INDIANAPOLIS – Nursing student Brandi White, 43, was a little nervous vaccinating her mother in mid-January.
Angie Stark, 62, was initially hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine, even though she works at a long-term care facility for the elderly. But pride quickly replaced that hesitancy when she saw her daughter at work on the evening of Jan. 16.
After White was done, her mother stood up, gave her a big hug and said, “thank you.”
“It was amazing,” White said, who also vaccinated her 21-year-old daughter that night. The three generations of health care workers volunteer at Ascension St. Vincent William K. Nasser, MD, Health Education and Simulation Center in Indianapolis.
While White and Stark administer vaccines to Indiana residents, the youngest registers patients at the front desk. She’s also very proud of her mom.
“It was nice for all of us to be there together,” White said. “It feels good to be doing something.”
Medical students are expected to be an increasingly important part of the nation's unprecedented vaccination effort. President Joe Biden's National COVID-19 strategy says clinical students, retired health care professionals and health workers who normally do not give vaccinations should all be called upon to deliver vaccines.
In White's case, her chance to administer vaccinations came through her school. It worked with the Students Assist America program, an initiative spearheaded by the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine to speed up COVID-19 vaccinations by using qualified medical students.
The effort comes as the nation faces a surplus of distributed but unused vaccines, with about 20 million doses currently waiting to be administered, according to Friday data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There’s no doubt that we have not been able to vaccinate as many people in an efficient way that we want in part because there’s not enough people involved at all levels,” Virginia Bader, director of Students Assist America and senior adviser to the president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic medicine. “If we could fully engage the million students in SAA, there’s no doubt that we’d be in a far better position than we are now.”
More than 830,000 students educated by institutions in Students Assist America are trained to vaccinate with supervision during their education. An additional 147,000 students who are trained in social work, psychology and other areas of public health are available to assist with nonclinical aspects of mass vaccination.
Many of these students still attend classes virtually and are eager to begin clinical work as part of their training.
“These students have been asking for ways to help for months, their lives have been really disrupted by this and their education process has been upended,” Bader said. “(Volunteering) is a good way for people to gain some sense of control and agency."
White has volunteered a total of seven times. In six-hour shifts, she vaccinates between 50 to 60 patients.
That has been possible because Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb extended an executive order Dec. 23, first issued in March in response to the pandemic, to grant temporary licensing to retired or student health care workers. This included authorizing qualified students to administer the COVID-19 vaccine.
In New Jersey, students from the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford began administering vaccines after Gov. Phil Murphy issued a similar executive order. The school vaccinates 300 to 400 patients per day on campus, according to the school’s dean Dr. Thomas Cavalieri. That amounts to one in every 95 patients vaccinated in the state.
“Initially, we had an internal discussion as to whether we had the resources to do it. … We came to a conclusion, ‘no’ wasn’t an option,” he said. “It’s not a matter of ‘should we,’ it’s a matter of ‘we must.’”
Students say they feel a similar sense of duty.
MacKenzie North, a student at Marian University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, doesn’t have the credentials to administer vaccines yet, but she jumped at the chance to assist with registration.
“Feeling like you are a part of the solution is a very rewarding feeling and puts in perspective of why you’re going into medicine to begin with,” she said.
Dr. Amanda Wright, interim school dean, is proud of the how professional and selfless the student volunteers have been in helping to streamline the vaccination process.
She said students help offload work from other health care workers who may need a break or don’t have the extra time to volunteer after working at strained hospitals.
It's also a unique learning experience for students that licensed doctors today may never have had, Wright added.
“They’re going to be our future leaders,” she said. “When I trained, I never saw something like this happen. These learners have, so they’ll be very prepared for future crises because they’ve gone through it.”
COVID-19 cemented White’s decision to switch her career to nursing in March 2020 and volunteering has made her feel prepared to join the workforce battling the pandemic when she graduates in December 2021.
As White and her family volunteer side-by-side to immunize Indiana residents, she felt proud to be a part of this historic effort.
“This will be a defining moment in all of our lifetimes,” she said. “We will be a part of history.”