KCU medical students administer vaccines

Kelly Richardson-McBee (right) is a public health nurse with Kansas City Health Department in the Immunizations clinic and resident of the Historic Northeast. “The health care disparities in the Historic Northeast, especially when it comes to COVID cases in the 64123 and 64124 zip codes, are the reason why I got into public health nursing and why I chose to work for less pay at the health department,” Richardson-McBee said.

Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

Students from Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences (KCU)’s Northeast Kansas City and Joplin, Mo., campuses are administering COVID-19 vaccinations to Missourians.

Dr. Darrin D’Agostino, Executive Dean and Vice Provost for Health Affairs at KCU, was involved in the state’s early development plans for the distribution of the vaccine, and worked with the Regional Implementation Teams on logistics.

“It was at this point we made a recommendation to include medical students in this initiative due to the stressed healthcare system that is focused on the ill and those needing significant health care,” D’Agostino said.

Around the state, nursing students, pharmacy students, and other volunteers from many different organizations are assisting with administering vaccines.

D’Agostino said KCU wants to be the best partner possible and care for the communities the university serves.

“We are focused on providing support and vaccinators to help decompress the strained health care system,” D’Agostino said.

The university is also partnering with the health departments in KC and Joplin, as well as the federally qualified health center (FQHC) facilities in these regions, including Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center (SURHC) in Kansas City, to ensure that communities of need are addressed as efficiently as possible.

“We are also running listening tours with different communities to understand what information they need to feel comfortable getting vaccines,” D’Agostino said. “This is critical to address since Black and Latinx communities are being hit harder with this virus.”

For those who already qualify for vaccination, they are getting the vaccine. The listening tours are in place to better educate the people in communities reluctant to get vaccinated as quickly as possible to hopefully reduce any fears that may exist.

Communities are benefitting from easier and more timely access to vaccines, D’Agostino said. KCU students have administered or assisted with almost 7,000 vaccinations in two weeks, which would have otherwise taken longer or pulled healthcare providers from other necessary healthcare delivery.

“Students are learning how these interventions are saving lives and they are participating in clinical activity early in their careers,” D’Agostino said. “They are also learning about the power of public health initiatives and how they overlap with acute, illness-based health care.”

Many of the student volunteers are first and second year medical students, meaning some might have field experience, but most did not. Before they began administering vaccines, they were vaccinated themselves and have taken both Center for Disease Control (CDC) training and KCU training on vaccines, anatomy, delivery – the actual process of giving a shot – and are trained to recognize complications.

“They are also observed and approved by our faculty, nurses and the health departments they are working with,” D’Agostino said. “They are very good.”

One such student is Elizabeth Vasel, one of about 650 volunteers between the two campuses. She has administered around 30 shots so far, something she had never done in the field before.

“I know there are a lot of my classmates who do have some sort of experience giving vaccines, but there were also a lot of us who, this was our first opportunity to get to do something like this,” Vasel said. “There’s a lot of us, so you could really build up a workforce with a lot of students, and as a first year medical student, this was such an awesome opportunity to get to jump in and work with patients.”

Having watched the pandemic play out during her first year of medical school, Vasel said there was certainly enthusiasm from herself and her fellow students to finally be able to play a role in helping return life to somewhat normal. She has enjoyed working with her classmates, university faculty, and other professionals.

“You feel like a community, just there all working toward the same goal of getting people vaccinated, and I think this pandemic has been so hard on everyone.”

She has heard stories from patients, many of them healthcare workers or elderly, who have faced challenges and made so many sacrifices over the past year to keep themselves and others safe. It’s been both emotional and very exciting.

“It seems like, in general, people have been thrilled or at least very happy to come in and get the vaccine,” Vasel said. “They kind of share all the things that they’re looking forward to being able to do again, whether that’s to spend more time with their grandkids or do more traveling. Overall, it’s been an absolute privilege to be able to play a part in bringing all of our lives back to some sense of normalcy.”

Vasel, originally from St. Louis, attended undergraduate at Rockhurst University. She chose healthcare early in life and while she’s keeping her options open, she was initially inspired by her pediatrician.

“My mom’s a nurse, and I love hearing all of the stories and the things she would see at work every day,” Vasel said. “Growing up I really, really liked my pediatrician. She always made me feel like a person and she listened to me and so really I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I love her,’ and I would love to be that for somebody someday.”

Students are administering vaccines locally at the KCU campus, SURHC, Kansas City North Community Center, HCA Midwest Health locations in Shawnee and Olathe, the Kansas City Health Department, various National Guard sites, Bruce R. Watkins Health Center, and anywhere they are needed throughout the community.

“I never obviously expected to start medical school this way, but really it kind of solidified my commitment to taking care of the most vulnerable in our community through education and compassionate care,” Vasel said.

Communities need more vaccines in the state, D’Agostino said. Missouri was getting 80,000 doses a week, and this has been increased this past week to about 120,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. D’Agostino said this will likely increase quickly as other vaccines are granted an Emergency Use Authorization.

“We should’ve been doing the mass vaccination clinics to ensure the Phase 1A and 1B Missouri residents are vaccinated quickly, and then we can move rapidly into Phases 2 and 3,” D’Agostino said.

The program will persist as long as it is needed, but D’Agostino said right now they have plans for 16 weeks. After this, the student workforce will be available for vaccination efforts that may develop in the future, such as for annual flu shots or COVID-19 vaccines.

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