This month has brought positive news about the effectiveness of three COVID-19 vaccines: Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Oxford University/AstraZeneca. The Denver Police Department participated in the Moderna vaccine trial by asking for volunteers to take part in the study. Denver Chief Paul Pazen, who was one of the department’s volunteers, spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about how his agency became involved in the study, what their participation entailed, and what the experience was like for him and the other volunteers.

Chuck Wexler: How has COVID-19 affected your city and state?

Chief Paul Pazen: Broadly speaking, it has had a devastating impact on our city and on our state. First, there are the individuals who have contracted COVID-19 and the loss of life. I think it’s hard to find anybody who doesn’t at least know of somebody who has been severely impacted by this. Then there’s the fear, stress, and anxiety it has caused.  And the economic hardship contributes to the challenges we’re facing. This global pandemic has had a profound impact locally on our city and on the state as a whole.

Wexler: How has this impacted your department?

Chief Pazen: Thankfully, we haven’t lost an officer. But unfortunately, too many law enforcement officers across the country have lost their lives as a result of this, and that needs to receive more attention. We are lucky that hasn’t happened here, and we hope to keep it that way.

Wexler: How did the department become involved in the Moderna study?

Chief Pazen: We found out that one of the hospitals in the Denver metro area was going to be participating in the Moderna study. Since March, our department has dedicated a team of officers to monitor the exposures and infections, and we have taken some fairly forward-leaning steps to try to keep our staff safe. Hearing about this potential vaccine trial, we reached out to the hospital, told them that we have members of our department who, due to the nature of their work, are fairly high-risk, and asked if they’d be interested in involving our department in the study.

We found out who was leading the study and contacted him to let him know we might be interested in participating and gauge their interest. An hour later the study doctor set up a call. We met virtually with their team, explained that we’ve been tracking exposures and infections, and that our officers are high-risk and diverse, which are things they were looking for in trial participants. We told them we thought there might be an opportunity for us to partner. They initially liked the idea and wanted to talk it over. We did the same and talked to our union.

If it hadn’t been the Moderna trial, we might not have taken this stance. We did some homework to find out what Moderna was doing with their vaccine, which is messenger RNA targeting the spike protein. I had to make sure that this wasn’t just a weakened version of the virus, so that our folks who got the vaccine couldn’t potentially spread this to other officers, family members, and the community. We had to be assured that participation in this type of trial wouldn’t jeopardize our community, our staff, or our families at home.

Wexler: What were the next steps?

Chief Pazen:. We reached out to the union to make sure they understood what this was all about, and that we had done our diligence to make sure our team would be safe throughout all this.

The hospital itself didn’t actually have the vaccine on hand yet, so there was a delay of about week or two until they were ready to go. Once that occurred, their outreach team and schedulers coordinated with the volunteers who signed up from the police department.

Wexler: How were officers selected for this trial?

Chief Pazen: They were looking for young folks, older folks, and different demographics. It was a random draw whether participants got the placebo or the vaccine. We had 144 volunteers who helped contribute to this study. I’m proud of our folks for stepping up. COVID has had a devastating impact on our community and the country as a whole, and this is a step in the right direction to try to alleviate some of the death and economic impact surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wexler: Were you one of the volunteers?

Chief Pazen: Yes. I was the first from the department to get it. I wasn’t going to ask my folks to do anything I wasn’t willing to do. Many of my command staff volunteered as well. The person who administered the shot told me I was the 15th person in Colorado to get it.

Wexler: What happens next?

Chief Pazen: The study is ongoing, so we still don’t know who received the vaccine and who received the placebo. Before participating in this, we asked what happens when the vaccine is approved and how we would go about getting the vaccine to the 50% of people who received the placebo. They assured us that they would “unblind” the test at that point, so that our officers who received the placebo could get the vaccine. They won’t be running around with the placebo thinking they’re protected once the vaccine is actually available.

The study participants who received the placebo will be on the same statewide vaccine plan based on prioritization of medical workers and the people who provide service in long-term health facilities. Those in the placebo group are not jumping ahead of the schedule, and will receive the vaccine in the priority indicated.

Wexler: What was your reaction when you heard the initial results of the Moderna study?

Chief Pazen: It was exciting! Several members of our command staff and our union president are participating in the study, so I reached out to them and made sure they saw the news. I think everybody was glad they had participated.

I’ve yet to hear a negative story from anyone who participated in the study. University of Colorado Health and their staff were wonderful to us. And we didn’t see large numbers of people who participated calling in sick or anything like that. It was an overwhelmingly positive experience for me and for all the other volunteers I’ve spoken to.

Wexler: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Chief Pazen: Our experience has been overwhelmingly positive. I think that will help us as an agency with the folks who have not been vaccinated or may be concerned about vaccines in general. We want to make sure we share this experience to reach higher vaccination levels in our community, come out of this global pandemic, and save lives.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.