Mercer University School of Medicine students know there are a lot of COVID-19 vaccines that need to be administered and not a lot of manpower to do it. So, they are stepping up to receive vaccine training and volunteer at local health care facilities.
The School of Medicine’s Savannah campus set the framework for a training initiative that is now being expanded to the Columbus and Macon campuses, said Dr. James Colquitt, associate dean of academic affairs for the School of Medicine.
“Mercer is the medical school for rural Georgia. This is an expression of our students and their desire to serve the community they live in,” he said. “We’re going to meet the need where the need is.”
When the pandemic began a year ago, the Chatham County Health Department reached out to the Savannah campus to see if they could help with COVID-19 testing, said Dr. David Baxter, senior associate dean of the Savannah campus. More than 30 medical students showed up the first day to be trained and helped with testing for several months. Students also assisted with contact tracing, collecting personal protective equipment and food donations, grocery deliveries, and other services, said Dr. Robert Shelley, associate dean of student affairs for the Savannah campus.
Meanwhile, Marissa D’Souza and three other now-fourth-year Savannah medical students had founded the MUSM COVID-19 Student Response Team at the start of the pandemic. As part of their efforts, they developed a website and database for students to sign up for volunteer opportunities in Savannah like COVID-19 testing and now vaccine administration, she said.
As COVID-19 vaccines began being distributed in early 2021, the Chatham County Health Department once again asked for the Savannah campus’ help. Some third- and fourth-year students pitched in to administer the vaccines, and some Macon and Columbus students even drove to Savannah so they could lend a hand, Dr. Baxter said. The students could receive curricular credit for their efforts, but most volunteered just because they wanted to help.
First- and second-year students wanted to get involved too, but formal vaccine training doesn’t happen until the third year of medical school. With plans underway in Georgia to greatly expand the vaccine rollout, Mercer’s School of Medicine needed to find a way to train its pre-clinical students too.
Now, medical students who want to volunteer can complete online modules and meet with one of the faculty members for hands-on training, Dr. Colquitt said. They go to a clinic site to witness a licensed professional giving shots before they are observed administering a few vaccines. The students are then approved to participate in vaccination opportunities, although some clinic sites may require additional training.
“It’s a really good way to help out with what seems to be the biggest need of the community,” D’Souza said. “We have vaccinations, but we’re really limited by the manpower, and we have a ton of medical students who want to help. It gives the first- and second-year medical students a way to get involved and interact with people and residents in the community when they are in their pre-clinical years.”
The School of Medicine plans to incorporate this vaccine training into the curriculum for first-year medical students in fall 2021, Dr. Colquitt said. The goal is to make sure that all students who want to participate can do so safely and efficiently and that they are ready to help at health clinics throughout Georgia when the need arises.
“We will rise to meet the challenge,” Dr. Baxter said. “We’re trying to teach as many people who want to, so when the vaccine rolls out, essentially all of our students will be able to give vaccines.”
Mason Garland, a third-year medical student on the Savannah campus, has been volunteering at the Chatham County Health Department since last spring, first with COVID-19 testing and now with vaccinations. She tries to volunteer one or two times a week.
“I’ve always been one of those people who love to volunteer and help the community,” Garland said. “I wanted to take the opportunity to help others and get the vaccine out there as quickly as possible. We had the vaccine; we just didn’t have enough people to distribute them. It seemed like a perfect role for medical students.”
Joncel Stephens, a first-year medical student on the Savannah campus, has also been helping with vaccines at the Chatham County Health Department. This experience is allowing her to put the skills she’s learning in textbooks to practical use, which many medical students don’t get to do until their third or fourth years.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has put us in a place where all hands on deck are required to help manage it,” she said. “I was glad to be given the opportunity to help as a first-year student. I wanted to serve as part of the solution that helps our country see the end of the pandemic and the virus. I’m glad that Mercer took the steps to give students the chance to participate in this beneficial initiative.”
D’Souza said her role as a volunteer organizer in COVID-19 efforts has taught her how to be a mediator between people who can help and people who need help. Medical students and professionals have an important role to play in educating community members about the vaccine, answering their questions and making sure they know their options.
“This (vaccine) initiative gives students an opportunity to fulfill the mission in their own heart and to reach out to the rural and underserved in Middle and South Georgia,” Dr. Baxter said. “It’s reminded everyone of the great work that’s currently ongoing through our health departments and hopefully will re-energize the interest of students to work with the rural and underserved of Georgia through their local health departments.”