Lexi Morris still has one of the roses.
The first-year nursing student at Mississippi University for Women received an entire bouquet of flowers from an elderly couple she vaccinated against COVID-19 at Fairview Baptist’s drive-through site earlier this month. The pair were getting their second shot, and the man was nearly in tears at the thought of seeing family members he hadn’t seen since the start of the pandemic a year ago.
“I think the man said to me, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing because you don’t understand how it impacts not just us, but our family too,’” Morris said.
Morris is one of dozens of MUW students from the university’s associate and bachelor’s nursing programs to administer COVID vaccines at clinics and drive-through vaccination sites in the past few weeks. They joined public health workers from Mississippi State Department of Health, service members from the National Guard and health care volunteers in the largest public health vaccination operation they or their instructors have ever seen.
“This is serving the public and the community,” said Allison Caston, who heads MUW’s associate nursing program. “… It’s a totally unique experience for them to be able to be a part of that.”
Morris’ fellow student Ethan Moore said the group he and Morris were part of administered about 700
shots that day. Members of the Guard would bring the students vials, patients would drive up — sometimes four or five in a car — roll up their sleeves and the students would give them the vaccine, all the while taking special care to follow specific COVID-19 protocols and document the doses given out.
“When all the cars were gone, and it was quiet and there was nobody there, it kind of just set in what just happened,” Moore said. “It went by so fast, we were so busy. But we did, we administered 700 vaccines that day.”
‘Something bigger than them’
Nationwide, more than 133 million vaccine doses have been administered since distribution began in December 2020, with more than 47 million people fully vaccinated. In Mississippi, MSDH officials set up drive-through vaccination sites all over the state, including Fairview in Columbus and the Mississippi State Horse Park in Starkville. As of 8 a.m. Friday, 1,134,883 doses have been administered statewide, with 426,061 Mississippians fully vaccinated, MSDH reported.
Anticipating the massive operation, MUW’s dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, Tammie McCoy, offered nursing students’ services last summer when she served on Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning’s “safe start” task force. When the vaccines became available, MSDH reached out to MUW, and instructors began scheduling times to take students to drive-through sites and private clinics.
Even some of the National Guardsmen administering vaccines are not medics, Morris said. They took a three-hour crash course in how to give vaccines, just as nursing students all over the state have had classes instructing them on a virus and its vaccines that are still so new, they’re in neither the students’ curriculum nor their textbooks.
McCoy said one important aspect of the clinicals is that students understand the importance of community service and public health.
“In the time of pandemic, the skillset of giving injections was critical because (MSDH) needed people to assist,” McCoy said. “But the students also needed to be part of something bigger than them.”
Brett Pickens, an assistant professor for the university’s bachelor program, said he took nine students to the MSDH drive-through vaccination site set up at Barnes Crossing shopping center in Tupelo on March 10, where they administered more than 600 vaccinations — much to the appreciation of the workers who give the shots every day and had the chance that day to be off their feet and work in more of an advisory capacity.
“They were there within arm’s reach the entire time,” Pickens said. “They gave us vast amounts of instructions, they provided great supervision for my students, … and the students were able to see what it’s like during a global pandemic.”
Hannah Sumerford, an associate professor of nursing in the bachelor program, said she took two rotations of students to vaccine sites — one at the site in Tupelo and the other at the Access Family Health Services clinic in Smithville — which focused on vaccinating patients with limited access to the vaccine and medical care and where students had many more one-on-one interactions with patients than at the drive-through sites.
Participating in the vaccination efforts counts as part of the students’ clinical experience, which requires students to go into hospitals, nursing homes and other real-world health care settings for hands-on experience before they receive their degree. But instructors said that hands-on experience is particularly important in a year of virtual learning and social distancing between students, when Pickens had to demonstrate respiratory care on a mannequin over Zoom and students attended in-person classes in the university cafeteria, at least six feet away from each other and unable to see their classmates’ faces because of mask requirements.
It’s one of the ways the pandemic could have been a setback to the students’ goals of becoming nurses, Sumerford said. Junior Hayden Sullivan, a first-year in MUW’s bachelor of nursing program, said she was nervous she wouldn’t get enough hands-on experience to do her job once she graduated.
“Our instructors and our facility have done an amazing job of giving us the experiences that we might have otherwise lacked,” she said. “They’re amazing and will battle for us all day long to get that clinical (experience).”
‘Give their life back to them’
Caleb Younger, a first-year nursing student in MUW’s bachelor’s program, was one of the students who vaccinated patients at the Access clinic in Smithville. He said he and his fellow students gave about 50 shots and sat with the patients afterward while monitoring them to make sure they didn’t have any adverse reactions to the vaccines. He particularly identified with patients who wanted to see their grandchildren again, since he is close with his grandparents but hasn’t spent much time with them since the pandemic began.
“Just listening to them talk about how all summer long they had been cooped up by themselves, just how this was going to basically give their life back to them and let them get out and start living again, that was just pretty amazing to see,” Younger said. “It was really cool to be a part of that.”
The students said patients told them over and over again how grateful they were to receive the vaccine. They spoke of seeing family members who live far away and go out and do their normal activities.
“I talked to one patient, and he said he was willing to do almost anything just to see his grandchildren again,” Sullivan said.
It’s also set the tone for their future careers in nursing, she said. Before they started their studies, there weren’t COVID-19 floors in hospitals, and the focus of their studies was most private health care rather than mass public health operations.
Now, the students said, they’ll always say they were part of the solution to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re going to be known as the COVID class,” Morris said. “But I’m OK with that.”