With a look of intense concentration, Amy Chen, a fourth-year student at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy (UMSOP), gently pierced the skin of the upper arm of Jane M. Kirschling, PhD, RN, FAAN, the Bill and Joanne Conway Dean of the University of Maryland School of Nursing (UMSON), thus administering to the dean her first dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.
As the rollout of long-awaited coronavirus vaccines has unfolded throughout the state, University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) students such as Chen have come to fill a vital role in combating the pandemic: volunteer vaccinators.
Students from UMSOP, UMSON, and the University of Maryland School of Medicine have been vaccinating Maryland residents since January at the Southern Management Corporation (SMC) Campus Center, a clinic first managed by the University of Maryland Medical Center and now managed by UMB.
Not only are these students fulfilling a need to help during the pandemic, they are gaining valuable hands-on experience.
“I volunteered because I wanted to help fight COVID. I feel like what I am doing matters,” said Chen, who at the time was unaware of her patient’s role as dean of nursing at UMB. “Had I known, I would have been a little nervous.”
Alex Clyde, another UMSOP student, said she volunteered because doing so means saving lives. Pharmacy students participating in the clinic completed online trainings and received immunization certification as part of their normal studies.
The pandemic “has obviously been a life-altering experience,” said Clyde, who lost an uncle to COVID-19 in April 2020. “I definitely know people who have suffered a lot from everything that’s going on. So the fact that we can finally kind of see an end is really enlightening and gratifying. I think most people get into health care with just the idea of helping people. And this, for me, has been the best way to help people.”
Volunteering for the vaccination clinic was an easy decision for fellow pharmacy student Ryan Jackson, who also had family members who suffered from the virus.
“Whenever they need volunteers to stop a disease, or to stop the spread of a disease that is affecting so many, I think we’re definitely helping,” Jackson said.
Magaly Rodriguez de Bittner, PharmD, BCPS, CDE, FAPhA, professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Science and associate dean for clinical services and practice transformation at UMSOP, received her first dose of the vaccine from one of her students, Jemini Patel.
“I’m delighted. I’ve been wanting to get it for a long time,” Rodriguez de Bittner said. “Secondly, I’m delighted that I’ve been able to get the vaccine by one of my student pharmacists and highlight what an important role pharmacists have in public health. For us, it’s very important to see how by having that training, the students are ready, capable, and able to provide vaccines and improve public health.”
The instructor beamed with pride after Patel gave her the shot.
“She followed all the steps that we teach them,” Rodriguez de Bittner said. “And the other thing is I really, honest to God, did not feel it. So it was very painless. It was very easy, very, very smooth.”
Kelly Doss, a student in UMSON’s Clinical Nurse Leader program, also welcomed the chance to be part of the clinic.
“I’m excited to be part of this and very, very happy to have this opportunity,” she said. “They were hinting at it for a while with emails from the School of Nursing, and when I learned this is actually happening, I was very happy.”
As excited as Doss was to be part of the vaccination process, Kirschling was appreciative for the hands-on learning students are receiving.
“I’m extremely grateful for the partnership between the medical center, the medical system, and UMB in terms of making this a reality. Not only for our employees, but for students, it is extremely important,” Kirschling said. “We have 2,000 nursing students at UMB, and our undergraduate and graduate students and their ability to pull together and to participate in the vaccination process is important, and will help us get it done sooner.”
Meanwhile, behind the scenes at the SMC vaccination site, UMSOP students also are being trained to ensure that the vaccines are properly managed and distributed.
“Part of our role as pharmacists is medication management and preparation for administration,” said Cherokee Layson-Wolf, PharmD, BCACP, FAPhA, associate dean for student affairs and associate professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Science at UMSOP. “It is very important to have our students involved in this process so they can understand how important it is to manage this very important resource.”
The dose preparation process is particularly important because the COVID-19 vaccines are fragile and must be carefully mixed and distributed. This is because the mRNA structure and protein ingredients in each dosage of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will lose their potency the more they are manipulated.
Pharmacy students of all education levels are encouraged to take part in this training. Fourth-year students who have had experience in the COVID vaccination clinic are tasked with training first-, second-, and third-year students. Many of them actually opted to give up one of their clinical rotations to teach other students how to handle the COVID vaccines.
“I thought it was a really unique opportunity that I wouldn’t be able to get with just my schoolwork,” said Michael Obineme, a fourth-year student at UMSOP. “It is a real privilege to be able to step up to the front lines and help with the recovery effort in any way that I could.”
During the training, each student was given two different-sized vials of saline solution, one the size of a standard Pfizer dose and the other the size of a standard Moderna dose. The students practiced splitting up the doses into syringes, six for Pfizer and 10 for Moderna.
“Our students are critical members of this response to COVID,” Layson-Wolf said. “Through this whole effort, I believe that our students have found that they play an important role in public health on both a one-on-one basis and broader basis.”
Because of the virtual learning mandates that were put in place during the pandemic, for many students this was the first in-person learning experience they have had over the last year. Belinda Tamrakar, a first-year pharmacy student, jumped at the chance to volunteer her time to help with dose preparation. She was happy to have the opportunity to help the community get vaccinated while also furthering her education.
“I really wanted to get more hands-on experience the same way a real pharmacist would work in the day-to-day world,” Tamrakar said. “Over the last year, we have seen a lot of health care workers doing what they can to help everyone in this pandemic, so I just wanted to be a part of that effort.”
The UMB Vaccination Clinic has received approval to provide COVID-19 vaccines to anyone who is eligible regardless of whether they live, work, or learn in Baltimore City. Find more information at GetTheVaccineBaltimore.org.