People aren’t usually excited to get their shots, often cringing at the sight of the needle or putting off appointments. The COVID-19 pandemic flipped that familiar trope, with many enthusiastically rolling up their sleeves for the vaccination and chance to return to a more normal life.

Pharmacy and nursing students and faculty of Washington State University shared in that enthusiasm, delivering tens of thousands of vaccinations.

“Every person had a story, and every person had an experience that was unique within this COVID pandemic. I heard those stories, and I felt those emotions,” says Shannon Patterson, a fourth-year student pharmacist now working at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. “I felt a very emotional connection to every single person in every vaccination that was given.”

Shannon Patterson profile

Shannon Patterson is one of many student pharmacists (along with wsu nursing students and medical faculty) that administered COVID-19 vaccinations. (Courtesy Shannon Patterson)

As Operation Immunization chair for the student chapter of the American Pharmacists Association at the WSU College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Patterson led flu and pediatric vaccination outreach before the pandemic. Operation Immunization, which has been around since 1997, helps nursing and pharmacy students get required experience in inoculation techniques.

But the pandemic accelerated community work for everyone at WSU Health Sciences Spokane. “We partnered with local vendors like Spokane Regional Health District, other health districts, and the CHAS clinics on vaccinations,” Patterson says. And by late March, WSU nursing students and faculty had already administered more than 15,000 vaccine doses.

Early on, most patients were health care providers. “We had providers who were literally in tears because they were so happy that there was finally a vaccination,” says Kay Olson (’07, ’10 MN Nursing), associate teaching professor at the College of Nursing who teaches community health. “They were hopeful that there was an end in sight, because they had seen the struggle not only themselves, but of patients that they were trying to take care of.”

Kay Olson profile

Kay Olson (Courtesy WSU College of Nursing)

Olson coordinates COVID-19 vaccination programs for Coug nurses. Many volunteered on their days off, evenings, and weekends to deliver shots at homeless shelters, community centers, schools, nursing homes, and other places.

“The way student pharmacists and our colleagues in nursing stepped up to make this happen was really remarkable,” says Jennifer Robinson (’05 PharmD), associate dean for professional education at the doctor of pharmacy program.

Their outreach extended beyond Spokane to Vancouver, Tri-Cities, and Yakima.

“There were days when we were giving about 200 shots at a clinic,” says Isabel Esquivel, a fourth-year student pharmacist who began assisting with vaccinations around March in Yakima and Wapato.

Since she’s bilingual, Esquivel was able to answer questions from Spanish speakers. “In the lower Yakima Valley, there are a lot of people who speak Spanish. They appreciate it when I can explain what shot they were getting, and (that) they should be back in about four weeks if you’re getting the Moderna” or the Pfizer.

Olson says COVID-19 taught students more than inoculation techniques. “In the midst of this tragedy and pandemic, there have been some bright spots. The students have really learned what population health is all about, and how something like this can affect people, even if they don’t get sick,” she says.

Robinson notes that students, under the supervision of professional pharmacist preceptors, also learned clinical skills, communication, and organizational skills.

“Patients are asking these really great questions, and then the students have to go to the literature and find out answers,” she says. “The first round of people vaccinated were health care providers and so the questions that students were getting, they weren’t always prepared to answer.”

Jennifer Robinson profile

Jennifer Robinson (Courtesy WSU NEWS)

Students needed to adapt quickly. Large vaccination events, like those at the Spokane Arena, usually “take three to six months to plan,” Robinson says. “And we had groups that were pulling it together within two weeks. Our students were placed in situations that were continually evolving and changing.”

Olson says students gained practical assessment and communication skills, too. “We had to do assessments with every single patient that came in to get a vaccine,” she says, adding that hesitancy and misinformation also presented challenges.

“I felt like I was trained to approach the conversation with open-ended questions, asking, ‘What are your concerns? What are some things that you’ve read?’” Patterson says. “If we can at least give them the resources, I think that that’s the most important.”

Another silver lining: the opportunity for nursing and pharmacy students to collaborate.

“It was so nice to see pharmacy students and nursing students working side by side together,” Olson says. “They were learning each other’s perspective, because it’s totally different how they approach patients.”

Robinson saw the same partnership. “It was really this beautiful collaboration. Nurses and pharmacists could learn about one another, and they could lean on each other’s strengths.”

Beyond education, the pandemic and massive vaccination efforts had a profound impact on students and faculty.

“It changed my outlook on health care and my patient interactions,” Patterson says. “I believe I am a better health care provider because of this experience.”

WSU Nursing student Leanne Nixon gives a COVID-19 vaccination
WSU Nursing student Leanne Nixon gives a COVID-19 vaccination.
(Courtesy WSU College of Nursing)