Meet Some of the UVA Students Helping People Get Vaccinated

March 30, 2021 By Caroline Newman, Caroline Newman,

One day a few weeks ago, University of Virginia first-year medical student Karina Navarro made her way to a recreation center in Nelson County, about 30 minutes outside of Charlottesville.

There, she helped Spanish-speaking community members, many of them migrant farm workers living in nearby camps, receive their first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“It was extremely rewarding and eye-opening, and I was just so happy to be helping the community and making sure that these people, who are essential workers, get access to the vaccine,” said Navarro, who is from Washington, D.C., and whose family is Colombian.

“One of my favorite things when I am translating is just chatting with people casually, learning about their families and just trying to joke with them and bring their nerves down,” she said.  “That is the whole reason I went into medicine – making connections with people.”

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Denise Barth speaks to a group of nurses and nursing students
Denise Barth, one of the UVA Health employees working at the vaccination clinic, instructs nursing student volunteers with assistant professor of nursing Vickie Southall, fourth from right.

Navarro is one of a growing number of medical and nursing students who have been fully vaccinated and can now help others. Nursing students are administering vaccines or checking in patients, while medical students like Navarro are working with the UVA Latino Health Initiative as interpreters, educating Spanish-speaking populations about the vaccine and helping them sign up for appointments, fill out forms, get their questions answered, understand possible side effects and schedule second doses.

All of these students are part of an ongoing effort to use every available resource to ramp up vaccine distribution across Virginia, and to do so in an accessible and equitable manner.

‘Big Shots’

Many third-year nursing students, like Catherine Denton, have been trained to administer vaccines at the mass vaccination clinic UVA hosts on behalf of the Blue Ridge Health District, housed in a former Big Lots retail store in the Seminole Square shopping center – now affectionately dubbed “Big Shots.”

Denton, who worked as a patient care technician on UVA Health’s COVID units, has seen the ravages of the disease up close. When the vaccine arrived in December, she was eager not only to get the shot, but to give it to others.

“This is an opportunity to tangibly change what’s been happening,” said Denton, of Charlotte, North Carolina. “It’s frontline, right there, in the middle of what is the most important thing right now, which is community health.”

Denton and her peers now have their chance, thanks to an effort led by professors Bethany Coyne, Sarah Craig, Tomeka Dowling and Emma Mitchell that offers new training, education and clinical credit as part of Mitchell’s spring semester “Community and Population Health” course. So far, 48 third-year students in Mitchell’s course are eligible to participate in public health vaccination clinics, the first of which took place Wednesday. Next up to be trained are Clinical Nurse Leader master’s students in Mitchell’s summer community health class.

Healthcare provider giving an injection to a patient
Nursing student Alyssa Gail gives the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine to retired UVA nurse Natalie Krovetz.

“It’s a really historic moment in our country,” said clinical instructor and Ph.D. student Catherine “Cat” Elmore, a vaccinator since January who led her clinical groups of students through a vaccine clinic simulation in mid-February, “and we think students should be able to participate, just like other health care providers are able to participate.”

Beyond learning the specifics of administering the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are other lessons, too: about reactogenicity (the vaccines’ common and expected side effects), vaccine distribution disparities, strategies for “sharps” (needle) disposal, and communication skills to allay fears and tend to the concerns of people with chronic health conditions.

“It’s not just about putting a shot in the arm, though that’s an important part of it,” Mitchell explained, “but also about incorporating pre-vaccine teaching, post-vaccine education, and learning to convey answers to members of the public who have questions.”

The students’ training – which includes the same training that all UVA Health vaccinators receive – prepares them to serve in three roles: greeters, vaccinators and post-vaccine educators and monitors. All students assigned to vaccination roles will practice under supervision from clinical instructors Elmore, Trish Higgins, Vickie Southall, Sharon Veith and Hui Zhao. 

signed stickers with date and the sticker reads I gave my 1st covid-19 vaccine
Students in Vickie Southall’s course signed stickers when they gave out their first vaccination, keeping them as a memento.

While the learning is not optional, serving as a vaccinator is. But almost all are eager.

“Five, 10 years after the pandemic is over,” third-year nursing student Madison McMahon said, “being able to say I was a nursing student and was able to vaccinate people against this virus will be really cool.”

Community Education

Dr. Max Luna has directed the UVA Latino Health Initiative for five years. The initiative oversees five community health programs, including The Latino Clinic, the Cardiovascular Initiative for Latino Community Health, the Compañeros Training and Empowerment Program, Family Health Evenings at Southwood, and an educational radio program. Each one aims to improve the health and wellbeing of the Latino community in Charlottesville and narrow the gap between this community and UVA.

When the pandemic hit – and evidence mounted that it was disproportionately impacting both Black and Latino communities – Luna and his team of faculty and student volunteers and community advisers knew they could help.

“State universities especially, in my opinion, are called to take off their educational jackets and respond to national emergencies in service, in addition to regularly serving the community – not as charity, but as a commitment from an institution like ours to contribute to the community in ways that are safe, educational and focused on community needs,” Luna said.

For roughly eight months, student volunteer activities were suspended for the safety of both students and community members, which made it difficult for the Latino Health Initiative to provide much-needed assistance. The advent of the vaccine, however, made it safer for vaccinated students, many of them medical and nursing students, to return to volunteer activities.

“Students can provide an important service, and it is also an important educational experience for them, as well,” he said.

UVA Medical Students work with RN's on a computer at a covid vaccine clinic
Students listen to instructions from R.N. Clinician Anika Spry.

Luna quickly set about recruiting “Spanish-fluent, culturally competent” students to volunteer as interpreters at vaccine clinics. So far he has 48 student volunteers who have served at multiple vaccine sites, including a clinic at the Jefferson School in Charlottesville that vaccinated more than 600 people, many of them Black or Latino; the clinic in Nelson County; weekly sessions at the Big Lots site; and a planned clinic in the Southwood neighborhood, which includes more than 1,500 mobile homes and mostly Hispanic residents.

“We tell our volunteers that they have three key roles: interpret the language, serve as cultural brokers and advocate for the patient,” Luna said. “We want our students to bridge the cultural gap between patient and provider, and make sure that patients are well-informed and have their questions answered. I’m sure that this experience will make them better and more empathetic doctors for any future patient they will care for.”

Volunteers’ tasks include helping patients make vaccine appointments, understand how to get to the vaccine site, and fill out forms and answer questions once they arrive.

UVA Medical Student talks to patient who is sitting down in chair
Fourth-year medical student Maggie Rowe is volunteering with UVA’s Latino Health Initiative, and has served as an interpreter at vaccine clinics.

“We want to spread information, to help people understand who is eligible for the vaccine, and help them get appointments,” said volunteer Maggie Rowe, a fourth-year medical student who has worked with the Latino Health Initiative since she came to UVA. “Once at the clinic, we want to make sure that they have their questions answered, that they feel comfortable, and that they know how excited we are that they are there.”

Uniformly, patients have been both nervous and excited, Rowe said.

“Many of them are very excited to be receiving the vaccine,” she said. “I am just really grateful that we can connect them to these resources.

Incorporating equity into vaccine distribution, and making sure that minority or marginalized communities have access to the vaccine, is something the whole country should be deeply invested in, Rowe said.

“Equitable vaccine distribution is the best tool we have right now to end the pandemic and address the inequities that we have seen during COVID,” she said.

Vaccination, Navarro pointed out, is also a way that students can make a tangible difference after a year that saw many medical and nursing students temporarily removed from the hospital and shifted to virtual learning for safety reasons.

“Until recently, we have not been able to have these personal connections,” she said. “It has been so nice to start making those connections again.”