The University of Mississippi has been prepared to distribute COVID-19 vaccinations within a moment’s notice for weeks.
Socially-distanced tables and chairs fill the Tad Smith Coliseum, organizing the circular building into stations through which patients will rotate counter-clockwise. General medical supplies are stocked, and security guards are on call. According to students who have begun training, approximately 180 UM pharmacy students will be assisting licensed pharmacists in administering the vaccine.
The only thing missing from the university’s vaccination distribution plan is actual doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
The university released a statement on Jan. 21 notifying the UM community that the date when doses will arrive remains uncertain. Still, the pharmacy students who will play an integral role in distribution have already signed up for volunteer slots as early as Monday, Feb. 8.
Pharmacy student Sarah Janus said that the school has student volunteers ready to administer vaccinations during every time slot from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Tad Pad starting on Feb. 8 and continuing every weekday.
“We’re going to be preparing the vaccines. We’re going to enter data. We’re going to escort patients from station to station and make sure everything’s okay (and) observe them. Basically, we’re starting this clinic from start to finish, which is a big deal,” Janus said. “Honestly, we’re just waiting for the vaccine to come in.”
First year pharmacy students like Janus will not receive vaccination certification until Feb. 9, so she said she will likely work the check-in station until she feels comfortable preparing the vaccines. Meanwhile, students who are further in the program will prepare the syringes with the vaccine doses.
According to pharmacy students who attended the hour-long university training for the COVID-19 vaccination clinic, the university wants to receive doses of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to provide second doses to community members who have received a first dose from elsewhere. Each type requires a different preparation, and during the training led by Dr. Lauren Bloodworth, an associate pharmacy professor at the university, the pharmacy students were trained for both.
While it is not a requirement for the pharmacy students to receive the vaccine themselves, many have already been able to schedule vaccination appointments across the state, qualifying as healthcare workers. Still, Janus said she felt a sense of guilt when scheduling one of the limited appointments available for vaccination in the state.
“I was not planning on getting it. I would rather my spot go to my sister (or) my grandparents. You know, you want to put others before you, but last week at the training session, our adviser for the whole UM COVID clinic told us we could all get it. That’s what pushed me to go ahead and get it,” Janus said.
As of this week, 254,000 Mississippians have received the COVID-19 vaccine, according to state health department officials, but the demand for vaccinations still exceeds the supply. When Gov. Tate Reeves announced on Tuesday that 30,000 more vaccine appointments were available on the Mississippi State Department of Health website, all of the appointments were booked within two hours.
Jordan Hepler, another first year pharmacy student who is trained to volunteer in the university’s vaccine clinic, received her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine through her job at a CVS Pharmacy.
“I knew that at the time I signed up, the Mississippi State Department of Health said they had no first dose vaccines available, so that makes me think it’s two different systems. It’s not one central system,” Hepler said.
Nonetheless, she said the process took a total of 20 minutes — five for the vaccine administration and 15 for a waiting period to make sure she didn’t have a reaction. Hepler said the university’s vaccine clinic will hopefully be just as efficient.
“If I remember correctly, the goal is to (administer) 400 to 600 doses a day,” Hepler said. “They’re going to follow the phase guidelines, and as of now, the clinic would just be for the Ole Miss students, faculty, staff, professors and all of that.”
The CDC refers to community locations at which state and local agencies dispense and administer medical countermeasures like vaccines as points of distribution (PODs). PODs can either be open, meaning they dispense vaccines to the public, or closed, meaning they only distribute only to their own populations.
“The pharmacy school said that they contacted the Mississippi State Department of Health and said that they’d be willing to open up (our clinic) to the Oxford community if that meant that we would get the shipments of vaccines in quicker,” Hepler said.
The university is currently designated as a closed POD, according to pharmacy student Lindsey Stout.
“A lot of things are so new with this vaccine, and a lot of the doctors and pharmacists are having to learn new procedures and preparation techniques,” Stout said. “It’s really been beneficial to be a student in this time because we get to learn it right off. We get to really be hands on and help the older members of the community learn the new techniques.”
Stout also said that the pharmacy students who volunteer in the university clinic will play key roles in studying who is getting the vaccine and how it’s affecting them, which will impact the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines ultimately receiving U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. Both vaccines are currently administered through emergency use authorization from the FDA.
“Getting the right information and documentation is so important, especially considering that the vaccines are still going under FDA approval,” Stout said. “The more people get the vaccine, the more information that we get and can learn from.”
Stout also said that it is critical for university community members to understand that pharmacy students being involved with vaccine distribution is nothing new at UM. Every year, the UM chapter of American Pharmacists Association Academy of Student Pharmacists runs Operation Immunization to provide the community with flu vaccines.
“We’ve learned so much about medication, and we are very supportive of vaccinations,” Stout said. “Pharmacists, whether it be community pharmacists otherwise, we all deal with these medications, and we are all able to give these vaccines and be hands on in the community.”
Jessica Sproat, another pharmacy student trained to volunteer in the vaccination clinic, said the pharmacy school utilized its pre-existing plan for Operation Immunization as a baseline for the COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan.
“It’s pretty easy — just replace it and amplify it with the COVID vaccine, and you have this clinic,” Sproat said. “It’s a really good way to utilize these 180 trained people to effectively disperse the vaccine between people.”
Eric Pham, a pharmacy student who helped run Operation Immunization this year, is on the university’s vaccination task force and has helped the university develop its strategy for campus immunization. While Pham was unable to comment on university plans prior to publication, he said UM communications plans to host a panel in the coming week to answer questions about the university’s vaccine rollout plan.
Rod Guajardo, a spokesperson for the university, confirmed UM communication’s plan for a virtual Zoom panel where university officials and experts involved in the vaccine plan will answer questions. The exact date and time has yet to be released.