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Undergraduate Students Become Valuable Members of the COVID-19 Vaccine Team

14b undergrad students
Dr Janet Galiczewski, Chair, Department of Undergraduate Studies, Clinical Associate Professor with undergraduate students

While the disarray caused by the pandemic in spring 2020 is behind the students and faculty at Stony Brook School of Nursing, opportunities to contribute during this public health crisis are far from over. In early January 2021, Stony Brook University was designated as a New York State point of distribution (POD) for the COVID-19 vaccine. Staffing the POD at Stony Brook’s Research and Development Park would require numerous qualified vaccinators. Alison Rowe, MS, RN, NEA-BC, CEN, Associate Director of Nursing, Emergency and Cardiac Services, contacted the school of nursing on Jan. 10 identifying the need for student nurses to participate in the distribution of vaccines. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) guidance on student care of patients during the pandemic, student nurses are considered valuable members of the healthcare team. Other than limiting direct care of COVID-19 patients, clinical students should continue their roles as part of the care team. 

Following this guidance, two opportunities were presented to the SON students and faculty. The first was for undergraduate nursing students to serve as vaccinators at the Stony Brook vaccine POD. At the same time that preparations were being made to certify students as NYS vaccinators, Stony Brook University Hospital, Chief Nursing Officer Carolyn Santora called for student nurse assistance on non-COVID-19 units as the second surge of the disease was underway, thus calling staff nurses to the COVID-19 units.  

Becoming Certified
The Stony Brook POD officially opened on Jan. 18, 2021. However, prior to opening day, there was a lot of preparation to ensure an organized and efficient distribution of vaccines. In a period of seven days, Carol Della Ratta, PhD, RN, CNE, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Strategic Partnerships, and Janet M. Galiczewski, DNP, RN, ANP, CCRN, Chair of the Department of Undergraduate Studies, worked to prepare and certify an initial group of 157 undergraduate students to serve as NYS vaccinators. This required the students to complete NYS online modules.  

Next was to conduct the in-person evaluation of skill competency as required by the state. Galiczewski coordinated the scheduling of students and faculty supervisors. The two major challenges were that nursing students were on winter break until the end of January and organizing a schedule between the Stony Brook POD and School of Nursing. Nursing students answered the call and forfeited their winter break to get certified and assist at the hospital to care for non-COVID patients. Scheduling issues were handled by developing a shared document. This allowed the POD organizers to know when students were available to be onsite to distribute vaccines to the community. In addition, our students volunteered to travel to vaccinate under-served populations on Long Island. There were several bumps in the road; however, good communication between all parties was the key to this successful endeavor.

During the entire process Della Ratta and Galiczewski framed their efforts by keeping central four key elements:

Maintaining safety for patients, community members and student nurses. Student nurses were offered the COVID-19 vaccination to protect themselves and the community they would be vaccinating. The POD provided protective eyewear and masks. Before participating each student had to demonstrate competency administering the vaccine. Strong communication lines were in place with POD supervisors and SON faculty so that if aberrant practice was noted, the student was referred for skill remediation. 

The importance of student participation in meeting the university/community need during this public health crisis. As future nurses, many students expressed the need to participate in the pandemic response. In keeping with the AACN guidelines, participating in the POD and providing care on the non-COVID-19 units provided students with the opportunity to develop and refine clinical skills while many nursing schools had transitioned to virtual clinical experiences only.

Providing a high-quality educational experience. In order to better prepare the nursing workforce to meet the needs of the diverse communities in which they will serve, the Institute of Medicine’s Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health Report (2010) has called for a transformation in the way nurses are educated. One aspect of this recommendation includes enhancing education for settings outside acute care; specifically, competency in the area of community health has been identified. Entry-level baccalaureate registered nurses need to transition smoothly from their academic settings to community-based primary care settings. To meet existing and emerging societal needs, strengthening the public health nursing workforce with well-prepared, highly educated, baccalaureate prepared nurses is crucial. Furthermore, increased demand for RNs in community health is predicted because of health reform initiatives that support models of care with more emphasis on care coordination, chronic disease prevention and population health. Participation at Stony Brook’s POD provided students with essential public health care and coordination experience. Nursing students at the POD served in many critical roles such as registrar, patient flow coordinator and vaccinator, as well as monitored patients for adverse reactions following vaccination.  

Supporting students. Maintaining a sense of community was essential as the students’ classroom was now virtual. A lack of interaction with classmates and professors increases the risk of student failure and a sense of isolation. To that end, Galiczewski held fireside chats with the students (in addition to Zoom classes). These sessions served as a forum where students could talk about anything from academic issues to their personal concerns about the pandemic. It was a safe place for them to interact with professors and classmates. 

The next few months were difficult but uplifting.  On May 6, 2021, the SBU Vaccination POD celebrated the administration of 200,000 vaccines. Our students took great pride in the fact that they led this community effort. To date the Stony Brook POD remains open and committed to serving the Long Island Community, now having administered over 600,000 vaccinationations.

Next Steps
Stony Brook School of Nursing will continue to meet existing and emerging societal needs, strengthening the public health nursing workforce with well-prepared, highly educated, baccalaureate prepared nurses to meet the needs of both the local and global communities. The pandemic is a fluid situation and our students will be required to become NYS certified vaccinators to assist in the continued vaccination effort and if needed to administer COVID-19 booster vaccines.

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