September 7, 2020 - Podcast

Episode 29—COVID-19 vaccines, plus coping with mental illness

As researchers around the world work feverishly to discover a vaccine in the battle to prevent COVID-19, Indiana University School of Medicine has been selected as a site for a vaccine trial. The IU School of Medicine will conduct the clinical trial at the Clinical Research Center at IU Health University Hospital. Biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, in partnership with Oxford University, is moving forward with its late-stage clinical trial for a vaccine known as AZD1222. This Phase III clinical trial is the last required stage of study before the potential vaccine can be approved by the Food and Drug Administration for widespread public use. AZD1222 is one of only four vaccines in Phase III testing for the prevention of COVID-19 in the United States.

The longer COVID-19 rages on, the more the United States appears to be hanging its hopes on the development and rapid, mass distribution of a vaccine. Getting a safe and effective vaccine out to the public could be a game changer, health experts believe. But stopping the virus’s spread will happen only if enough people choose – or are required – to get vaccinated. Ross Silverman, a professor of public health and law at Indiana University, says while some people may see it as their “patriotic duty” to get vaccinated, others won’t. He says opponents may challenge vaccination requirements based on claims of religious liberty or under specific laws that would allow for a religious exemption from any COVID-19 vaccine mandates. In some states, including Indiana and Massachusetts, there are laws allowing parents to cite religious reasons to opt out of childhood immunization requirements. But Silverman says whether or not a vaccine mandate is appropriate will depend upon how safe the vaccine is determined to be, what it protects against and how well it offers protection. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said he would be “pretty surprised” if vaccination became mandatory for any part of the population. But Silverman says other experts have raised the possibility of a vaccine being mandatory as part of an if/then proposition – in other words, someone can only do something if they are first vaccinated. Under these scenarios, would religious or personal exemptions override a mandate? Silverman says that depends on who issues the mandate. A requirement that someone be vaccinated imposes a greater burden on personal liberty than, say, having to attend church virtually as opposed to in person. In any case, Silverman says talk of a mandate may be moot. Almost two-thirds of the American public have said they would get the vaccine if it were available today. Silverman says should a safe, effective vaccine be developed, there will likely be tremendous demand to get the shot. But should states or businesses feel it is necessary to require vaccination to bring about the end of the pandemic, he believes it is likely that courts will support them in these protective efforts.

In other news, some 45 million Americans experience a mental illness, and experts are warning that the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to drastically increase those numbers. But one former athlete and IU graduate student is working to help those struggling with mental illness find their voice and get the help they need. Throughout high school and during his time at Indiana University, A’Shon Riggins was a decorated athlete, playing all through his high school years and earning All B1G 10 Freshman Honorable Mention his freshman year at IU. But Riggins says he struggled with feeling alone. On the field, he would celebrate victories with his teammates, but off the field he was by himself. Riggins says depression began, though he had no idea what he was going through at the time. His struggles culminated in September 2018 with an attempted suicide. The young athlete started talking to a sports psychologist with IU and was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Riggins says the diagnosis was a relief and inspired the idea to help others experiencing the same thing. So, Riggins created Real Spill, a mental health program at IU for male athletes to have an open dialogue about their daily struggles and accomplishments that they go through as male student athletes. The program, currently in the works to become a non-profit foundation, also teaches athletes coping mechanisms for anxiety and depression. In addition to helping fellow athletes, Riggins is also hoping to continue his work by obtaining his master’s degree in mental health counseling and eventually a Ph.D. in sports psychology. Riggins says he is working to become as educated as possible on mental health opportunities; his goal is to normalize mental health and encourage more people to talk about their emotions more openly. Riggins says everyone needs to be open to telling a friend, relative, coach or spouse that they are struggling and need help. He’s hoping his work will help make that conversation easier.