One Milwaukee-area university is clearing the way for some of its students to help with Wisconsin’s massive COVID-19 vaccination effort. Concordia University in Mequon offered a special immunization class for its first and second-year pharmacy students earlier this month.
The students normally wouldn’t learn how to administer vaccines until spring of their second year in the program, but now they can be called upon to give COVID shots as soon as they’re needed.
First-year Concordia pharmacy student Elizabeth Soter has been on the frontlines of the COVID response already. In addition to being a college student, she’s also a member of the Wisconsin National Guard, which ran free COVID testing sites for much of 2020.
“All summer long I was doing the COVID testing with the National Guard, so I felt like I had a pretty close connection with the pandemic because of that,” Soter says. She worked at sites in Milwaukee and Kenosha.
Soter started pharmacy school at Concordia in the fall, and recently, she heard about a special immunization course that would certify pharmacy technicians to give COVID vaccinations.
“I mean anything to get this [pandemic] over with would be such a relief,” she says. “If I can be a part of it, that would a great honor and a great experience — something I can look back on and say I was a part of this. And that’s a cool thing to be able to say, I think.”
Soter is one of 16 students who signed up for the immunization elective, led by associate professor Dr. Sarah Ray. Ray says the idea came to her when she heard about federal guidance allowing pharmacy technicians to administer vaccines during the pandemic.
“And so I began to think that we do have our own pharmacy students who work in health systems or community pharmacies, and why not give them the chance to immunize now, a little earlier than they might otherwise?” Ray says. “This is another way to add immunizers to the huge demand we’re going to see.”
The immunization course was part online, part in-person. On the last day, students practiced giving shots.
“We call it a practical component because they’re actually doing the injection technique,” Ray explains. “They’re using normal saline, and they have to give three injections to their partner. Two of the them are intermuscular, into the deltoid in the arm, and one is subcutaneous.”
Elizabeth Soter is practicing the injections on Kyle Rehrauer, another student. Evaluator Rachele Arnoldussen talks them through it.
“First thing you wanna do, shake out that arm, get it nice and relaxed,” Arnoldussen tells Rehrauer.
Soter’s hands are shaking as she pushes the first needle into Rehrauer’s arm.
“I didn’t feel a thing,” Rehrauer says.
After all three shots, Arnoldussen asks Soter how she feels.
“Uh, better now that it’s done,” Soter laughs.
When WUWM catches up with the students a little later, the nerves have mostly worn off.
“I was very nervous all morning, thinking about doing the vaccinations,” Soter says. “And it really wasn’t that bad.”
Once Soter and Rehrauer get their immunization certification, they both expect to be tapped as COVID vaccinators at their jobs. Soter works at a CVS pharmacy and Rehrauer at Aurora Sinai Medical Center.
The students say starting pharmacy school during a pandemic and massive vaccination campaign drives home the importance of the field even more.
“This is just the beginning of our careers as health professionals, so I think it’s a great way to start taking an active role early on in our career,” Soter says. “And I think it’s gonna set the tone for the rest of our careers.”
“This is what we all wanted to go to school for — to prepare for moments like this,” Rehrauer says.
The rest of Concordia’s second-year pharmacy students will receive immunization training later this semester. Ray may hold more special trainings in the future for pharmacists seeking certification to administer COVID vaccines.
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