Extra hours worked by student volunteers expand vaccination capacity at UK

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

Natalie Parks

Almost two weeks after first opening, UK’s mass vaccination clinic in Kroger Field has inoculated more than 20,000 UK and Lexington community members against COVID-19.

Already operating at a rate of 85 vaccinations every 20 minutes, the clinic is adding the capacity to vaccinate an additional 1,000 people a week.

Previously, the clinic closed at 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Now, with staffing from upper level students in UK’s healthcare colleges, Saturday hours will extend to 6 p.m.

The “call to arms” for student volunteers came on Wednesday evening, said Dr. Joseph Zwischenberger, senior faculty in the College of Medicine and student coordinator for the clinic. The site had an unexpected surplus of doses for the week they needed help administering.

“The response was so overwhelming, they crashed our signup site. And so we had to limit it. So right now the students that you see are the happy ones and the ones you don’t see are very disappointed that couldn’t be here,” Zwischenberger said. 

He was overseeing 14 students on Saturday. Each student was also accompanied by a faculty member, also serving on a volunteer basis.

“The faculty signed up within 30 minutes, I had all the faculty we can handle and they crashed the website too,” Zwischenberger said. He already worked as a student coach in the college of medicine and asked to handle the student volunteers.

After recruiting students for the clinic, the faculty also set up refresher course for students who had not done injections recently and provided students with a portable skin for practicing.

Not all medical students gave injections.

“To be able to deliver this kind of volume requires handlers to just tell people where to go, it requires registration, it requires some degree of oversight of security to make sure that people who are supposed to get the shot do,” Zwischenberger said, and students filled all those roles.

Medical student Elizabeth Hansen is the first person many recipients see at the clinic. She works in registration, confirming appointments and asking screening questions.

 “I have a lot of people come in and say, ‘I’m a little nervous about this.’ We have some people who are just feeling a little emotional about the experience and we talked to them and fill out their card,” Hansen said. She said she was nervous on her first day, but it has been a magical experience.

Hansen, earning her Master’s through UK’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science, is in a research year, so she has the flexibility to volunteer.

“Most students are so excited to have any opportunity to volunteer here. I know in my friend group, it’s something that people are people are looking for time off, so they can come and volunteer,” Hansen said, adding that she thinks UK has fostered an attitude among students to want to give back.

Hansen said working at the clinic feels like history.

“Seeing the work that not just their physicians, but that our nurses, every single person that works from the hospital, all of the work that they’re doing as a team, I’m honestly like so proud to be part of it. And that absolutely includes the work that’s done here today at Kroger with our vaccine rollout,” Hansen said. “It’s a really inspiring thing.”

For her, volunteering at the clinic is not just inspiring – it’s also personal.

Hansen’s identical twin sister, Anna, also volunteers at the clinic, which she called a “joyous” experience with her best friend. The two work side by side in registration.

“We’ve talked about how inspiring our patient population is. And when we left, we talked for a couple hours about all the different folks we’ve been meeting. So beginning to share this experience with family, I think has been a really, I mean, I’ll remember it for the rest of my life,” Hansen said.

She was also able to share the clinic with her father, who qualified for a vaccine from UK because of his age.

“It just was like a huge weight off my shoulders, and that’s really when it really was driven home,” Hansen said. “But then getting to watch that experience on patient after patient coming in to get their vaccine – I had a couple of a couple people, it really brings them to tears when they when they walk in these doors, and they see the work that’s being done.”

Hansen also said that one of the privileges of being in medical school is having the opportunity to help, a sentiment echoed by Zwischenberger.

“It’s important to realize the discipline of medicine is to serve the public, not necessarily to serve yourself. And I think it’s very important to see how they jumped in at every single role that’s available here,” Zwischenberger said. “But most importantly, I gotta tell you, the students want to do injections, because that’s what they’ve been trained to do. They want to be able to know that they’ve actually given the vaccine and that they’ve made a difference to that individual.”

Robert DiPaola, dean of UK’s College of Medicine, said seeing UK students step up shows the passion to help that’s integral to medical professions.

“I am so proud of our students for stepping up and everything they do day to day. They’ve had a lot of challenges through this year in terms of their curriculum and changes and so forth. And they’re persistent. They’re passionate, they care. It just – it just warms my heart to see what they’re doing in terms of stepping up,” DiPaola said.

He said UK has seen an increase in application for medical school amidst the pandemic, and that the past year has changed the perspective of future and current med students.

“They may have been able to see in, you know, in a real way, how medicine and rapid growth of new therapies makes a difference, in new vaccines in particular. So I think that this is been an incredible experience for them in that regard,” DiPaola said.

DiPaola also heads UK’s START team, the committee responsible for many of the university’s campus reopening policies like COVID-19 testing.

“This vaccine mission absolutely ties into all of what we’re doing to have a healthy and safe campus,” DiPaola said. “And being part of the larger UK operation and UK healthcare operation, that’s really dedicated to making sure that we have a safe campus, that it really integrates everything from testing, to tracing to all the things we do with masks and social distancing, as well as vaccination.”

He said it was gratifying to see students step up and gratifying to seethe appreciation for healthcare workers working to vaccinate the community.

“This is an experience that they will carry with them the remainder of their career, without a doubt, this is incredibly important, and certainly an opportunity for our students to really serve the community,” DiPaola said of medical students.

Other colleges will pick up the volunteer shifts in coming weeks so the extended hours can continue.

“I think we could have done 200 students, frankly, but that’s all we could handle for the physical space and for what we were doing and to maintain the flow properly,” said Zwischenberger. “That’s why I’m telling you there’s a lot of disappointed students out there that really wanted to be here. As the vaccine becomes available, we’ve got the enthusiasm and the personnel to make sure they get into arms.”

Zwischenberger urged community members to get the shot when it’s their turn.

“We’ve all had loved ones affected, we’ve all had friends affected, we’ve all seen our social interactions cut off,” Zwischenberger said. “And quite frankly, I think we’re all desperate to get back to what we thought was normal. And that’s going to take some time. And if people avoid the vaccine, that’s going to just delay all of us being able to resume what we think is normal.”

Zwischenberger is not only a native Kentuckian, but a UK alum. He said seeing his medical students volunteer doesn’t surprise him, but it does make him proud.

“The students we attract are so dedicated, and so enthusiastic, that everybody has been challenged by this disease, everybody’s frustrated that we haven’t been able to fix the problem. So I think what we’re seeing is built up frustration that they want to serve, they want to help. They want to be in the profession as quickly as possible and be able to help society improve and get over this disease.”

Editor’s note: Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this piece misquoted Elizabeth Hansen as saying “and alcoholics” instead of “about the.” The Kernel regrets the error.