When the pandemic suddenly rearranged educational programs at Rowan School of Osteopathic Medicine last March, many students were eager to get into clinics or elsewhere in the community to help fight COVID-19. Alas, like most students, they were pushed to stay home largely for their own safety.
But when Rowan students were offered an opportunity to assist their south New Jersey community in late November, many jumped at the chance. Now dozens are helping co-run a COVID-19 vaccination site, along with the state’s department of health.
Rowan is among a handful of schools whose medical and other qualified students are assisting COVID vaccination sites nationwide. With the lack of manpower being one reason for the slow vaccine rollout thus far, administrators cite their help as invaluable. Some students, in turn, feel the same way about the experience they are gaining.
“We are really interested in learning, and we are really interested in helping out,” said Rohini Bahethi, a student at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
In addition to Rowan and Icahn, students at Marian University (Indianapolis), the University of New England (Maine), Touro College (outside Las Vegas), and Indiana University schools of medicine are working vaccination sites, according to umbrella organizations the Association of American Medical Colleges and American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine.
Exact responsibilities and other parameters vary: Icahn students are spread out across six New York City “pods”; New England students are pairing up to work 8-hour shifts with preceptors vaccinating the 23,000 employees at MaineHealth; and Marian students are assisting a site run by their clinical partner, Ascension St. Vincent Hospital. Faculty and administrators are also volunteering at the sites, where they and some students are also receiving the vaccines.
The experience has provided students solid early clinical exposure, said Amanda Wright, DO, interim dean and an associate family medicine professor at Marian, which is supplying about one-third of Ascension’s vaccination workforce. “It also helps our students remember why they’re going into medicine,” she added. “We’ve been really impressed with their willingness to be involved.”
“Students can play a really critical role, and it’s an incredible learning experience,” said Jennifer Gunderman, MPH, an Area Health Education Center director who is coordinating the University of New England’s efforts. She cited learning about population health management in particular, adding, “I don’t know how places can vaccinate effectively and quickly unless they use students.”
Such is the case at Rowan, an osteopathic school across the Delaware River from center city Philadelphia. Students and administrators began planning in late November and their site went live just before Christmas on campus. Students have since been volunteering for overlapping 5-hour shifts, keeping the site open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for vaccinations. About 40 to 50 students volunteer on-site daily, along with another 20 to 30 handling offsite duties.
They are filling roles including preparing and administering the vaccines, screening and monitoring patients, and coordinating patient and volunteer schedules. Dean Thomas Cavalieri, DO, stops by daily to encourage them and Family Medicine Chair Joshua Coren, DO, MBA, supervises the operation, but the students are handling much of the work.
“They love that they are able to give back to their community,” said Anjani Patel, a third-year medical students and president of Rowan’s student council.
“It was pretty much a no-brainer [to volunteer],” she said. “Everyone was so enthusiastic to put this together.”
Rowan’s site is vaccinating about 250 to 300 patients daily with the Moderna vaccine; Cavalieri hopes to increase that to 800 daily patients given the regional demand. “We get 2,000 calls a day,” he said.
The endeavor is being integrated into the students’ curriculum, Cavalieri said, and the school is considering studying how it impacts their education for future reference.
“This is the right thing to do,” Cavalieri said. “To say ‘no’ was not an option.”