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  • Writer's pictureGabriel San Roman

Slingshot: A Latino Takes a Shot at Covid Vaccine for His Community

Cases of la corona are surging this month. Hospitalizations and deaths are peaking higher than at any point during the summer. A new, strict stay-at-home order goes into effect today in Southern California. Latinos are being hit particularly hard; the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA noted that Latinos are almost twice as likely to die from coronavirus than whites in California.

But after nine months of pandemia, promising vaccines are on the way.

Abelardo de la Peña Jr., a 67-year-old South Pasadena resident, decided to roll up his shirt sleeve as a participant in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine trials. The longtime LatinoLA editor and current director of marketing and communications for La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, first learned about the opportunity around June from a friend on Facebook, who already enlisted as a participant.

Soon after, Kaiser Permanente directly solicited volunteers via email.

"I answered right away," says de la Peña. "Kaiser sent me an online questionnaire, followed by a phone call."

The development of Covid-19 vaccines arrived in record time. The most vital part for Pfizer-BioNTech came with the trials, in which more than 40,000 people participated between the United States and Germany. De la Peña took the pandemic very seriously from the onset, not just for himself, but for his elderly parents, in-laws and greater community.

"This is a devastating illness," he says. "In the Latino community, I've seen people wear masks and keep their social distance and I've also seen those who've gone on like normal."

The first phase of the trial came in September. De la Peña arrived to a special Kaiser clinic on Sunset Boulevard. Once there, he sat in a lobby until summoned for a quick medical exam. Much like a routine physical, a nurse and a doctor took his vitals and drew blood followed by an unpleasant nasal swab Covid test.

And then came the moment of truth.

A nurse informed de la Peña of possible side effects from the shot he was about to receive, including muscle pain, soreness, fever and chills. As part of the trial, de la Peña wasn't allowed to know if he got the actual vaccine or just a placebo.

And so he sat and waited in the clinic's lobby for an hour to see if any side effects would arrive. But when a doctor called him back, he didn't have anything to report, save for some anticipatory anxiety.

Three weeks later, de la Peña returned for his booster shot. In the meantime, he downloaded an app and kept a Covid diary reporting any possible symptoms as part of the trial. But, just like the first visit to the clinic, there wasn't anything to note.

In late October, de la Peña completed his vaccine volunteerism with one final draw of blood at the clinic.

A month later, Pfizer-BioNTech reported the phase three results of the vaccine. In a press release, it was announced to be 95 percent effective against Covid 28 days after the first dose, an outcome that remained consistent across different demographics. For people 65 or older, the vaccine's efficacy registered at 94 percent.

The findings haven't been peer-reviewed and it remains unknown how long the vaccine's efficacy against developing severe Covid symptoms holds up for or if it's poised to diminish transmission rates. But as Pfizer has applied for emergency use authorization, the Food and Drug Administration will investigate the merits of the trial results when it meets on Dec. 10 to consider the company's request.

When de la Peña first learned about Pfizer-BioNTech's initial findings, he curiously followed up with the research clinic to learn whether he received the actual vaccine or the placebo. As a trial participant, de la Peña later learned that if the vaccine gains FDA approval, Pfizer will develop protocols on how to inform its volunteers about what shot they got.

Even if all goes well, another potential challenge lies ahead with regards to fears within the Latino community about taking the vaccine, and accessibility for those who want it. In 2014, only 33 percent of adult Latinos got vaccinated against the flu. Even with Covid's being much more lethal, a recent study found only 34 percent of Latinos expressed trust in the new vaccine's safety while only 40 percent believed it would be effective.

"I don't have that hesitancy for vaccinations," says de la Peña. "It comes from an early age. I remember my parents taking us to the county clinics for our mumps and measles shots."

And it's with his elderly parents, in-laws and large familia in mind that he hopes the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine begins to pave a way out of the pandemic.

"They've all mentioned how they miss family coming over and miss just getting together," says de la Peña. "My volunteering for the trials was just a way to advance the science so that we can go back to some kind of normality."

If it's revealed that de la Peña needs to get the actual vaccine, he'll eagerly roll up his shirt sleeve once more and hopes others will follow suit.

"Until then, mask up and follow the guidelines," says de la Peña. "If they say 'stay home' then stay home. Just follow the guidelines. La ciencia is good!"

- Gabriel San Román

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Your Mouse Muckraker / Photo by Federico Medina

Mouse Muckraker

Disney's fleet of cruise ships may be sidelined by the pandemic, but that's not stopping the company from trying to establish a Lighthouse Point port project in the Bahamas for the future. Last year, the Bahamian government came to an agreement with Disney Island Development for the $250-$400 million development plan that would also include an entertainment facility on the island of Eleuthera. Construction is slated to begin after approval of the environmental impact report. But a surging petition against the cruise ship port is saying "not so fast," backed by more than 425,000 signatures--and counting! "We are deeply concerned about Disney’s plans for a massive cruise ship port at Lighthouse Point that threaten this unique natural place treasured by generations of Bahamians and visitors from around the world." the petition reads. "The seas surrounding this southernmost point of the island of Eleuthera are so biologically rich that they have been formally proposed as a Marine Protected Area." The petition demands that Disney reconsider its project, especially in light of climate change, while working with the government on a suitable alternative site. In addition to the petition, the "Stop Disney" campaign site voices other points of contention. The construction of a half-mile pier would cause environmental damage, it claims, while questioning the supposed economic benefits of the project to Bahamians.

Disney Cruise Line touts on its own Lighthouse Point website that the company is only going to move forward on the project in an "environmentally responsible manner."

For environmentalists, such promises aren't all that reassuring.

"Disney’s pages on Lighthouse Point talk about how they’re going to be respectful to the environment," Sam Duncombe, re-Earth president, told the New York Carib News, "and on one hand, they push out a lot of good information but then they’re not walking the walk when it comes to their own development."

By the Byline

For my latest monthly "Off the Page" column with LibroMobile, I've compiled a handy holiday book buying guide featuring many local authors of color!

Whether in need of poetry, fiction, short stories, memoirs or even a cookbook, downtown SanTana's indie bookstore has got you covered. Check out my list of ten great books to tuck underneath the Christmas tree for loved ones--or even yourself.

And if you've been following my column since May, be sure to consider the titles I've highlighted there, as well! Let's all get ready to turn the page on 2020 with good reads by our side.

Lead photo: De la Peña: ready to send the pandemic packing / Courtesy de la Peña

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