By Lindsey Derrick/UGA Today
Medical students at the Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership will begin helping administer the COVID-19 vaccine this week through an arrangement with the Clarke County Board of Health. The students recently completed an injection skills lab and all CDC vaccination modules to become qualified to administer the COVID-19 vaccine.
The medical students will be working at Department of Public Health COVID-19 testing sites administering the vaccines and monitoring patients for vaccine reactions. They will also be assisting in other areas such as recruiting patients for vaccines and completing clerical work.
Eventually, students will administer vaccines through the Medical Partnership Mobile Clinic/Athens Free Clinic to help vaccinate the underserved communities they regularly serve through their Community and Population Health course.
“With the vaccine rollout ramping up statewide, we felt the need to turn our focus where we are needed most,” said Campus Dean Dr. Michelle Nuss. “We need all hands on deck to fight this pandemic, and having our students equipped to join in that fight is so rewarding for our medical students.”
“It’s a huge relief, because our students have been wanting to help,” said Dr. Suzanne Lester, course director for community health and medical director of the MP Mobile/Athens Free Clinic. “To involve them in direct patient care during the pandemic is such an amazing opportunity, and it allows them to give back to the community and be part of the solution.”
Lester hopes the students will eventually be able to assist in larger vaccine efforts such as administering shots to Clarke County employees and visiting subsidized housing communities.
Everyone involved with the vaccine effort (self-named “The Vaccine Brigade”) is humbled and excited they get to fight the pandemic not only by getting vaccinated themselves, but by helping others get vaccinated.
“I feel like this highlights the importance of flexibility in medicine,” said second-year medical student Laura Pride. “When a new need arises, we have to adapt in order to address that need. And what greater health-related need is there now than the fight against COVID-19? We also know that the most vulnerable populations are disproportionally impacted by the pandemic, and being able to bring the vaccines to the communities we’ve been working with feels like such a win from a personal, social and medical standpoint.”
First-year medical student Max Ribot said he feels empowered by the opportunity to take action and help. “The ability to implement broad public health initiatives is a privilege. I look forward to this opportunity to serve our communities through both the vaccination and education.”
Nuss said two things are being accomplished with this curriculum shift. “Our students are getting real world, hands-on experience, and they are doing their part to keep their community safer and healthier through this local vaccine effort. They will look back on this time in their lives and feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.”
It began with COVID testing
Between April and December 2020, the mobile clinic conducted more than 3,433 COVID-19 tests for Athens residents who face challenges related to transportation, insurance and homelessness, among other issues.
The clinic worked with the Georgia Department of Public Health Northeast Health District, Athens-Clarke County government, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and local nonprofit and community organizations to identify and serve Athens neighborhoods and workplaces. Lester and AU/UGA Medical Partnership faculty member Dr. Lia Bruner and Department of Public Health’s Lori Hanna continued to provide direct service to community members while students helped to screen patients, schedule appointments and coordinate support services.
“The mobile clinic provides hope, comfort and security to those who have nowhere to turn in such unprecedented times. While hospitals have been flooded with COVID-19 cases, and COVID-19 testing sites have struggled with limited testing kits, the mobile clinic has stepped up to perform COVID-19 testing and provide care to the patients most vulnerable to the virus, both medically and financially,” said Hamzah Ali, a third-year student. Ali, along with Lester and fellow third-year student Zac Adams, helped found the Athens Free Mobile Clinic.
It takes a village
Lester said volunteers and operators have adopted a motto, “We are still here for you,” to encourage community members to feel comfortable reaching out to clinic staff for assistance. Volunteers also have worked with local agencies to provide holistic responses to those diagnosed with COVID-19 including help coordinating medical care, financial services, meal deliveries, safe quarantine procedures, child care and social support programs.
Now the focus will be on delivering vaccines and keeping residents healthy.
“It’s a village effort,” Lester said. “The partnership with DPH, Athens-Clarke County government and our community partners has been overwhelmingly positive. We are not doing this alone.