This week’s interview is with Julia Murdza, the 1Day Sooner Chief Operating Officer! Julia discusses the early stages of 1Day Sooner, her experience in a Sanofi COVID vaccine trial, and the joys of the Boston area.
Gavriel: Tell me a little bit about yourself–where do you live, and how do you spend your time?
Julia: I’ve lived in the greater Boston area for the past seven years. I went to college in Providence [Rhode Island] and worked in professional theater on a stage management team. Then I moved to Boston to work as a paralegal, and once the pandemic started I joined 1Day Sooner, first as a volunteer and then as an employee. Boston is very transit-friendly, so I can do lots of urban exploration without getting in a car. What I like to do is basically walk around and learn more about the city overall. We have great parks–there’s a state park with lots of rocky paths, and a gorgeous arboretum. I enjoy making sure other people know about things in Boston like that and dragging them along with me. I like to see the city and help other people enjoy the city better. I also care a lot about how my city works, and I listen in to planning meetings. Some of them are really positive, like Somerville was the first city in Massachusetts to pass a Complete Streets Ordinance. On the other hand, just last night there was a really frustrating meeting about the fact that a lot of restaurants are violating the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] in terms of how their outdoor dining is set up. We’re sacrificing the ability of people to get around the city because we don’t feel like enforcing civil rights law.
Gavriel: Can you tell me about the origins of 1Day Sooner, since you’ve been here from the beginning? How did you get connected and what was the initial buildup process like?
Julia: I found out about 1Day Sooner at the point when the website was just a signup page called The COVID Challenge, because Dylan Matthews posted about it on Twitter. I slept on it and put my name down to learn more, and got an email from Josh. It turned out to be his first organizing call. I came in before there was a website; there were already people working on the research paper and working on the website, but it was before we had a real plan for organizing. [Josh asked], “Julia, why don’t you take on organizing at least for now?” I was eager to be doing something useful. I had just two weeks earlier started working remotely, so it was a very different work environment. Boston was totally shut down. The Boston Dyke March, which is a local event once a year that I’m on the committee for–we’d just decided we couldn’t hold the march that June, so that was a big gap in my life. But I even ended up putting time I didn’t have into this. I was relieved when about a month and a half in, Josh said we have funding, would you like to come on board as an employee? It was getting untenable for me to do that much volunteering outside of a day job. There were a lot of people pulling really long hours and being really enthusiastic at the beginning. When I started it was still very hectic and pedal-to-the-metal, but then became a little more sustainable. I remember throughout at least the first six months of having a staff, we would have these conversations about how to get each other to take at least one day off over the weekend. Now, that’s not even a question! We can’t always give up our weekends, we have to be human here! But early on, I didn’t know how to stop working.
Gavriel: When you were moving into the organizing role at 1Day Sooner and attempting to professionalize it, what was your anticipation of how the project would turn out?
Julia: This was in the period where it seemed like maybe we could make a difference in the US. It felt like it could happen. I wasn’t in on the meetings with researchers and the people who would potentially be running the studies, so for me, my main focus was on the volunteers who were signing up and talking to as many of them as possible. Early on I was doing ten calls a week with volunteers. We had a ton of people signing up who were interested in calls, and we were trying to get more organizers as well. That was really exciting, to be working with an organizing team spread throughout the world and hearing about other people’s calls. We made sure people really understood what we were talking about when we were talking about a challenge trial. There was a lot of debate early on about whether a placebo group would be ethical, and the interesting thing is at this point, nobody who’s been infected with COVID on purpose has received a vaccine! We made sure people understood what the trials could look like and how that was different from a Phase III vaccine trial. In some ways, it’s difficult to look back at this point and think about how excited and enthusiastic everyone was and then think about how few opportunities there have been to actually participate. But I don’t regret spending my time talking to people who never ended up being in a study, and I hope they don’t either. It was a time when people often were feeling kind of isolated, so it was a chance to meet someone new and connect over something you cared about and share a bit of your life story. It really was a gift to be able to speak to so many people who were interested in being in studies.
Gavriel: Yeah, I remember early in the pandemic, talking points discussions run by Abie [Rohrig] were the social event I was attending that week. It was pretty joyful in a way, because so many people were passionate about this project.
Julia: Yeah, and we were also getting people more involved in a lot of ways. We were looking for ways to plug people in, like giving interviews, writing opinion pieces, and contributing to research. We’ve had some really stellar people come out of our volunteer pool to contribute to research projects, which has been a really wonderful thing to see. In the fall I checked back in with some volunteers who used to be part of the core team,and it was a really nice reminder of how many people got involved early on and helped give us the momentum it’s taken to still be an organization today.
Gavriel: What was the most interesting thing you learned on the job?
Julia: I have to look at employment arrangements in different countries. I wasn’t expecting that to be so much part of the job. Early on, one of the things I had to do was figure out how we could employ people who were working in the UK, Israel, and Zambia. We ended up using professional employment organizations that have a basis in that country, that are the actual employer who pays their taxes and makes it all legal. I ended up learning about pensions and tax systems and different rights people have as employees in different countries. I already knew that Americans have the short straw when it comes to that, but it was interesting to have sort of a more direct experience of what that’s like in different places.
Gavriel: Which vaccine trial are you involved in? What is your experience with the trial?
