Several USAHS graduate nursing students are leading the charge in the United States’ effort to vaccinate the population against the deadly COVID-19 virus. From setting up a mass vaccination site in the Bay Area to running a clinic in rural Nebraska to volunteering for a Connecticut health department, our students are working hard to get the country back to a new normal.
A Well-Oiled Machine
Eleanor Eberhard, RN, BSN, MBA, is a student in USAHS’ Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program, Nurse Executive role specialty. The Chief Nursing Officer at Sequoia Hospital in San Mateo, California, Eberhard acted as Incident Chief for a mass drive-through vaccination clinic that was a partnership between the hospital’s parent company and San Mateo County.
The clinic was set up in the parking structure of the San Mateo Event Center. At its peak, it accommodated 20 lanes of cars and administered 3500 COVID-19 vaccines per day. “It’s a well-oiled machine,” Eberhard says. “We used an incident command structure with five divisions: traffic, check-in, electronic health record documenter, vaccine administration, and a parking area to wait post-vaccine.”
The County reached out to Sequoia because it had large quantities of the Pfizer vaccine on hand and needed the support of medical professionals in administering it. Eberhard says that Pfizer is more complicated than other COVID-19 vaccines because it must be properly defrosted and have diluent added. “We set up a pharmacy at the event center to have better control of doses and septic procedures,” she says.
The clinic was staffed with personnel from the event center and medical center, along with pharmacists, paramedics, and volunteers. There were new staff each day, so Eberhard held trainings early each morning. “It’s very rewarding,” she says. “Our volunteers will say this is the most valuable thing they’ve done. We’re bringing hope and joy to people who are so thankful and patient.” Eberhard describes San Mateo County as “extremely collaborative” and her team at Sequoia as “amazing. We have a very positive, open work culture.”
The clinic operated ten times from January through March before the state reorganized distribution so that Blue Shield would allocate all the doses. San Mateo County then asked the federal government for additional vaccine to continue its campaign. With lower quantities available, “we have been focusing on smaller, more vulnerable populations,” Eberhard says. “This Sunday, I am working a Latinex community clinic using the County’s vaccine.”
In her classes at USAHS, Eberhard was able to turn the mass vaccination clinic into a case study and ask her peers for ideas about logistics. As a DNP student, she was able to gain access to high-level meetings and observe behind-the-scenes decisions at the corporate and divisional level around issues like identifying how to better reach vulnerable and vaccine-hesitant populations. Sequoia is partnering with local churches, food banks, and home health services to increase its outreach.
Logistics on a Smaller Scale
BSN-entry DNP student Brian Locastro, RN, BSN, MS, CEN, is the Director of Emergency Services and Critical Care at a Texas hospital that received more vaccine than it expected. Locastro manages a nine-bed ER and eight-bed urgent care at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Frisco. Although it’s a smaller hospital, Baylor received 1300 doses of the Moderna vaccine. “After the staff who wanted the vaccine received it, we couldn’t waste it, so we opened a public clinic,” Locastro says. When hospital personnel shared the link with the general public prematurely, inquiries started pouring in.
Locastro set up a website where patients could sign up, and he organized the logistics of patient flow (given social distancing requirements) across the two rooms available. “I like a good challenge, and I was working with good people,” he says. When the post-vaccination waiting area got crowded, they had to rethink the flow. “By the fourth day, we were hitting our stride.”
The clinic administered about 160 shots per day during January and February to groups 1A and 1B—people over 65, frontline workers, and those with underlying conditions. Demand was high; more than 10,000 people tried to apply. Some people showed up who didn’t meet the eligibility criteria and had to be turned away. But on the plus side, patients were grateful, Locastro says. “They brought us oranges and chocolate.”
Locastro says that what he’s learning in the DNP program helped him manage some of the logistics—and also stay grounded. “Learning about emotional intelligence kept me grounded instead of emotional in stressful situations,” he says.
