At VCU, pharmacy students take lead role in COVID-19 vaccination

A person in a surgical mask and face shield gives a vaccination with a syringe.
Andrew Zabala, a fourth-year pharmacy student at VCU, gives an employee a vaccination against COVID-19.

By Greg Weatherford 
VCU School of Pharmacy

One by one they filed down a narrow corridor into a small side room in the VCU Health hospital and took a seat beside one of an array of industrial tables. On each table lay a tray lined with pre-loaded syringes.

“Can you roll up your sleeve?” asked Meghan Beard, a fourth-year Pharm.D. student at VCU School of Pharmacy

The patient did so as Beard efficiently went through the required information: This would be the first of two doses, so be sure to set up an appointment for the second; most people feel sore or achey for a day or two, a sign that the vaccine is working; hold onto your CDC-approved vaccination card. 

A moment later the shot had gone into the arm, a self-stick bandage affixed, the sleeve rolled back down. And the world took another step toward halting the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“It feels rewarding to help stop the spread of COVID,” Beard said of her work administering the vaccinations. 

At VCU, pharmacy students like Beard have been at the forefront of the vaccination effort, in part because they receive training in giving vaccinations as part of their coursework.

Working with pharmacy chains and health systems including Bon Secours and Inova Health, VCU Pharm.D. students have been vaccinating residents of long-term care facilities and essential health-care workers since December.

For example, at Bon Secours, 43 VCU Pharm.D. students had volunteered about 300 hours by the end of January and provided more than 10,000 vaccines to physicians and employees at five hospitals, said Joshua P. Crawford, Pharm.D., system director for clinical pharmacy services at Bon Secours.

The need is urgent. The novel coronavirus that emerged in the last days of 2019 has killed more than 2 million people across the world — more than 400,000 in the U.S. alone.

A new and more contagious form of the virus has been spreading around the world, underscoring the importance of speedy and effective vaccination programs. President Joe Biden has vowed that the U.S. will vaccinate 100 million people nationwide in the first 100 days of his administration — 1 million a day. 

Creating vaccines against COVID-19 was a first, vital step in stopping the spread of the deadly disease. The next daunting challenge, health experts say, will be to get millions upon millions inoculated against the virus — quickly. 

A pharmacy student wearing a mask and face shield holds a vaccine syringe. Text reads Students may be one of the keys to unlock the solution. Benjamin Van Tassell Pharm D.

Moving the vaccines from manufacturers to vaccination sites will be one big logistical hurdle. Finding people to actually administer the vaccine properly is another. 

“Right now we’re doing everything we can,” said Benjamin Van Tassell, Pharm.D., a professor at VCU School of Pharmacy who is volunteering to give the vaccines. “But to get ahead of this [pandemic] we will need to be an order of magnitude larger.” 

Expanding the vaccination efforts will mean bringing in anyone who can help — including health professional students, Van Tassell added. “Students may be one of the keys to unlock the solution.” 

Among those who agree is Jean-Venable “Kelly” Goode, Pharm.D., a professor at VCU School of Pharmacy and co-chair of Virginia’s Vaccine Advisory Workgroup

“There is a lot students can do,” Goode said, such as documenting vaccinations, drawing up doses and injecting the vaccines. 

At VCU, employees with patient-facing roles have been among the first to receive the vaccines. This includes doctoral students who will help give the vaccines. 

Goode is working with colleagues at the pharmacy school and other VCU health professional programs to train a strike force of health professional students to support that effort. Starting in mid-January, more than 300 students from VCU’s health professions schools will receive specialized training on how to properly administer the COVID-19 vaccines through intramuscular injections. 

Goode and colleagues also are working on a plan to provide trained student vaccinators to the pharmacies across Virginia that are registering as vaccination sites. “There is a lot of hope,” Goode said. 

Many pharmacy students already have received that training including Andrew Zabala, a fourth-year Pharm.D. student who has been vaccinating VCU Health employees on site. 

“I’ve been itching to give this,” Zabala said, moments after vaccinating a VCU Health contractor. “It feels good. I’m helping end the pandemic.”