Published April 28, 2021
With COVID-19 vaccines available to all adults in the United States, pharmacists have played a crucial role in immunizing the public. By their side, since the beginning of the rollout, have been PharmD students in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
Each week, UB pharmacy student volunteers vaccinate hundreds of Western New Yorkers through Operation Immunization, an initiative of the UB chapter of the American Pharmacists Association Academy of Student Pharmacists (APhA-ASP). Student volunteers also assist with patient registration, education and counseling, and clinic coordination.
To date, the student-led program has vaccinated close to 2,500 patients at nearly 20 clinics. The students work under the supervision of community pharmacists and UB pharmacy school faculty, gaining valuable clinical experience.
Although pharmacy students may receive credit toward their professional education requirements by participating at vaccination clinics, many students forego the credit and volunteer solely to support the local community in its fight to curb the spread of COVID-19, says May Thandar, leader of the student volunteer effort and co-chair of Operation Immunization.
“I like doing these immunizations. The clinics are great opportunities to gain professional experience and demonstrate our efforts fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. As future health care professionals, it is important we play an active role in helping our community,” says Thandar, a graduate student in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and the School of Public Health and Health Professions.
“By working in community pharmacies and at vaccination clinics, I actually got to interact closely with some of my patients and practice my counseling skills. I want my fellow students to have the same opportunity,” she says. “I hope we’re able to reach herd immunity as soon as possible.”
Pharmacy students are also administering COVID-19 vaccinations through clinical rotations across the country in a variety of health care settings.
Launched in 1997 by the APhA-ASP student chapters and the Student National Pharmaceutical Association, Operation Immunization is an ongoing pharmacy campaign to deliver vital vaccines to the public, as well as provide education to raise the public’s knowledge of immunizations.
The UB APhA-ASP chapter, in tandem with other pharmacy student organizations, regularly supports flu vaccination clinics, as well as a variety of other wellness and education clinics, with topics ranging from diabetes to the HPV vaccine. COVID-19, however, brought on a new challenge as pharmacy students had never worked in a vaccination clinic near the size of, or with the patient demand of, vaccination sites organized during the pandemic.
On the first day of classes for the spring semester, Thandar received an email from Christopher Daly, clinical assistant professor of pharmacy practice, asking for help finding students to volunteer at two vaccination clinics run by community pharmacies. By 4 p.m. that day, Thandar had recruited four of her peers to volunteer.
As access to vaccines expanded and the number of vaccination sites increased, Thandar began communicating directly with local pharmacies to learn what their needs were for support, and emailed and shared Facebook messages multiple times a week to recruit student volunteers.
“This is the best time to practice your immunization skills before you go into the field. I want students to get as much experience as possible, especially students who have never been to the clinics before,” says Thandar, who aspires to become a pharmacist specializing in public policy and global health, particularly with underprivileged communities.
All first-year PharmD students at UB receive immunization training, preparing them to be the next generation of vaccinators. During the hands-on clinical training, students review materials and lectures, perform casework and rehearse injection technique on oranges before practicing on peers. As students advance through the program, they can provide vaccinations under the direction of a licensed pharmacist.
Thandar recalls one student who was thankful for the experience of volunteering at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic. At first nervous about delivering their first vaccine outside of training exercises, with the guidance of UB faculty on site, the student boosted their confidence through the experience.
“Students are getting hands-on experience with large-scale vaccination programs as they learn the complexities of carrying out this critical public health initiative. These experiences will benefit them as COVID-19 vaccinations will continue for months to years,” says Nicholas Fusco, clinical associate professor of pharmacy practice and vice chair for education, practice and service in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
“The community also benefits by increased accessibility to vaccines,” he says. “As the vaccine supply has increased, the more individuals administering vaccines means communities will be fully vaccinated quicker.”
Improving the health of the community is a core pillar of the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science’s mission. Community pharmacies are a critical partner of the school for achieving these initiatives.
In addition to offering support for school programs — providing a link between the school and the communities it serves — these pharmacies also train numerous UB pharmacy students each year as part of the school’s experiential education program, sharing crucial knowledge and experience before the students begin their careers.
Supporting vaccination sites is a way for the school and students to give back, says Fusco, also director of interprofessional education in the pharmacy school.
“The COVID-19 vaccine distribution to community pharmacies has been a huge, and at times overwhelming, undertaking. Our students and faculty are trained immunizers and we saw this as an opportunity for our school to step up and help our local partners,” says Fusco.
“Community pharmacies have been strong supporters of our program. Many of these pharmacists are alumni and have volunteered to teach our students through our experiential education program,” he says. “They are on the front lines each day working to meet this huge public health need, and we are excited to assist them in any way we can.”