Hundreds of students are volunteering to administer COVID-19 vaccines
Laura Herring (right), a senior nursing student and undergraduate fellow, enjoys a moment with Richmond resident Cynthia Dixon after vaccinating her at the VCU Health Hub.
With more than 8 million Virginians in need of vaccinations against COVID-19, demand is high for qualified health professionals ready to administer shots to the community.
At Virginia Commonwealth University, hundreds of student volunteers are answering the call.
Virginia’s governor and other state leaders in a late January news conference emphasized the need for those with health care training to join the statewide vaccination effort.
To get essential health care workers back where they’re needed to care for COVID-19 patients, Secretary of Health and Human Resources Daniel Carey, M.D., said, the state’s pool of vaccinators will be expanded to include physicians, podiatrists, dentists, veterinarians and others who will get additional training on vaccinations.
VCU students preparing for careers in health care and other community-facing professions are stepping up. Some already have training administering shots from their coursework. Others are ready to learn. Even more have expressed interest in staffing vaccination events in other ways.
Volunteering in droves
Expanding the vaccination effort will mean bringing in anyone who can help — including health professional students, said Benjamin Van Tassell, Pharm.D., an associate professor at the VCU School of Pharmacy who is volunteering to give the vaccines.
“Students may be one of the keys to unlock the solution,” Van Tassell said.
Among those who agree is Jean-Venable “Kelly” Goode, Pharm.D., a professor at the VCU School of Pharmacy and co-chair of Virginia’s Vaccine Advisory Workgroup.
“There is a lot students can do,” Goode said, such as documenting vaccinations, drawing up doses and injecting the vaccines.
Students have already started filling these roles through a new volunteer effort called the VCU Vaccine Corps. The VCU Vaccine Corps was designed to collect interest from volunteers, connect them with opportunities and train a strike force of health professional students to support vaccination efforts.
Alan Dow, M.D., assistant vice president of interprofessional education and collaborative care for the health sciences, worked with faculty across the university to develop the program. He said the opportunities are not just ideal for students from the health sciences campus but also for students such as those from the Department of Kinesiology & Health Sciences and the Department of Psychology in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences and the School of Social Work.
And, he said, students have responded.
Since the program started less than a month ago, nearly 1,200 people — more than 900 of them students — have expressed interest in volunteering with the vaccine corps. VCU students, faculty and staff and VCU Health team members have opportunities to serve in a variety of roles, including vaccinators, greeters and post-vaccination monitors.
Keeping community members company, for example, in the 15 minutes after they get the vaccine to ensure they don’t have a reaction is a way for volunteers to get involved without needing additional medical training, Dow said.
“These are good roles for students,” said Dow, also a professor of internal medicine at the VCU School of Medicine. “It’s a good way for them to engage with the community and to be their enthusiastic selves around the community.”
Invaluable community experience
Melissa Cisewski, a first-year Master of Public Administration student in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, helped check in community members at a recent vaccination event and confirm their appointments for a second dose.
Cisewski got involved in the vaccine corps through the Richmond Health and Wellness Program at VCU, which works to increase social connectedness among older adults as one of several efforts to improve their overall health. Cisewski is the program’s Supporting Wellness and Aging Needs Study project coordinator. She said helping older populations get vaccinated is key in keeping them socially connected so they can safely see their friends and family more.
“I’m really excited to be a part of it,” Cisewski said. “You’re getting to be part of history helping people get vaccines.”
Dow and the vaccine corps partnered with Pamela Parsons, Ph.D., associate dean for practice and community engagement at the VCU School of Nursing who leads the Richmond Health and Wellness Program, and other nursing faculty and students on some of the earliest community events VCU students have helped to staff.
“These events are not just about the vaccine but are an opportunity to reach the community in an integrated way,” Parsons said.
Just down the hall, Hyacintha Johnson prepared her station for the next patient she’d be vaccinating. The graduate Family Nurse Practitioner student in the School of Nursing also works as a trauma surgery nurse at VCU Health. On her day off, she helped vaccinate front-line health care workers and adults 65 and older.
While she attributed her interest in administering shots to the importance of vaccinating community members who are at a higher risk for the disease, Johnson also acknowledged the role that volunteering to vaccinate community members like this will play in the next phase of her career when she graduates in May.
“Specifically for my concentration, we do a lot of work with the community,” she said, “so I think it’s really important to be exposed to the community and help out as much as possible.”
Helping vaccinate the front lines early on
For students who are already trained on administering vaccines, some have gotten an even bigger head start.
“Can you roll up your sleeve?” asked Meghan Beard, a fourth-year doctor of pharmacy student. She sat with a patient in a small side room at VCU Medical Center beside one of an array of industrial tables, each lined with pre-loaded syringes.
The patient did so as Beard efficiently went through the required information: This would be the first of two doses, so be sure to set up an appointment for the second; most people feel sore or achy for a day or two, a sign that the vaccine is working; hold on to your CDC-approved vaccination card.
A moment later the shot had gone into the arm, a self-stick bandage affixed, the sleeve rolled back down. And the world took another step toward halting the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It feels good,” Beard said of her work administering the vaccinations.
At VCU, health professions students like Beard have been at the forefront of the vaccination effort, in part because they receive training in giving vaccinations as part of their coursework. Pharmacy students, for example, usually earn state certifications in intramuscular injection during the second year of their program, while nursing students complete their training as part of their undergraduate degree.
Working with pharmacy chains and health systems, including Bon Secours and Inova Health, VCU Pharm.D. students have been vaccinating residents of long-term care facilities and essential health care workers since December.
“Right now we’re doing everything we can,” Van Tassell said. “But to get ahead of this [pandemic], we will need to be an order of magnitude larger.”
Fulfilling a need
To meet the growing need for vaccinators, almost 300 health sciences students have completed specialized training from the VCU Vaccine Corps on how to properly administer the COVID-19 vaccines through intramuscular injections. These include students from VCU’s School of Dentistry, School of Medicine and College of Health Professions, as well as students in nursing and pharmacy who would take the same training later in their studies.
For medical students, for instance, vaccinations are not a usual part of their training but are closely tied to the work they’re already doing in hands-on courses, Dow said. For volunteers in the vaccine corps to administer vaccines, they must pass the same state training for intramuscular injections required for health professionals such as nurses and pharmacists who give shots in their day-to-day work.
Goode and colleagues are working on a plan to provide trained student vaccinators the clinical experience of administering vaccines at the pharmacies across Virginia that are registering as vaccination sites.
It’s a process already underway at Daily Planet Health Services, a community health center in Richmond where Goode also serves as a pharmacist. Health professional students, including students in the School of Medicine, began vaccinating people without homes in January. “There is a lot of hope,” Goode said.
Many pharmacy students already have received that training including Andrew Zabala, a fourth-year Pharm.D. student who has been vaccinating VCU Health employees on site. Zabala may soon be joined by more future health professionals, but for now, he’s content with his role offering shots to those on the front lines.
“I’ve been itching to give this,” Zabala said, moments after vaccinating a VCU Health contractor. “It feels good. I’m helping end the pandemic.”
Story by Greg Weatherford and Mary Kate Brogan