MacKenzie North, OMS I, never considered herself much of a morning person.
That changed recently. North, a student at the Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine (MUCOM), has been rising early a few times a month to make a 6 a.m. shift at a COVID vaccination clinic in Indianapolis. She can’t wait to get up, get there and get started with whatever she’s asked to do.
“It’s so rewarding, and it makes you realize why you’re going into medicine in the first place,” says North. “Being a first year, I haven’t had many opportunities to see this aspect of medicine. And people are so thankful. I love meeting all the people who come through, and it helps you see that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
North is assisting with the COVID vaccination effort through a program called Students Assist America.
Student volunteer workforce
AACOM President and CEO Robert Cain, DO, began working on the concept of a student volunteer workforce when the virus began causing widespread hospitalizations last spring. Working with 10 other associations, Students Assist America focused on vaccinations in September and began contacting governors and federal health care leaders to secure permission to deploy students to the vaccination efforts when a vaccine became available.
In a letter to the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association in December, Dr. Cain pointed out that many governors have allowed practitioners with expired licenses to treat patients during this crisis, and they should provide flexibility now and recognize that there is another safe, viable way to expand capacity and help protect public health.
“Our state osteopathic societies already play a vital role in promoting public health, and by spreading this message, we’re continuing to demonstrate leadership by living our osteopathic principles,” he wrote. “We ask people 18 years and older to sign up for war; as we exceed 210,000 [as of December 2020] American lives lost to COVID-19, it’s time to give students the chance to help us win this battle.”
As of early February, the virus has led to more than 440,000 deaths in the U.S. and 26 million reported cases. Less than 8% of Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Just 1.7% have received both. North says student involvement can boost vaccination numbers, especially if more states jump on board.
A handful of states – including Indiana, New York, New Jersey, Maine and Nevada, where osteopathic medical schools reside – worked with Students Assist America and took advantage of student volunteers shortly after the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were released in December. This was welcome news to students at TouroCOM in New York, who were more than anxious to not only administer the vaccine, but also to help with registrations and the many other stations necessary at a vaccination site.
It’s not just good for fighting the pandemic, it’s great experience, says TouroCOM Executive Dean Kenneth Steier, DO.
“Real-life experiences like this will better prepare them for the rest of their careers,” says Dr. Steier. “Should there be another time when rapid mobilization is necessary, they will have had this experience. The current students will be our physicians for the next 50 years. Having them participate and get this training should provide us a great benefit.”
North, the volunteer from MUCOM, was surprised to see the scope of a vaccination site the first time she showed up for that 6 a.m. shift. She’s not allowed to administer the shot at this stage in her education, so she worked the registration desk.
“You would think it would be a simple process,” says North. “There are so many steps and so many people needed.”
Which is why students are the perfect solution to the challenge of getting Americans vaccinated as quickly as possible, says Virginia Bader, MBA, AACOM’s Senior Advisor to the President and CEO and Director of Students Assist America.
Bader works closely with Dr. Cain to carry out his vision. She points to statistics that show how the sheer numbers of students available to help would make a huge difference if all states were on board. There are more than 830,700 students trained to vaccinate with supervision and another 147,500 who can assist with the non-clinical tasks represented by the organizations in Students Assist America.
‘We looked at how students could contribute’
Bader said the non-clinical tasks such as the ones North helped with are perfect for students. Bader remembers her own COVID vaccination experience as a volunteer with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps. She was ushered into a high school gym, where her appointment was verified.
Somebody checked her temperature, and another worker scanned the QR code and checked her identity and appointment time. Another explained that Bader was receiving the Moderna vaccine, handed her paperwork and explained what to expect. A nurse administered the shot, and she was taken to a room where somebody else monitored her for 15 minutes.
“Most of these tasks can be done by students,” she says. “Last spring when there was a lack of PPE, and students were being pulled off clinical rotations, there wasn’t a good understanding of the virus. When it became clearer, we looked at how students could contribute. We thought there would be a national approach and we could enter a system that already existed, but there wasn’t one, so we went to individual states.”
Word is getting out about the program’s success, and Bader says that is helping as they continue to persuade governors and federal leaders to allow student volunteers to assist with vaccinations.
MedPage Today recently published an article that featured students at the Rowan School of Osteopathic Medicine and the vaccination rollout in New Jersey. Students at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Marian were also mentioned. USA Today also published an article about the Students Assist America effort.
North, already looking forward to her next 5 a.m. alarm, was quoted in that article.
She doesn’t feel famous, just thankful.
“I have a lot of friends who all jumped at this opportunity when we were allowed to,” says North. “We got into medicine to help people, and now we’re part of this effort. It’s an honor.”