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New Law Lets Medical Students Perform Vaccinations

Man getting a shot
VCU School of Pharmacy student Marissa Mackiewicz administers a vaccine dose to a community member at the VCU Health Hub at 25th in Richmond. (Photo: Tom Kojcsich/Virginia Commonwealth University)

Medical students can now step in to help vaccinate people for COVID-19, after a new law that grows the pool of eligible health care providers that may administer the shots.

The new law, which Gov. Ralph Northam signed on Monday, expands the definition of “eligible health care providers” to include medical students who are in good standing with their universities and have undergone necessary vaccination training.

“I was glad to sign emergency legislation that will allow more medical professionals to give vaccine shots: folks like dentists, medical students and others,” Northam said during a press conference Wednesday. “I want to thank Del. Lamont Bagby, and also Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, for sponsoring this legislation.”

While supply has been the largest obstacle for public health officials’ vaccination efforts, Dr. Alan Dow, a professor with Virginia Commonwealth University, says staffing could become another hurdle down the road.

“One of the things that the new bill does is it creates more flexibility, such that it's easier for students to volunteer, and the rules around how they need to be supervised make more sense with what we're trying to do with vaccination,” he said.

Dow runs VCU’s Center for Interprofessional Education and Collaborative Care, and he helped develop the university’s vaccine corps program, which allows the school to more efficiently recruit volunteers, train them and connect them with local health districts. Volunteer roles range from those who actually administer the vaccine, to other critical duties, like traffic control and patient registration.

“The students are very enthusiastic about it,” Dow said. “There's a tremendous amount of outpouring of gratitude from people that are getting vaccinated, and the students really appreciate being part of what hopefully will be the thing that ends this pandemic.”

And because many students are learning remotely, Dow says the reach of the VCU corps extends far beyond Central Virginia, giving aid to districts in the state’s rural areas and Northern cities as well.

Throughout the pandemic, VCU medical students Kara Hostetter and Sarah Andrew have been volunteering with the state’s Medical Reserve Corps. Because they’re not yet licensed, they were not authorized to actually administer the vaccine. Instead, they were serving as vaccinator assistants, and fulfilling other support roles.

With the newly passed law, Hostetter and Andrew can now give the COVID-19 shot themselves. Andrew, a fourth-year medical student who specializes in pediatrics, says she and her classmates are eager to help.

“I was confident in our ability to serve as vaccinators, and so it's exciting that we've been granted the permission to step up into these vaccinator roles,” Andrew said. The university says more than 1,500 students and staff have expressed interest in volunteering with the corps, and as of earlier this month, over 250 students have trained to administer vaccines.

Andrew says VCU students who assist with vaccination efforts undergo a rigorous training process, starting with a series of online modules based on VDH guidelines. Students also review preparation materials regarding dosage amounts and handling of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

People at table
VCU School of Dentistry student Claudette Sullano (right) demonstrates how she would administer a vaccine on classmate Karla Florez. The dental hygiene students were among the hundreds who have completed training from the VCU Vaccine Corps on administering vaccines. (Photo: Tammy Swecker/VCU School of Dentistry)

Volunteers are also required to take confidentiality training. Finally, they go into a hospital for an in-person assessment, where they pair up and administer a saline shot into each other for practice. Andrew says she’s found the learning experience particularly useful given her focus in children’s health.

“Vaccination is essential to the medical field today, but especially in the field of pediatrics,” she said. “It’s important as a future doctor to better understand some of the skills that your colleagues are going to be practicing. All the nurses that you work with are experts in administering vaccines, so I value getting that experience.”

Hostetter, a fourth-year medical student who specializes in obstetrics and gynecology, says the VCU Vaccine Corps program is also giving her a unique opportunity to learn more about public health work.

“So much coordination and planning goes into these events,” she said. “It's been a really eye-opening experience to kind of see the whole process.”

Hostetter says Virginia law previously hindered the state’s vaccination efforts by limiting authorization to administer the shot to only those who are licensed. She says giving the vaccine is not a particularly difficult task, so she welcomes the legal changes that will let more volunteers administer it.

“A lot of people have really been affected by this pandemic, and so being in a position to be able to help be part of the solution has been really satisfying for me. Being able to work in this community and help people is very rewarding,” Hostetter said.

Besides expanding who qualifies as a health care provider, the new law also authorizes colleges and universities in Virginia to offer their facilities to be used as vaccination sites. It also allows those institutions to assist local health departments in processing health data and analytics. The law requires health officials to better track race and ethnicity data in an effort to ensure equitable administration of the vaccine.