Kizzmekia Corbett, a UNC alumna and Orange County native, has been named one of TIME’s 2021 Heroes of the Year for her work developing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
She is being honored alongside Barney Graham, Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman, who researched how viruses survive in order to make an effective COVID-19 vaccine possible.
Corbett is currently an assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and has been a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health, working at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' Vaccine Research Center, where she helped to design the groundbreaking mRNA vaccine technology.
Corbett, who was also honored for her role in developing a vaccine in a January 2021 Orange County Board of Commissioners meeting, received a doctorate in microbiology and immunology from UNC in 2014. At the meeting, she addressed vaccine hesitancy and education efforts surrounding the pandemic, something she has spoken on widely.
“I have committed myself to the effort, not just from the vaccine design standpoint, but at this point it is about the only thing that is going to change the trajectory of this pandemic,” Corbett said.
Nearly a year has passed since that meeting, and now nearly 80 percent of the United States' eligible population has received at least one vaccination, per CDC data. Locally, 57 percent of North Carolinians are fully vaccinated and 75 percent of Orange County residents are fully vaccinated.
Kristin Prelipp, communications manager for the Orange County Health Department, said that the health department has focused on equity in vaccine distribution and education.
“We focused on reducing barriers to vaccines for people of color and other historically marginalized groups in Orange County,” Prelipp said.
Prelipp said OCHD did this by allowing the vaccination effort to be community led. The department created informational postcards translated into the seven most spoken languages in the county.
OCHD also provided information to leaders in the county, allowing residents to hear information from people that they know and trust, Prelipp said.
“It’s not good enough just to have one clinic that is advertised only online, only in English,” she said. “We try to take into account that our community members are really diverse in the languages they speak, they are diverse in their various literacy levels and they all like to receive information in different ways.”
Addressing vaccine hesitancy
The connection Corbett — who grew up in Hillsborough near Cedar Grove — has to the area likely impacted community members' confidence in the vaccine, Prelipp said.
Danita Thompson, communications director for the Cedar Grove Community Center and vice president of the Cedar Grove Neighborhood Association, said that the community center created posters highlighting Corbett as a member of their community.
Corbett's connection to Cedar Grove helped community members feel more trusting of the vaccine, Thompson said.
"I find that one of the things — unfortunately I am one person and then my lab is the lab and the team are only a few people — but it really helps that people feel like they are a part of the process," Corbett said during the January Orange County Board of Commissioners. "Because especially in communities from where we come, in Cedar Road, I barely have phone service at my mom's, let alone information, no shade."
Thompson said that the volunteers at some of the community vaccination events were largely white. She said that staff and officers of the Cedar Grove Community Center and Neighborhood Association, who were largely people of color, attended these events to further increase confidence in the vaccines.
“The staff and the officers were always on site, and that was something that we discussed with the health department because we saw that the majority of the vaccinators and the volunteers were not people of color,” Thompson said. “So we tried to make it very intentional that we were the first face that the people saw coming into these events.”
Thompson said she continues to see some hesitancy from younger people in her community to get vaccinated.
“If you are feeling uneasy about it, just talk to someone who has been vaccinated and gone through the entire rounds of vaccinations and see what their outcome was and make an informed decision and not a social media-based decision,” Thompson said.
Corbett, now a nationally recognized leader in COVID-19 vaccination, shared the same sentiment at the January meeting.
“To allow a microscopic microbe that doesn’t even have a brain to outthink us is absolutely absurd and disappointing," Corbett said. "And I just want each person to do their part in their empathetic space and just try, at least."
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