Keck Graduate pharmacy students aid vaccination effort at San Diego clinic

Eleven people wearing surgical masks and coats look at the camera.
KGI students help administer COVID vaccines at a clinic in San Diego. (Courtesy: KGI)

As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues across the country, some Claremont students are on the front lines to administer them. Three fourth-year Keck Graduate Institute pharmacy students were part of the vaccination effort in San Diego earlier this year, a region hit hard by the pandemic, particularly in late 2020 and early 2021.

In late January, the health care provider Sharp HealthCare teamed up with San Diego County to open a “Vaccination Superstation” at the Chula Vista Center mall in the San Diego area, a region that’s faced significant community transmission. 

The students’ main role was to draw up vaccines for the approximately 2,000 patients coming into the vaccine site every day, filling syringes with 0.5 milliliters of vaccine then handing off the syringe to the people actually performing the vaccination. But their day-to-day was always different, Rich Cale KG ’21 said — they were always trying to be helpful.

“We did a little bit of everything … we were drawing up the doses, taking care of logistic[al] needs and answering any medication-related questions that any of the staff, any of the patients, anybody might have had. And then if we were needed we also went out on the floor and vaccinated.” 

With the relative newness of the COVID-19 vaccine, Cale and his peers became used to answering a host of questions specific to their pharmacy background.  

“Let’s say for instance that you had recently had another vaccine, or maybe you were on a medication [and] you thought [there] might be a concern with getting the vaccine while you’re taking [the medication]. Then you would come see the pharmacy and one of us would be able to help answer those questions,” he said.

Samantha Garcia KG ’21 joined the team as she was already at the Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center’s infectious disease rotation. When she got wind that the pharmacy department needed help, she jumped at the opportunity.

“I thought it was still infectious disease related and taps into my passion for serving the community, so I said yes,” Garcia told TSL via email. “[I got involved] mainly because I genuinely enjoy serving the community, but also because I would be part of the team that is helping us beat this pandemic and go back to pre-[COVID-19] times. “

The trio weren’t the only team of student-volunteers, Andy Phan KG ’21 explained. According to Phan, Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center’s leadership wanted the vaccination clinic “up and running,” but the site was low on helping hands.

“That’s where the students came into play; the director of pharmacy and the medication safety officer recruited us to help with the rollout of this clinic,” Phan said. “In the beginning there were a lot of volunteer pharmacists [and] students, and even the director of pharmacy would come out to help draw up vaccines and vaccinate people.”

Vaccinating thousands of people posed some challenges. At first, they opened too many vials. 

“It was a scramble to find people to vaccinate, so that [the vaccine dose] wouldn’t be wasted,” Phan said, adding that it was an “easy fix” after the initial mistake. “Once we reached the end of the day, we would make sure that there were enough patients in the building before we opened a new vial.”

Then, the clinic had to jump the hurdle of technology accessibility, especially as many of the clinic’s visitors were senior citizens. 

“One of the major concerns was that some of the older people were having a hard time figuring out the computer system,” he said. “It was nice to see that a lot of younger family members were helping them get registered.”

For Garcia, who also worked at a hospital during the pandemic, volunteering at Sharp Chula Vista was a meaningful experience.

“I’ve seen how much suffering a patient and family endures when they get COVID-19 and I want to do everything I can to help stop the spread.”

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