Where There Are More Cows Than People
One of USAHS’ recent DNP graduates lives in Sidney, an area of the Nebraska panhandle “that literally has more cows than people.” Robert (Bob) Kentner, RN, MSN, DNP is the Infection Control and Quality Manager at Sidney Regional Medical Center (SRMC), an independent critical access hospital with 25 beds. “This is true frontier medicine,” Dr. Kentner says. “The ambulances in our surrounding community are all volunteer—and it’s not unusual to see a rancher with bull-related injuries hauled in by a pickup.”
Thanks to the low population density, COVID-19 was slower to arrive in Sidney. “We had to calm the panic and make sure our response was appropriate to the population.” Working with the regional health department, Dr. Kentner served as the area’s point person for logistics around procuring PPE, coordinating COVID-19 testing, and sending tests to the state public health lab. “I haven’t had a life for the past year,” he says, laughing.
Now, Dr. Kentner is organizing the hospital’s distribution of the Moderna vaccine (they aren’t working with the Pfizer vaccine because of its cold storage requirements). SRMC’s clinic started by administering 400 doses per week, then reduced this to 300 doses per week. Dr. Kentner observes the workflow, implementing shortcuts as needed and giving shots when staff are short-handed. The hospital decided not to recoup money from insurance. “We asked, what can we do for the community to get shots in arms?” he says.
Dr. Kentner has a regular spot on a local radio station, updating the public on the latest developments around the pandemic, such as countering misinformation about the vaccines. “We’re only seeing about 40 to 50 percent of the eligible population, including healthcare workers, taking the vaccine,” he says. “But we’ve had to turn away some people from out of town.” His wife, a Methodist minister, is trying to counter misinformation among her congregants.
Dr. Kentner is a regular attendee of COVID Power Hour, a faculty-led group for students in USAHS graduate nursing programs. “It started out more academic, and then became a mutual support group,” he says. “We share info about the virus and vaccine, and talk about what’s predicted in the epidemiology world. We trade horror stories and give each other reality checks.”
Helping Us All Get Back to Normal
Elena Kokosa, BSN, RN, is a student in our Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Nurse Educator role specialty. She works as a cardiac nurse at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, Connecticut. During the height of the pandemic, her cardiac floor became an overflow unit for COVID-19. “It was terrifying,” Kokosa says. “Patients are in respiratory distress, they’re going into cardiac arrest, you can’t gown up fast enough. I’ve never had to wear so much gear. With the goggles and face shield, it’s hard to see to put in an IV.” All the local hospitals were overflowing and staff were sick, so she picked up extra shifts to meet the need. But her son is immunocompromised and she has a second job in an oncology clinic at Yale New Haven Health, so she was extra concerned about infection.
In December 2020, Kokosa saw the Facebook post of a St. Vincent’s colleague, who said that the local health department had received shipments of the vaccine but needed people to help administer it. Kokosa responded, along with about 250 other volunteers.
“Vaccinating people, getting people back to their normal lives, getting our children back to ‘normal’ is so important,” says Kokosa, whose two teens have struggled to adapt to remote learning. Kokosa volunteered for the health department and is also giving injections at the Yale community clinics. “People are very happy, excited. They feel a huge sense of relief. They sometimes cry. Especially older people, who feel vulnerable and have lost their social interactions.”
Read More About Our Nurse Heroes
For more about how USAHS graduate nursing students are working the frontlines during the pandemic, see our profile of Nifiah Reid-Sanders and our post about nurses caring directly for COVID-19 patients.
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program, and Post-Graduate Nursing Certificates designed for working nurses. Our nursing degrees are offered online, with optional on-campus immersions.* Role specialties include Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP), Nurse Educator,** and Nurse Executive. The MSN has several options to accelerate your time to degree completion. Earn your advanced nursing degree while keeping your work and life in balance.
*The FNP role specialty includes two required hands-on clinical intensives as part of the curriculum.
**The Nurse Educator role specialty is not available for the DNP program.