April 29, 2021

Honing new skills while helping the community fight COVID-19

First-year students from the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine volunteer at a large COVID-19 vaccination site in Southern California.

Jonathan Qu, a student at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine, administers a COVID-19 vaccination.

Like all students during the past year, the 50 members of the inaugural class of the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine have had to be flexible. Their first year of medical school, during a global pandemic, certainly was not how they imagined it would be.

However, like so many of us, they adapted.

They trained virtually at times. For some coursework, they donned masks and came into the Pasadena, California, school for in-person, socially distanced hands-on training. And, amid these very different times, they learned about the virus causing so much suffering worldwide.

In studying the novel coronavirus and what COVID-19 does to the body, the future doctors clearly saw the value of the role they would eventually play in society, and they were eager to start contributing now. That’s why on a recent Saturday afternoon, 42 students showed up to volunteer their new clinical skills to help administer shots at a large vaccination site in Southern California.

“I was really glad to be doing something so meaningful and helping where needed,” said student volunteer Crystal T. Chang.

Protecting their communities

Volunteers are helping out at mass COVID-19 vaccination sites across the nation, often motivated by a desire to protect their communities. The Kaiser Permanente first-year medical school students worked under the supervision of 12 medical school faculty members, rotating through all procedures of vaccine administration and distribution, including registration and pre-vaccination evaluation, vaccine administration, post-vaccination evaluation, and outreach to underserved communities.

“At first I was a little nervous,” said Chang. “However, the school prepared us really well, so I got into a zone once an actual person was in front of me.”

In all, 5,915 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered — the most doses provided in one day at the site to date.

Real-world clinical experience

Students received both classroom and real-world clinical experience before the volunteer event. Early in their first year of medical school, students are immersed in clinical settings as they learn alongside physician instructors and other care team members from Kaiser Permanente.

Prior to volunteering, the students completed coursework and skills training in hematology and immunology, some of which was conducted by Marla Law Abrolat, MD, assistant chief of pediatrics for Kaiser Permanente in San Bernardino County, and doctoring and clinical skills director for the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine. Dr. Abrolat organized the volunteering effort.

Students also received training from William J. Towner, MD, director and principal investigator for Kaiser Permanente’s Infectious Disease Clinical Research Program in Southern California. Dr. Towner is extensively involved in clinical trials for emerging medications and vaccines, including phase 3 clinical trials for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, and he served as lead onsite supervisor for the students at the vaccination site.

While the students practiced vaccine injections on simulated arms to prepare for the volunteer day, Dr. Towner, who is also an associate professor for the Kaiser Permanente school, spoke to them about common concerns about COVID-19 vaccination.

To address those concerns, communication is key. That’s why Chang was happy to be able to use not only her clinical skills during the volunteer opportunity but also her interpersonal and language skills in both Spanish and Chinese.

“Some people were a little nervous. Many came in with multiple family members, with some serving as makeshift interpreters,” she said. “Being able to speak to them in their language helped a lot with logistics and connecting with everyone getting vaccinated. I really enjoyed hearing how people felt about getting the vaccine, their jobs, their concerns, and just being a part of an important moment in their life.”