Julia: I’m participating in a vaccine trial for one of Sanofi’s vaccine candidates–a phase 2/3 trial testing the vaccine’s ability to be a booster. They’re also testing the same candidate in people who never received a vaccine at all. The experience has been really positive. I had a good initial conversation with the screener who answered a lot of the questions I had. I wanted to make sure that I understood how this might affect my ability to be in other studies. Basically, I shouldn’t receive two investigational products at the same time, so I couldn’t receive another experimental vaccine next week. But if I wanted, I could still be in an observational study, where they take a little bit of blood just to learn something about me as a person or as a control. Then I went in the next week and had a really good conversation with the principal investigator of the study, who started right out by saying, “Why are we still doing this when so many people have been vaccinated? Well, a lot of people still haven’t been vaccinated, and we need more vaccines.” He was really thorough in explaining the study and how it was all going to run. He actually recognized 1Day Sooner from my paperwork, so that was really cool. And I’ve gone back in a couple more times since then to give them more blood. Sometimes I end up feeling faint, but they’re really good about giving me snacks and juice, and I get safety calls every week or two, just making sure I haven’t had COVID symptoms or any medical issues, in addition to the log I fill out for them.
Gavriel: What was the timeline? Did you have to intentionally delay a booster to participate in the study?
Julia: I expressed interest in being in vaccine trials to several Boston hospitals, just to get on the list. The same day Massachusetts made the recommendation that all adults should get a booster was the day I got a call from the study. If they had waited any longer to get in touch with me, I would have had to start weighing some difficult decisions about whether to wait any longer or just go ahead and get it, but it was actually quite good timing. I’m not in a position where I need a third approved shot for any logistical reason, but it has been interesting to see the experience of people [like Julius Hege] who have received only experimental vaccines and then encounter difficulties participating in activities. At this point, the trial team would be totally fine with me getting another shot. They would just like to know about it, and they would continue collecting data from me. My understanding is that it’s cleaner data if I don’t have another shot.
Gavriel: Was there anything about the science you thought was interesting?
Julia: This trial is testing two candidates: a monovalent vaccine uses the spike protein antigen from the Beta variant (which had a lot of concerning mutations), and a bivalent vaccine that uses the spike protein antigens from both the Beta variant and from the original virus that started tha pandemic. There’s no placebo involved, I just have one of two types of candidates, so it would be very surprising given the data they’ve collected so far if I had no protection. It’s cool to be in a study that’s looking at vaccines against variants.
Gavriel: Are there any public health changes you would like to see or public health policies you would advocate for?
Julia: So many, but one on my mind right now is the atrocious number of Americans, in the 20–30% range, who don’t have paid sick time. That has so many implications, not just for one’s own health but for others, in terms of going to work with infectious diseases or being able to provide childcare for sick children. People can’t stay home sick without worrying about the financial hit. It also matters for preventive health — If people had paid sick time, then they wouldn’t have to worry so much feeling knocked out for a day after their second Moderna shot.
Gavriel: What’s the pandemic situation like where you are right now?
Julia: We’ve been on the tail side of the omicron spike for a while. You’re seeing some restrictions lifting, like Massachusetts just announced the end of the mask mandate for schools will come near the end of the month. Boston has a vaccine mandate for eating in restaurants and certain other in-person activities. If I go over to hang out with a friend, we exchange information about who we’ve been seeing the week before and whether we’ve had tests, to make sure everyone has the full information to make a decision they feel comfortable with. It’s looser than we were in the omicron peak, but nobody I know is saying we should stop wearing masks and act like there isn’t a pandemic going on anymore.
Gavriel: You said you loved exploring cities–what’s been your favorite surprise about a place you’ve explored?
Julia: Often it’s the people I meet. The other week I was walking to the library and passed an elderly woman sweeping her walk. We chatted briefly and then on my way back we talked some more along with one of her neighbors who also stopped to chat. Betty is 88, has lived in the same house here since 1955, and seems to know everyone on the block. It was right before a blizzard and she told me about how in the blizzard of 1978, the police had to bring insulin to her husband at work because he was diabetic and couldn’t get home. She said I should come back to see her again sometime. And in Chicago, I went to the symphony orchestra and struck up a conversation with an old lady next to me, and was given a pecan pie out of her bag. Alternatively, I really enjoy coming across homes that people have designated in unique ways, like one in Somerville with dozens of horse figurines on the porch roof and a patio full of blue glass sculptures [see photo below]. Equally fascinating but more concerning was a shop in Newburyport with 25¢ hot dogs.
Gavriel: What are you curious about or passionate about learning?
Julia: Recently I’ve been very interested in learning how to improve my cat’s life. I think about how I can give her more high-up places, access to windows, different surfaces and textures, and learn how to play with her in the ways that are most natural and engaging for a cat. I’m still spending a lot of time at home, but it’s not just entertaining myself, it’s also enjoyable for another living being. And back to my interest in urban design — right before the pandemic, I went to a meeting for one of the local nonprofits that focuses on safe streets. They were doing surveys to learn more about people’s experiences navigating the city, collecting on-the-ground data. I was interested in doing that, and they stopped doing stuff for at least a little while because of the pandemic. I would like to do more of that, because that’s a way to spend time outside in the city and do research, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for that as the city continues to renegotiate opening.