WORCESTER — The nurse told Gina Plata-Nino to look the other way as she poked a needle into her arm.
Plata-Nino complied, her dark eyes tense above her black face mask as she stiffened in the recliner. She hates needles and medical procedures. But still, there she was Friday morning at the UMass Memorial Medical Center, because she’s on a mission — for her people, for the Latino community.
The shot from Bethany Trainor, a research nurse, took less than a second and Plata-Nino didn’t even flinch. “Oh, that wasn’t bad,” she said with surprise.
Plata-Nino doesn’t know what Trainor injected into her muscle. It might have been salt water.
Or it might have been a prospective vaccine against the coronavirus.
Plata-Nino, a staff attorney at the Central West Justice Center, a legal services organization, is among three leaders of the Worcester-area Latino community who went to UMass Friday to set an example and send a message: Latinos, who have been hard hit by COVID-19, need to be represented in clinical trials. And when a vaccine becomes available, Latinos need to take it.
The prospect of a coronavirus vaccine has stirred fevered discussion among experts and pundits: whether an effective vaccine can be identified before a second wave of illness hits; whether political pressure will lead to premature approval; whether the public will accept the vaccine.
But it’s easy to forget that, first, it comes down to whether people like Plata-Nino will roll up their sleeves and accept an experimental shot.
Three prospective coronavirus vaccines have entered the late-stage clinical trials in the United States, each enrolling 30,000 people. Earlier studies, involving much smaller numbers of people, found that the vaccines appeared safe and likely to work.
In the late-stage studies, half the participants get the vaccine and half get a placebo. Then they go about their daily lives, and researchers will see if those injected with the vaccine are significantly less likely to get infected than those who received a placebo. Crucially, they’re also watching for uncommon side effects that may emerge when a medication is given to a large number of people.
UMass Medical School is among 120 medical centers testing a vaccine made by Pfizer and the German company BioNTech. Boston Medical Center is also participating in the Pfizer trial.
Additionally, Cambridge-based Moderna has been testing its vaccine at about 90 centers nationwide, including Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. And AstraZeneca has recently started enrolling participants in testing its vaccine, with Fenway Health in Boston participating.
Like the women at UMass, participants in the Pfizer trial at Boston Medical Center expressed altruistic motivations. Jay Eaves heard about the study from his mother, a nurse in the infectious diseases group at BMC. Eaves, 42, who works for a company that transports animals used in research, knows two people who got sick with COVID-19. “I know this is something essential,” he said.
Aria Pearlman Morales, a 24-year-old medical student who hopes to go into research, got her second shot at Boston Medical Center on Friday.
“I wanted to do my part, be of service to the greater community,” Pearlman Morales said. ”Hopefully, as a future clinical scientist I hope to one day enroll my own patients [in research]. I wanted to experience what it would be like from the other side.”
For the Latina women in Worcester, the quick, anticlimactic injection followed a long morning of listening to a doctor describe the study, answering questions about their health, filling out forms, watching instructional videos, and having noses swabbed and blood drawn.
After 21 days, they will have to return for a second dose, and will come back for up to four additional clinic visits. For the next two years, they are asked to fill out a weekly diary of symptoms and report immediately if they have any symptoms resembling COVID-19. Participants also will receive stipends of $200 for each of the two injections and $150 for each follow-up visit.
Since the trial started at UMass two weeks ago, 58 people have received their first shot, and the researchers expect to enroll 120 by the end of this week.
“I would not voluntarily sign up for this type of thing if it weren’t for the circumstances we’re in,” said Plata-Nino, the Worcester attorney, who is in her mid-30s. “I’m not a fan of needles.”
But she was persuaded by Dr. Robert W. Finberg, the leader of the UMass study, and Dr. Matilde “Mattie” Castiel, Worcester’s commissioner of health and human services.
Both were concerned about the startling inequities revealed by the pandemic: Compared to whites, Latinos in Worcester are three times more likely to get COVID-19 and Blacks more than twice as likely, Castiel said. In March, UMass and the city created a health equity task force to research minority communities and teach them about COVID-19 and how to avoid it.
Finberg asked the group for help making sure that Latinos were represented in the study. And Castiel pushed its members to sign up.
Hilda Ramirez, 56, executive director of the Latino Education Institute at Worcester State University, was one of those pushed. She was reluctant.
“Anything like this is a little scary,” Ramirez said. “You’re going to get a vaccine where it’s not quite known what’s going to happen to your body.”
But she, too, was sitting in an exam room at UMass Friday, grimacing as a nurse drew blood and swabbed her nose. “Mattie just told us we have to come,” she said. How did Castiel persuade her? By agreeing to do the same.
“There are numerous people from communities of color who do not feel comfortable with vaccinations,” Castiel said. And for good reason: Most are familiar with abuses of the past, from the notorious Tuskegee syphilis study, which documented the progress of syphilis in Black men without treating it, to the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women.
Castiel, 65, said she wanted to be able to say, “I’m Latina. Hey, I’m going to do the vaccination.”
Now she can say that. Sort of.
“Oh, that was the saline!” Castiel said when Trainor gave her the injection. “You gave me saline. It felt like there was nothing in there.”
Trainor said many participants find the shot easy to take, and there’s really no way for recipients to tell whether the injection is a placebo or a potential vaccine.
Castiel acknowledged the risks of taking an experimental medication, but considers them small — and worth it. “For the good of the community,” she said, “I’m going to take it.”