/ by Chris Simmons, MD, PhD
Chris Simmons, MD, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at the University of Kentucky. In addition to his duties as a primary care physician and medical educator, he helped facilitate the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson’s Phase 3 ENSEMBLE trial at UK, evaluating the safety and efficacy of Janssen’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate. Thanks to Dr. Simmons, other investigators, and the hundreds of selfless volunteers, UK was the top enrolling site in the world for the trial.
With March marking the one-year anniversary of Kentucky’s first COVID-19 case, Dr. Simmons offers this message of hope and thanks as he reflects on the year behind us and looks ahead to what this year can bring – a third vaccine to fight COVID-19 and another step toward normalcy:
I remember watching testing curves in the early days of the pandemic. We all feared that COVID-19 was all around us and we wouldn’t even know it. Thankfully, the majority of Kentucky did well early on – but nothing was easy. My daycare was closed. My patients were scared to come in. Few were embracing Telehealth. My neighbor, an ER physician, said volume was down tenfold. Patients weren’t sure where to turn and everything felt so uncertain.
Thankfully testing become more widely available, but on the frontlines, we started feeling fatigued. We saw more and more patients sick with COVID. I started taking care of spouses who had survived while their loved ones had not. My daycare began notifying us when one teacher was sick…then five…then almost 20. The calm before the storm was ending – and we needed a path forward.
Then I was asked to help with an upcoming trial for a COVID-19 vaccine – right here at UK. “Do you want to help save the world?” I’ll never forget being asked that question. I thought of my children, for whom I feared constantly, as well as my parents who are both in their 70s. I thought of the isolation. I thought of my patients living out their days without their lifelong companions. My answer to helping with the trial was obviously “YES!”
I was able to see all of the nuts and bolts of the clinical trial. I was repeatedly reminded that patients mattered the most. We enrolled over 800 Kentuckians – some driving over two hours, knowing they had a 50/50 shot of just getting the placebo. They still came, believing what they were doing was vitally important – to our state, our country and the entire world. They inspired me like few others could, helping change the course of what has felt like the longest year in history.
As a frontline worker, when we began receiving shipments of the vaccine, it felt like being handed bottles of Pappy Van Winkle. I never thought I would see it. And as a result of our participation in the clinical trial, there will soon be another COVID-19 vaccine – thanks in large part to the hard work and dedication of our fellow Kentuckians.
Without your incredible willingness to participate, clinical trials like this would have never happened – and now is our chance to end the pandemic. As a result of this teamwork and dedication, we are one step closer to raising our children, seeing our loved ones and gathering with friends without constant fear of the virus. That alone deserves a toast, Kentucky – thank you for your help!