UMKC health sciences students play major role in COVID-19 vaccine efforts

At the University of Missouri-Kansas City, students from the four Health Sciences Campus schools have been busy in the COVID-19 vaccination effort, volunteering thousands of hours of service.

Third-year medical student Nikki Seraji said she recognizes that nurses and pharmacists often bear the brunt of the work of actually administering vaccines. So, when Stefanie Ellison, M.D., UMKC School of Medicine associate dean for learning initiatives, asked for medical student volunteers to become certified vaccinators, Seraji jumped at the opportunity.

“I’m studying the medical field and going to be doing this for a living and felt like I couldn’t help out enough,” she said. “When the opportunity to volunteer (as a vaccinator) came in in mid-January, I wanted to take advantage.”

Ellison said that 66 UMKC medical students from years one through six have been trained and certified to give vaccines. The students give vaccinations daily at the Truman Medical Center COVID-19 vaccination center at the University Health 2 building. They’ve helped with the School of Pharmacy’s campus vaccine clinic, assisted in vaccination events at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, the Kansas City Zoo, Hallmark and the Missouri Cerner campus among other events and clinics.

At the school’s new St. Joseph Campus, Steve Waldman, M.D., campus dean, said all of his students have been certified as vaccinators and have given vaccines at the St. Joseph Mosaic Life Care vaccination center. Many, he said, have participated in other community vaccination outreach events as well.

Ellison said she works daily to partner the School of Medicine with vaccine clinics and events across Kansas City.

“Our students are so wonderful that when TMC has a busy day, I can email or text our students to help in a pinch and three to five students show up to help,” she said.

Students at the School of Pharmacy are trained and certified to give vaccines during the second year of their curriculum. As of mid-March, pharmacy students and faculty had volunteered 4,400 volunteer hours to administer more than 17,500 doses of vaccines at 36 events throughout the state.

Jane Beyer, a third-year pharmacy student, said she began helping administer COVID vaccines in December as soon as they were available.

“It is exciting that as student pharmacists we are able to get out there and really help the community and be part of the solution to COVID-19” she said. “It’s a very rewarding feeling to be part of the vaccine efforts in Kansas City.”

Medical student Seraji echoed that thought and admitted being a bit anxious when she was learning to administer a shot. With the help of the nurses who trained her, she was able to quickly adapt. Now she volunteers as a vaccinator at least once a week as her class schedule allows.

“I was definitely anxious when I was getting certified but I did maybe 20 or 30 (shots) the first time I was on my own and you get into a routine,” she said. “I’m trying to think how many that I’ve vaccinated. I don’t know but it’s definitely more than 80 or 90.”

Next door on the UMKC Health Sciences campus, nursing student Ciera Ayala got involved when the vaccination efforts were made an option for her clinical rotations. In fact, she has been part of eight vaccination events, most of them at Truman.

When she was vaccinated, Ayala said, she felt relief and “like there was a light at the end of the tunnel.” Now she is happy to share that feeling with all the people she inoculates.

“I find it very gratifying,” Ayala said. “I got to be a part of history, and it felt really good to be a part of the efforts to end this pandemic. It was also relieving, but also a little overwhelming, when we would have a line of hundreds of people for hours and hours ready to get their vaccine. It makes me happy that people are trusting in science!”

Ayala doesn’t remember any particular vaccine recipients, but she said, “it just felt really good when people were appreciative of our efforts.

“Health care workers don’t often get the recognition that is deserved, so when people recognized how hard we were working, it felt amazing.”

From the School of Dentistry, 119 third-and fourth-year students bolstered the ranks of student vaccinators after they were trained in early April. They already knew how to give the more involved injections needed to numb dental patients but had to learn the quicker technique for vaccines.

They were trained by Meghan Wendland, D.D.S., M.P.H., an assistant professor in the dental school, with help from faculty at the School of Nursing and Health Studies. They quickly joined in at Truman and at events for their fellow UMKC students.

One dental student, Tiara Fry, said she was “a little nervous” the first few times she gave the shot, “but once I got comfortable with it, it was great! It felt amazing to be a part of diminishing the spread of a virus during a pandemic.”

Fry said she sympathized with people who were skeptical or fearful but hoped to share the relief she felt when she was vaccinated.

“I knew it was for a great purpose to do my part in protecting myself and those around me,” she said. “I felt for those who were extremely afraid of needles. Many would tell me right before I gave the injection, so I tried my best to make them feel as comfortable as possible.”

Beyer said that working with the vaccine effort has made her a valuable resource to friends and family, helping them stay up to date on the latest information and vaccine availabilities.

“It’s interesting that people have a lot of different responses to getting the vaccine,” she said. “There’s kind of a split. Some people, I think, feel obligated to get the vaccine and are kind of nervous. But there’s also the other half that just give sigh a sigh of relief after they get the vaccine. They’re wanting to protect themselves and also all their loved ones.”

Beyer estimated that she has participated in at least 10 vaccine clinics since December and only wished she had time to do more. She said that at one mass event she participated in, more than 800 people were vaccinated.

“We wish we could be there all the time helping,” she said. “With school, it’s hard to dedicate all your time going out and vaccinating. Without all the volunteers, who knows where we would have been on this vaccine rollout schedule.”