In one of KY’s least-vaccinated counties, this 9-year-old girl joined COVID vaccine trial

·5 min read

If and when a COVID vaccine is approved for children under 12, one person we can all thank is a horse-loving, ukulele-playing, Clay County 9-year-old named Althea Blake Madden.

It’s true that Alie Blake, as she’s called, lives in one of the sickest, least vaccinated counties in Kentucky and the country, but in a few weeks, she’ll make her third trip to Lexington as part of a clinical trial to test the Moderna vaccine on kids.

“I wanted to do my part so we could get this over with and get back to normal,” Alie said.

She’s had two shots in her leg, in August and September, plus a blood draw to see how high her antibody count is. Seventy-five percent of participants at a Lexington pediatric office received the vaccine and 25 percent a placebo. On Oct. 5, she’ll find out which group she was part of, and if it was the placebo, she’ll get the real shot then. Her only reaction? “I’m vaccinated!!” she screamed, and did a little tap dancing routine in the doctor’s office.

Alie Blake is excited to get back to school after a year and a half; her parents, who homeschool her right now, are excited because in a county where COVID is running like wildfire, their youngest daughter may now be protected. According to the state data base, this week, Clay County had 111 cases per 100,000 people, a positivity rate of 14 percent and a vaccination rate of 41 percent for one dose.

But her parents, Kerri and Jared Madden, also hope their choice to enroll in a clinical trial will reassure people in a vaccine-hesitant county to get the shot themselves. Jared, who is an osteopathic doctor, looked at how the Delta variant was affecting children versus the millions of vaccines that had been administered without any problem.

“At that point, the math was easy to do,” he said. “If you want to know what a doctor thinks, ask them what they do with their own family. I can’t speak more strongly than to say I’m risking my pride and joy ... if everyone acted like Alie, we’d be in good shape.”

Native son

The Maddens’ views are an anomaly in Clay County, but he’s hardly some wild-eyed outsider. His Manchester office sits across from the county courthouse at the top of one of the town’s hills. The examining room is filled with dark, wooden furniture that looks more suited to the law office it was when it belonged to his father, Scott Madden, a long-time attorney. His mother, Linda, worked for decades at the Cumberland Valley Health District; his grandfather and aunt were local optometrists. Kerri grew up in Martin County, and they’ve raised their three children in Manchester.

Jared Madden now does osteopathic manipulation for non-narcotic pain relief in a region devastated by the opioid crisis. “I would hope people would trust me,” he said.

They sent their children to Clay County public schools. On the first day of school this fall, Clay County started without a mask mandate; on the third day, their son, Brice’s entire 10th grade class was quarantined after a teacher tested positive for COVID. Brice was already vaccinated so he was able to stay in school, but Alie Blake’s parents were not willing to risk her going until she had a shot too.

Ultimately, they blame a lack of leadership and misinformation. Last month, Senate President Robert Stivers, whose law office is about a block away from Madden’s building, unveiled a new initiative to try to persuade more people to get vaccinated, but admitted he might have waited too long.

According to Christine Green, director of the Cumberland Valley Health District, the initial results “did not generate as many vaccines as we hoped for,” but the district is getting more calls about vaccines, probably because of the high case loads in Clay County.

The misinformation is political, of course, but Jared Madden also worries about anecdotes he’s heard about local doctors and pharmacists dissuading patients from the vaccine. Other doctor friends are becoming as frantic as he is as hospital beds fill to capacity around the region.

A fact that did not calm him down was that the U.S. fatalities from COVID, more than 675,000, have now exceeded those in the 1918 Spanish flu.

“We are facing one of the deadliest winters in history,” he said. “That is terrifying, apocalyptic, Shakespearean.”

His greatest fear that is COVID will mutate yet again, into something even more deadly than Delta, one that does not respond to the vaccine.

Or as Kerri said: “It’s frustrating to do your part when no one else does.”

‘Heroes’

COVID has been frustrating and confusing, with changing information at every turn. But at this point, there is one thing we know for sure: Vaccinations help keep people out of the hospital and help keep people alive. Yes, there are fatal breakthrough cases, but those are usually due to underlying conditions. The COVID vaccines started under President Trump and released under President Biden are miracles of technology that millions of people in other countries would be thrilled to receive. The vaccines work so well that even Fox News employees are required to get them.

Part of that miracle is due to the thousands of volunteers in clinical trials in Kentucky and around the country who took a much bigger risk than any of us did in receiving the shot after it received emergency approval. That’s especially true for the children and their parents who have volunteered to test the vaccine for use in kids. In this selfish world we live in, it seems almost quaint that people are still willing to step up for science and their community.

“The kids really are heroes and the parents are too, it’s beyond words to describe how meaningful this is,” Dr. George Fuchs, the principle investigator for a Moderna safety study at the University of Kentucky. “They feel like they’re really making a contribution — it’s really inspiring.”

Alie Blake and her parents hope that they will inspire more people to get the vaccine, to help themselves and their communities.

“Without everyone on board, we really don’t have hope,” Jared Madden said. “If everyone were like Alie, we could end this in six months.”

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