted to do something to be helpful.

So thank you to the tens of thousands of people who volunteered to take one for the team, putting their own health on the line to save us from further pandemic suffering. While we celebrate the scientists whose knowledge and skill and collaboration have brought us vaccines in record time, let's also cheer for the everyday folks who offered up themselves as guinea pigs to help us move past the pandemic and help humanity return to normal life. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

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Prior to European colonization of North America, millions of bison roamed the Great Plains. By the turn of the 20th century, those numbers had dropped to less than 1,000. The deliberate decimation of buffalo herds was a direct attack on the Native American people, who colonizers saw as an obstacle to their "Manifest Destiny," and who the U.S. government engaged in a systematic attempt to eliminate or force into docile submission.

For thousands of years, bison were a sacred, inseparable part of life for Indigenous tribes of the Great Plains, used for food, shelter, utensils, and clothing, in addition to spiritual and emotional well-being. Wiping out the bison population nearly wiped out the Native tribes they were connected to.

Though bison numbers have increased significantly thanks to conservation efforts, governments are still grappling with the ugly legacy, and some municipalities are taking steps to try to repair some of the damage done. As one example, the city of Denver, Colorado has taken the step of giving some of the city's bison population managed by Denver Parks and Recreation to Native American tribes engaged in bison conservation efforts.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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