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Nursing, medical students and faculty receive and administer COVID-19 vaccines

A three-tiered grouping system in the Health System prioritizes when members can schedule their first dose

Over 1500 individuals in the U.Va. Health System have received a vaccine since distribution began Dec. 15.
Over 1500 individuals in the U.Va. Health System have received a vaccine since distribution began Dec. 15.

Nursing and medical students can choose to schedule a COVID-19 vaccine upon arrival in Charlottesville based on their exposure in clinical training and other risk factors. Members of the School of Nursing have been part of distributing and receiving doses since the first shipment of the vaccine was received Dec. 15.

Over 6,148 individuals in the U.Va. Health System have received a vaccine since distribution began Dec. 15. As of Monday, U.Va. Health has 7,525 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Both vaccines are intended to be administered in two doses several weeks apart. Officials aim to vaccinate all of the Health System by March.

According to an internal email sent to School of Nursing students, Health System members are divided into three groups prioritizing their time of vaccination. Group One consists of frontline workers at the risk of coming in direct contact with COVID-19 patients and were able to schedule a vaccination with the first shipment of doses received. 

Those who have “in-person contact with patients, work inside patients’ rooms or handle infectious materials” are in Group Two and were able to receive vaccines beginning Dec. 29. Remaining individuals fall in Group Three and can get vaccinated beginning Feb. 1. Self-assessed risk factors also account for group standings.

“They've tiered it because we're getting vaccines in shipments at a time and they want to make sure that the people who ... are in direct contact with patients are getting vaccinated first,” said Professor Beth Epstein, interim director for academic programs in the School of Nursing.

Frankie Allen, a graduate student in the Clinical Nurse Leader program, was one of the first six people to receive a vaccine on Dec. 15. Due to her work as a patient care technician, Allen has been looking after COVID patients. The only side effect she experienced was soreness in her arm for several days.

“I cried with joy — it was such a huge relief and also just such a hopeful, exciting, thrilling thing to have right before the holidays,” Allen said. “And so to have early access like I did, so that I can be safer for my patients, for myself and my community has just been such a gift.”

Allen is scheduled to receive her second dose Tuesday.

Most second-, third- and fourth-year undergraduates pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing are expected to fall in Group Two based on on-site clinical training requirements. First-year BSN students with no clinicals will generally fall in Group Three, though personal risk factors may elevate some to Group Two.

This tiered grouping system also applies to students at the School of Medicine, who are eligible to receive the vaccine. Meanwhile, other medical schools like Stanford and Virginia Commonwealth University have received pushback for not vaccinating students for COVID-19.

“These vaccinations began [Dec. 29],” Dr. Costi Sifri, director of hospital epidemiology, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “We anticipate many students will opt for later appointments after completing our online risk-assessment tool, to allow those at higher risk to go first.”

Da Kim, a second-year student in the School of Nursing, plans to receive her first dose in late January. Her clinicals start in early February at the University Hospital, which places her in Group Two. Many other students in Kim’s year have already made similar plans since scheduling opened in late December, she said.

“I know a lot of people in my year, a lot of other second years who have already taken the vaccine, and others who are planning on taking the vaccine later,” Kim said.

Professor Tracy Kelly of the School of Nursing has volunteered several times to administer the vaccine, and looks forward to having the opportunity to vaccinate her own students. She got a head start over the winter break, when she vaccinated one of the undergraduate students she works with — a translator in the emergency room.

Kelly has vaccinated over a dozen individuals and plans to continue signing up for more volunteer shifts when possible. She and several other volunteer vaccinators had the unique opportunity to vaccinate each other when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration approved usage of leftover doses in vials that contained more than the intended five doses.

“I work in Africa and Asia quite a bit, so vaccines — it’s a godsend for people in many countries of the world, and for us to have received this vaccine so rapidly, and for me to be fortunate enough to be one of the earlier people to be vaccinated, to me, I just felt very joyful,” Kelly said. “I just felt very fortunate, and we were thrilled — we were jumping up and down.”

The vaccination process is voluntary at the University and based on an Honor system where individuals can determine their own risk level. 

Allen notes the importance of asking questions if there are any concerns with the vaccines, though she also points out the benefit of increased protection for students and Charlottesville residents that comes with a well-vaccinated community. Through social media, Allen has been transparent in sharing her experience and thoughts on the vaccines.

“As a future health care provider, I wouldn’t ask my patients to receive something that I wasn’t willing to receive myself,” she said.

Although Kim feels nervous to receive a vaccine created under a condensed timeline, she takes on a mindset similar to that of Allen’s view. For Kim, the excitement overcomes the apprehension. 

“It's kind of like weighing the different benefits versus the risks, right — so the risk of the adverse side effects and all of that, versus potentially keeping myself safe and others around me safe,” she said. “I think like the latter is worth the risk.”

No COVID-19 vaccine trials have reported any safety concerns, and the Center for Disease Control has stated that all vaccines currently available in the United States are “highly effective at preventing COVID-19.”

Kelly and Allen both stress the importance of equity in the vaccine distribution process. Allen recounts that beyond just medical practitioners, environmental services employees, food service employees and those involved in the transportation of COVID-19 patients were also prioritized with Group One eligibility for the vaccine.

Having worked in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, Kelly understands firsthand the imbalance of resources in the global health setting.

“I think about the people in West Africa a lot now ... and how long it might take them to receive the [vaccine],” she said. “So as I'm giving vaccines, I feel like I'm thinking about them and trying to give back some way, however I can, to the frontline workers here in this country, thinking about the frontline workers in West Africa when I was there.”

According to some estimates, immunization campaigns are unlikely to begin in earnest in African countries until at least the middle of 2021.

But for now, Kelly awaits the returning BSN students, just at the beginning of their own path in the medical field.

“I want to say that I'm proud of them for continuing their education in the healthcare system — they know now how difficult it can be,” she said. “This is probably in many ways the most challenging times they'll ever see in their health care career. And so, I want them to know that we as faculty are happy to have them back. We will support them and work with them for them to start on their career.”

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