Dozens of students administer hundreds of vaccines to underserved communities
It’s a chilly morning in March as Katie Lastova ’21 is preparing doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.
The nursing student, wearing surgical gloves and a mask behind her face shield, carefully holds the vial at an angle and draws separate doses into syringes. Over her shoulder, supervising, stands Mary Lashley, a professor in the Department of Nursing and a clinical specialist in public health nursing.
After drawing five doses, Lastova hands four to other nursing students before sitting down at her station with one. She quickly cleans a client’s arm, gives a quick poke with the syringe and applies a Band-Aid.
Lastova advises the man to wait for 15 minutes to make sure there are no adverse side effects and reminds him to come back for his second dose in a few weeks. She hands him an information sheet and deposits the syringe into a specialty disposal bin.
“It makes me happy to see that people have signed up to come here and get vaccinated,” Lastova says. “I want the pandemic to end. If I’m available to help, I will.”
She’s one of about 70 nursing students from Towson University’s main campus who have administered vaccines at Helping Up Mission, a nonprofit in Baltimore City that provides outreach to people experiencing homelessness.
The vaccine operation is a partnership between TU, Helping Up Mission, Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC) and the Baltimore City Health Department, Lashley says. The nursing students participating are in a public health nursing clinical course and about to graduate.
Towson University is the biggest provider of healthcare workers in the state. These ongoing vaccine clinic partnerships are not the first time that TU has leveraged its role as an anchor institution to benefit the state amid the pandemic: Twice last year, nursing students exited their program weeks early so they could get to work on the frontlines.
“The students are involved in all aspects of the vaccine clinic,” Lashley says.
That includes preparing and administering the vaccine as well as organizational and logistical work, like entering data that gets shared with the state to track the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations.
Lisa Plowfield, dean of the College of Health Professions and a registered nurse, says TU nursing students "reflect the best our profession has to offer."
"I have been impressed by our students' overwhelming dedication and interest in running toward an end to this pandemic by working on the front lines," she says. "Our faculty continue to pair student learning with community outreach, bringing real world experience, and healthcare work, into focus for our students."
As of April 12, more than 3.4 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered, and more than 1.3 million Marylanders have been fully vaccinated, according to the Maryland Department of Health.
The patients being vaccinated by TU students are part of a population that “really needs” access to the shots, Lashley says. Vaccinating people who are unhoused serves the entire community by reducing spread of the virus.
The situation is a win-win for everyone, she says. The clients get vaccinated, Helping Up Mission and GBMC get support staff and the nursing students get to engage directly with patients.
“For the students, it is an incredible learning opportunity for them. It is a living classroom,” Lashley says.
Towson University students are helping with vaccine distribution across the state too. Dolly Kemerer, an assistant clinical professor at TU’s Hagerstown nursing program, says there are about 16 nursing students participating in central and western Maryland.
Students in the program rotate through administering vaccines at a hospital in Hagerstown or a clinic set up by the Frederick Community Action Agency.
“These students are getting an opportunity of a lifetime to be part of ending the pandemic,” she says. “There has been no other time in their lives, or when any student of mine, has had this opportunity.”
Matthew Gramkee Bernal ’21, has been to both western Maryland clinical sites. He says it’s been good clinical practice to administer so many vaccines and fulfilling to help end the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Every time that someone walks in, they thank us, they have a big smile on their face, they know that they’re taking a step into normalcy that we’re all looking forward to seeing,” he says.
Importantly, Lashley says the nursing students experience how successful community partnerships can be in promoting public health. Working in community health settings is another way that Towson University prepares nursing students for all realms of health care.
“The students get to see how something like this is formed from the ground up,” Lashley says. “It’s a great example of an academic and community partnership working."
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