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To ramp up COVID vaccine distribution, empower the nation's health students

To ramp up COVID vaccine distribution, empower the nation's health students
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With the U.S. nearing half a million deaths from COVID-19, policy makers, health officials and the general public are placing high hopes in the rapid scale-up of safe and effective vaccines to control the pandemic. 

Success or failure of the Biden administration’s plan to administer 100 million vaccines in its first 100 days will be a matter of life or death for many Americans. To overcome daunting logistical, organizational and workforce challenges requires all hands on deck — including the one million students who are currently training in the fields of nursing, pharmacy, dental, medical, social work and behavioral health, public health and as physicians’ assistants

While Amazon routinely delivers 100 million packages in less than a month, the enormity of the vaccination challenge should not be underestimated. It involves much more than delivering 100 million shots to 100 million arms. 

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To begin with, vaccine recipients currently need to return for a second dose, doubling the logistical challenge and increasing the demands on the available workforce. What’s more, the national campaign must source a large and diverse workforce for a long list of pre and post-inoculation activities — clinical and non-clinical. Staffing is needed for patient education, medical record keeping, vaccine preparation, patient monitoring for adverse reactions and patient follow-up for receipt of the second dose.

Both clinical and nonclinical tasks are where a potential army of U.S. students come in. The million or so who are training for health professions in hundreds of academic institutions are spread across all regions of the country. They are ideally positioned to supplement the national vaccination workforce, which, as it stands, is simply not adequate. These students are not only qualified, but also stand to benefit from having this real-world fieldwork experience, whether they are to be nurses, physicians, physician assistants, pharmacists, dentists, social workers, counselors, psychologists or other professionals. 

They can also help the U.S. overcome the significant problem of vaccine hesitancy, a daunting obstacle to achieving herd immunity by the end of the year. 

Existing across all demographics, public trepidation about getting inoculated will require active community engagement to allay it and students can be critical to building trust in the communities where they learn, work and live.

Putting students to the task of vaccinating the population has already been shown to be effective. Many states, including Indiana and Wisconsin, have enlisted nursing and medical students with the help of $500 tuition credits or calls for volunteers to help administer COVID-19 vaccines. At least two states, Massachusetts and New York, have expanded those who are eligible to administer shots. However, the large majority of public health and social welfare students have not yet been recognized as a qualified workforce for immediate use.

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The fact that the Biden administration’s plan at least recognizes students as a potential workforce to address worrisome staffing bottlenecks is a step in the right direction. But decisive action to pull students into the inoculation effort needs to follow soon, starting with establishing a framework for academic health systems and working in partnership with government and community partners to assign students and trainees to the national campaign.   

Unifying a million students in common cause may even provide one additional benefit — a healing balm for a wounded, understandably frightened, and divided nation.

Vincent Guilamo-Ramos is a professor of social welfare, nursing and public health at New York University and director of the school’s Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health. Marco Thimm-Kaiser is an epidemiologist and research scientist at the center.