Back on track: UK student volunteers form vital part of return to normalcy

Rebecca Edwins, a third-year medical student, confirms a patients medical information at UK’s COVID-19 vaccination clinic on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Sarah Michels

When the Lexington community returns to a semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy, consider thanking the hundreds of UK students who volunteered at the university’s vaccine clinic operations.  

As of May 7, UK’s vaccine operations have passed the 240,000 vaccinations mark, due to their robust people power. Lance Poston, UK assistant vice president for external relations said that the team exceeds 200 people per day, including faculty and staff from UK Healthcare and campus units, as well as many UK students from medical and non-medical backgrounds. 

On student volunteer, UK junior Cliff York, said the experience was more fun than he expected. York, an integrated strategic communications major, volunteered for the first time on Feb. 24, after signing up through a link his nursing student friend sent him. 

Since then, he’s volunteered a few more times. Often, when he has a relatively free day, York tries to find a shift that works with his schedule. He said that the process is flexible; while there are specific time slots for the various three, four and six-hour shifts, student volunteers can work with the staff if they have to leave early or arrive late due to academic or other obligations. 

Once they’ve completed the volunteer form, opportunities are released every one or two weeks, Poston said.

Freshman computer science major Matt Bartholomai also signed up at his friend’s suggestion. So far, he’s only volunteered for one five-hour registration shift, but plans to continue when he’s less busy. His shift happened to be the day before UK hit the 100,000 vaccinations landmark, which he said was a cool and rewarding experience. 

“I definitely encourage all students— if they’re capable and have time— to just go help out one or two days, because it’s not that hard,” Bartholomai said. “You’re helping your community and you get the vaccine afterwards if you want to.”

There are a variety of jobs for which student volunteers can sign up; the essential non-clinical roles, such as registration, way-finding and transport, require no prior knowledge or medical background. On the other hand, more clinical roles like immunizers and dosers are filled by students and employees from UK’s health colleges, Poston said. 

York doesn’t have any medical background, but he said he still felt equipped for the job after watching the provided online resources and shadowing someone from an earlier shift. 

Registration volunteers check people in, “way-finders” direct people to the right area, and dose runners transport the vaccine from the syringe-loading station to the person administering the vaccine. In all roles, hand sanitizer and gloves are frequently used to maintain a clean, safe environment.  

People’s reactions to receiving the vaccination are a mixed bag, York said.

“You’ll get some that like are almost on the verge of tears, they’re so excited, like we’re getting back to normal life, and then some they’re like, I hate needles, I don’t want to be here at all. This sucks, but I have to do it,” he said. 

Bartholomai added that there was some conflict regarding the Pfizer vaccine that UK is currently distributing. 

“Some lady was mad that we didn’t have Moderna, which was interesting,” he said. “There’s a lot of spirit around the brand of the vaccine for a lot of people.”

While there is still plenty of demand for volunteers, especially in the morning shift, York said he’s noticed the slots filling up a little more quickly recently. 

“I think people are just wanting to start volunteering, kind of doing their part,” York said. “Obviously, the potential of getting a vaccine after your shift— I think that’s probably a pretty big incentive for people who want to start volunteering more too.”

Both York and Bartholomai received their first vaccine dose after their first shift—York on Feb. 24 and Bartholomai on March 3. Neither would have been otherwise eligible for the vaccine at the time. 

“I think back and forth on it, I think if you’re gonna continually volunteer in that kind of space, it does make more sense for you to be able to get the vaccine,” York said. “You’re trying to create a safe and healthy environment for the people that are coming in that are outside the volunteer community or outside the Lexington community.”

Giving volunteers extra doses of the vaccine also prevents waste, Bartholomai said. 

“In a lot of the vaccines there’s leftovers in the vial, that it’s not a full dose, and they don’t want to mix different vials for people that sign up to get the vaccine,” he said. “But for us, they just took the little bits that were left in every vial and gave it to us, so it was more of kind of making sure they weren’t throwing any away or like wasting any vaccines, rather than using some that should give more qualified people.”

Once he gets his booster shot, not much will change for York. 

“I know I’ll be a little bit more protected, but you have to do your part to protect other people and not go out of your way to put yourself in risk of being able to somehow get out or become a carrier for it,” he said. 

Bartholomai plans to have the first maskless family gathering in a long time, since his grandparents are getting vaccinated around the same time. 

While the long shifts can be exhausting, both York and Bartholomai said the experience was overwhelmingly rewarding. York said he’s enjoyed playing a part in people’s excitement to get back on track. 

“It’s been one of the weirdest years I think of anyone’s lives,” York said. “The idea of seeing people have hope again and kind of like see that new normal, see the light at the end of the tunnel, is really, really cool.”

Those interested in volunteering at the Kroger Field vaccine clinic should fill out this form