The pandemic has provided historic opportunities for PSU students to gain real-world experience, and none have been more important than COVID vaccination clinics. Nursing Professors Julie Cote and Kerriann Reynolds have led these efforts, sharing their expertise with student nurses in critical public service.
Their extensive joint proficiency with immunization clinics was previously focused primarily on influenza, including addressing gaps in populations, and in-state and national H1N1 efforts. They worked in public and private educational systems, in correctional care, and on Native American reservations. “But we couldn’t have predicted what happened over the last year and a half,” says Reynolds.
Cote and Reynolds’s years of experience, Plymouth State’s close faculty-student relationships, and the University’s learning model were all key to instilling student confidence.
“One of the first things we did was list all the training that students would need,” says Cote. “We reinforced it and made sure that they felt comfortable and recognized the difference between influenza clinics and COVID clinics.”
Handling and reconstituting COVID vaccine involved specific procedures unlike those required for influenza, explains Cote. The public’s COVID fears also led to more challenging interactions.
Nursing students were already familiarized with influenza clinics and outside, drive-through immunization formats, but the COVID vaccine’s status as an emergency use treatment added a new dimension. “There was a lot of trepidation,” says Reynolds. “People would ask the students, ‘Is this alright? Is it safe?’ They had to field a lot of difficult questions. Being able to make that quick relationship and therapeutically communicate is really important.”
PSU’s “Habits of Mind” pedagogy (purposeful communication, problem-solving, integrative perspective, and self-regulated learning) is designed to give students confidence in their abilities. “We teach Habits of Mind throughout every course and I think they really embraced that,” says Reynolds. “They understand not only is there the opportunity to learn, but if we go back to Ut prosim, it’s a time to give service to the community, and they feel very connected to that.”
Cote and Reynolds both observed students adjusting to various patient presentations. “Some of the clinics included developmentally delayed adults, and older patients who were really scared,” says Reynolds. “Students were able to dive into their toolbox and pull out their repertoire of all their skills, to meet that person where they were at—whether they were trepidatious or confused—and to not only get it done but in a comfortable way.”
Cote was impressed by a student who vaccinated a blind individual. “The way the student approached her and said, ‘I’m going to touch your shoulder, you’re going to feel something cold and wet, you let me know when you’re ready’—I actually stepped away and said, that was amazing!”
The COVID vaccination clinics are run by the National Guard and PSU’s involvement has been distinguished by its flexibility. “One of Guard’s organizers was really surprised that we could make some changes and participate so soon, and that we were willing to have faculty participate as well,” says Reynolds.
In addition to Cote and Reynolds, PSU’s contingent also included Professors Donna Driscoll, Julie Fagan, and Catherine Flores, and all administered shots alongside the 34 student nurses. In order to best prepare students to take their places on the front lines, the nursing program made rapid assessments and modifications.
“All of us had to perpetually fold in new information in real time about the vaccine itself, about COVID-19, how the scheduling would happen, and how the sites would be set up,” says Reynolds. In some cases, guidance might be provided by government agencies on best practices for nurses, but not necessarily for student nurses. Clinical Coordinator Chantal LaPlante assisted in that area and in general, making sure that the new activities would dovetail with what students needed to learn, regardless of the pandemic.
The results of everyone’s efforts was confidence-building community service that students will recall with pride throughout their careers.
“At first, students were hesitant, and some very much wanted to give the vaccine but wanted to observe a little more,” says Cote. “We developed a plan and I told students that I will be right here. No one’s going to scold or embarrass you.” Cote remembers standing behind one student and softly whispering encouragement. “As soon as she finished, she said, ‘I feel so much more comfortable now!’” says Cote. “It was so important for her to know that she was in a safe place.”
In total, students administered 1,350 vaccines while attending 22 clinics. “They were out in rain, snow, hail—the typical New England weather—on weekdays, evenings, and weekends administering shots,” says Professor Jean Coffey, director of the nursing program. “This was an amazing experience for the students and a significant contribution to the health of the Plymouth community.”