Area nursing students pitch in with vaccinations while gaining valuable experience

With the Virginia Department of Health managing the vaccinations, area nursing students working with health officials have played a key supporting role. (Photo courtesy of the Central Shenandoah Health Department)

By Logan Roddy, contributor, with additional reporting by Sky Wilson

As Virginia continues vaccinating groups 1a and 1b, nursing students from area schools are helping the Public Health District’s effort to deliver vaccines while also getting valuable real-world experience. 

“In normal, non-COVID times, the health department hosts nursing students on a regular basis throughout the academic year,” said Marsha Rodeffer, nurse manager at Central Shenandoah Health District. “This is just a continuation of us providing them a clinical rotation.”

In fact, Rodeffer said nursing students might be getting a more valuable education than they would without the pandemic.

“I mean, what better exposure and learning opportunity in community health could you get than what we have right now?” Rodeffer said. “They’ve helped with case investigations, contact tracing so they get to see the actual disease detective part, and they get to see when we use vaccines to hopefully make this a vaccine-preventable disease.”

It also includes some hands-on access to skills that future nurses might not receive otherwise.

“They’re getting to practice actual intramuscular injections, which they might not get to do in an acute care hospital where most is administered through IVs,” Rodeffer said.

Andrei Golding and Caitlyn Maloney are both juniors at James Madison University in their first semester in the School of Nursing. All students are required to complete one non-vaccinator role at one of the clinics hosted by the Virginia Department of Health, which include screening patients as they arrive at the site and monitoring them after they’ve received their shot. 

Golding and Maloney both said they were grateful to help the community and gain valuable experience.

“It just shows how important health care is, and there’s such a need and shortage of nurses that we’re going to make an impact and be important coming right out of college and be able to go straight into this,” Maloney said.

Golding said when he was home for the summer, he watched his mother go into work at a hospital and was frustrated that he couldn’t help. 

“I just want to get out and start helping as soon as possible,” Golding said. “The fact that I get the opportunity to contribute to solving the issue is something that I’m really going to write home about.”

Golding hopes to one day become a physician’s assistant specializing in orthopedics, while Maloney is working towards becoming a nurse practitioner.

Jamie Robinson, the associate director for undergraduate programs at JMU’s School of Nursing, helps coordinate the student and faculty volunteers for the weekly vaccine pods that the Virginia Department of Health hosts. As vaccine shipments arrive, the health department creates a collaborative schedule a week or two in advance of the next clinic and staff it with students and faculty, depending on the number of doses to be delivered.

JMU’s School of Nursing has about 430 undergraduate students and about 100 in the graduate program, so Robinson said there are “plenty of students to spread out and help with this effort.”

“The difficult part is just the amount of flexibility that’s required and just in time framing,” Robinson said. “We don’t have vaccination clinics scheduled very far out. It’s just as the vaccine arrives.”

The Central Shenandoah Health District, which covers about 300,000 people over six counties, has been getting about 3,450 doses of the vaccine each week, Dr. Laura Kornegay said last week at a telephone town hall meeting. 

The Virginia Board of Nursing determines how many clinical hours students must complete in order to graduate. And the relationship with the Virginia Department of Health is symbiotic in that it allows students to fulfill this requirement while also taking pressure off the state’s health care system.

“As the School of Nursing, because part of our mission is to serve the community, we thought this was a great opportunity for students to be involved with the pandemic,” Robinson said. “Students are always wanting to be part of the solution, and at the same time the department of health needed some help with their vaccination pods.”

Robinson said their priority is still getting the students out on time and well-prepared to enter the professional field.

“Our focus is getting them clinical time wherever they can,” Robinson said. “Whether it’s in a hospital, or a doctor’s office, or doing vaccination clinics that’s really what we’re after. In getting them experience working with the public and with patients to take care of.”

EMU nursing students also helping out

Another challenge in preparing nursing students to help administer the vaccine is getting those students vaccinated as well. 

Laura Yoder, EMU’s undergraduate nursing program director, is responsible for, among other things, coordinating the schedules and curriculum for the program’s 96 clinical level students. These students have been helping with the health district’s COVID vaccine pods, and working at Sentara RMH Medical Center and Augusta Health Hospital.

But because EMU does not have direct access to the COVID vaccine, Yoder said a majority of undergraduate EMU Nursing students got vaccinated by the Central Shenandoah Health District. 

Some of Yoder’s faculty and students helped with three internal vaccination clinics for Sentara RMH staff and employees earlier in the year. A few of these volunteers received extra vaccine doses available at the clinics, but most did not. 

But Yoder said working with the local health district has allowed for wider access for those nursing students to get vaccinated.

“We are getting into a place where vaccine availability is more prominent, so now I am going to be pushing a little bit harder for it,” Yoder said. “But I also feel like the (Central Shenandoah Health District) is opening up opportunities for students to get vaccinated and it’s not a problem now. They are getting it when they need to get it.”

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