By Leigh Beeson/UGA Today
Marsha Thomas was definitely ready for her COVID-19 vaccine.
Her 81-year-old parents were both previously diagnosed with the coronavirus and have experienced some long-term side effects of the disease. So, she jumped at the opportunity to get vaccinated during the Clarke County School District’s mass vaccination event on Wednesday.
“What is the saying? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Thomas, a veteran educator of over 20 years and the interim chief executive officer of district services. “What you don’t want is to be one of those people that’s been directly impacted by the virus or had family members who’ve been impacted.”
A mass vaccination event
Planning began back in January. The school district partnered with the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership in an effort to vaccinate as many teachers and school staff as possible and as quickly as possible. The officials divided school district staff between two vaccination sites, Cedar Shoals High School for teachers and staff who work on the east side of Athens and Clarke Central High School for those who work on the west side.
Within hours of Gov. Brian Kemp’s announcement that school employees would be eligible to receive the vaccine starting March 8, the plan was set in motion.
“Faculty and staff with the Medical Partnership have just really been a godsend,” said Lawrence Harris, chief of community engagement and strategic partnership for the Clarke County School District. “Our district is proud to be one of the first in the region to implement a rollout of this magnitude, but none of it would have been possible without the incredible support of our longtime partners at UGA and the Department of Public Health.”
“We’ve been so grateful for the school nurses working alongside us to protect our community. They’ve been right there with us, giving shots in the clinics, and we’ve been looking forward to being able to vaccinate the rest of the school staff,” said Whitney Howell, Clinical and Nursing Director for the Northeast Health District. “Thanks to the AU/UGA medical students and faculty, we were able to offer vaccines to the entire school staff at one time.”
When Thomas arrived at the Cedar Shoals site on March 10 for her appointment, she was a little nervous. After checking in with registration, she was directed into the gym, where three zones were set up: a waiting area of sorts for people about to receive their shots, a vaccine administration area and an observation zone for after they received their vaccines.
Staffers were sent through one of 10 lanes to receive their shots and were encouraged to wait in the observation area for 15 minutes in case of any possible reactions to the vaccine, with medical care provided by Medical Partnership students and faculty, Clarke County school nurses and Department of Public Health employees.
“The process was seamless,” she said. “The shot itself was not painful at all. They seem very adept at what they were doing.”
Serving the community
When the pandemic hit, students and faculty from the AU/UGA Medical Partnership wanted to help.
The Athens Free Clinic, sponsored by the Medical Partnership, started providing COVID-19 testing, in collaboration with the Department of Public Health, through its mobile health clinic, which focuses on providing primary care to the underserved members of the Athens community.
“Since the Medical Partnership opened its doors in 2010, our mission has been to engage and serve the communities around us,” said Dr. Shelley Nuss, dean of the Medical Partnership. “When the vaccine became available, we knew we could expand our services to include giving the COVID-19 vaccine.”
They adjusted the medical school curriculum specifically so students could be certified to give the vaccine, and the mobile clinic shifted gears to begin providing vaccinations in the community.
The Medical Partnership has provided pop-up sports physicals and primary care clinics in partnership with the Clarke County School District in the past, along with large testing events earlier in the pandemic. For Dr. Suzanne Lester, helping the school district with a mass vaccination event was the logical next step.
“For me, part of my goal here has been to leverage university resources towards the community in a teaching effort,” said Lester, associate professor at the Medical Partnership, medical director of the mobile free clinic and a practicing physician at Piedmont Athens Regional. “This is a great way to give back to the school district and therefore benefit the kids in the district and the parents in the district.”
Medical students like Hamzah Ali were eager to assist however they could.
“I had been searching for a way to play an impactful role in addressing this pandemic,” said Ali, who is in his third year of medical school. “The most rewarding part of this experience was seeing teachers and school staff receive their vaccines. I could see relief in their eyes and (their) strong desire to get schools (fully) reopened.”
One of the first districts to vaccinate on a wide scale
As teachers and school staff walked out of the gym with their “I got my COVID-19 shot” stickers, there was a palpable sense of relief. Many took selfies showing off the Band-Aids on their arms to share with friends, family and social media.
“I believe that in doing this, I’m preparing my body (in case I’m exposed to the virus),” Thomas said. “I believe in being proactive. It’s crucial. This thing can be fatal, so this is an important step to take.”
On March 31, teachers and school staff who received their first doses Wednesday will return for their second shots at the same appointment time.
Medical students from the Medical Partnership will be ready for them.