Moderna is about to administer the 200 millionth dose of its COVID-19 vaccine. Tiera May works at the facility in Bloomington, Indiana, a small college town, to complete the batch.
“The vaccine that my grandmother received came from our facility,” said May, an associate project coordinator at the Catalent-owned facility. May is Cherokee Native American, and she’s spent the better part of a year working on Moderna’s vaccine. “We were putting out something that was going directly to my grandmother, and it was also preserving our heritage and our identity.” May’s grandmother is one of the very few Cherokee language speakers in her community, after losing several others who spoke the language to the virus.
According to data from APM Research Lab’s Color of Coronavirus project, one in every 390 Indigenous Americans has died from COVID-19. Indigenous Americans are the most vulnerable minority group in the country, accounting for one in every 555 Black Americans, one in every 665 white Americans, and one in every 680 Latino Americans.
Nonetheless, May stated that her community shares a trait with many other Americans: vaccine apprehension.
Her grandmother, who was both over 65 and Native American, was among the first to be considered for the Moderna shot. “I think the hardest part was that I would have to tell my team, ‘Hey, we’re trying to save the world,'” said Brandon Williams, the packaging value stream manager at Catalent. “Every vaccine counts because each one, of course, represents someone who is safe from the virus.”
Williams and his colleagues are involved in the final stages of the manufacturing process, where they keep the vaccines at a temperature of -40 degrees Celsius. He admitted that learning how to operate the “freezer farm,” as he refers to it, was difficult for him and his team at first.
“Initially, we had fewer freezers and less experience, but that wasn’t anything we couldn’t resolve,” Williams said, standing next to a row of specially designed freezers. “Every time we brought boxes downstairs, it was as if we knew how many more people would be able to survive this pandemic.”
Williams, like May, is aware that his family received Moderna shots made in his facility.
“We felt a little more at ease going back to church,” Williams said. “I’m aware that it’s not just my family; other families are doing the same thing. It was a true blessing to be able to do so.”
Some in Williams’ personal circle were skeptical of the vaccine, but, like May, he was able to provide a unique perspective.
“It was something we shared with our families because we were like, ‘Hey, we’re working with Moderna, and it’s been approved!'” he said, recalling the day the Food and Drug Administration approved Moderna’s vaccine for emergency use. “You can feel comfortable going out and getting that shot, you can be safe and get back to America as normal — the world as normal.'”
When Catalent ships off Moderna’s 200 millionth dose, the company will have potentially vaccinated roughly one-third of all Americans, a feat that its employees are proud of.
“When my parents were vaccinated, both of them received the Moderna, and it was most certainly manufactured here in Bloomington,” said Alyson Norrick, project management director and mother of four. “The first hugs with the grandparents — I’m not an emotional person, but that was an emotional moment after a year of not being able to have close contact. It was incredible to be able to do that.”
Moderna’s vaccine, as well as Johnson & Johnson’s shot, will continue to be manufactured at Catalent’s Bloomington facility. Catalent is currently funding over 80 COVID-19-related vaccines and treatments, including several priority government-funded programs.
“It’s like icing on the cake when I see people post things online about how they got their first vaccine or dose, or they share pictures of how they’re reunited after a long period of time apart,” May said.