Since the early days of the novel coronavirus pandemic, students, faculty, professional staff, and alumni of the University of New England have, in multiple capacities, found ways to assist the pandemic response.
Members of the UNE community assembled to make cloth masks for frontline health workers and even babysat their children. Health professions alumni across the country donned heavy, hot personal protective equipment and worked arduously in emergency departments and other outpatient facilities to help save lives, with some even facing loss.
Students banded together to answer the call through various means. They tested patients for COVID-19 at clinical sites and provided much-needed relief for facilities facing staffing shortages – as several students in the Westbrook College of Health Professions (WCHP) and College of Osteopathic Medicine (COM) did over their winter break, when they travelled to Deer Isle to assist virus-stricken Island Nursing Home.
Among other myriad efforts, UNE donated fit testing solution for N95 masks to the state’s top public health agency; the University’s Center for Excellence and Aging and Health (CEAH) helped older adults cope with newfound pandemic isolation; and one alum, Lauren Rogers, B.S. ’09 (Psychobiology) even helped lead the development of some of the first rapid tests for COVID-19.
It has been a long, exhausting 11 months, and, while the pandemic continues to rage on, the end is finally sight.
Thanks to the development of two viable vaccines, one from Moderna and the other from Pfizer-BioNTech, older adults and health care workers across the country are beginning to be inoculated against COVID-19.
But the rollout hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t necessarily been adequate to provide protection to the nation’s most vulnerable populations. But, in Maine and across the Northeast, the University of New England community has by and large stepped up to address the chaos.
PHARMACY ANSWERS CRUCIAL CALL
In mid-November, as federal and state officials began preparing for the vaccine’s delivery, the Maine Center for Disease Control (CDC) was in search of ultra-cold freezers for storage of Pfizer’s vaccine, which has to be kept at -70 degrees Celsius. As one of the state’s only institutions with such a unit, UNE was one of the first to lend its support in loaning a freezer to the state’s public health agency.
Codenamed “Operation Penguin” by Karen Houseknecht, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and associate provost for Research and Scholarship at UNE, the freezer, a 27-cubic-foot Stirling Ultracold from the University’s School of Pharmacy, was transported to a secret location for use by the agency.
But that wasn’t the last effort on behalf of the school to assist the state’s efforts in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Faculty members from the School of Pharmacy provided vaccination training for pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, and pharmacy interns as the state prepared to efficiently deliver COVID-19 vaccinations.
Gov. Janet Mills approved a measure, joining six other states, to allow pharmacy technicians to give vaccinations during the current public health emergency. UNE’s training program was the only one offered that meets Maine’s 20-hour requirement for pharmacy technicians.
“The UNE School of Pharmacy, working with our colleagues at the Maine Pharmacy Association and Maine Society of Health-System Pharmacists, is excited to play an integral role in the administering of the COVID-19 vaccines,” stated Robert McCarthy, Ph.D., dean of the School of Pharmacy.
As vaccines became more widely available for residents age 70 and older, pharmacy students stepped up by volunteering to administer vaccines to residents of The Park Danforth, a facility just down the street from UNE’s Portland Campus that provides independent and assisted living for older adults.
“It is a great feeling knowing that you can help these patients get back to normal in terms of them being able to go out into the public or to just get out of their rooms to visit with friends and family,” explained Brittany Demmons (Pharm.D., ’21).
Demmons was joined by fellow students Brandon Rico (Pharm.D., ’23) and Nick Cotoia (Pharm.D., ’21). Rico was trained just in time to administer vaccines during the pandemic. Cotoia and Demmons had already received training as immunizers during the second year of their professional Doctor of Pharmacy program.
FORTIFYING THE FRONT LINE
Students from several of the University’s health professions programs were more than willing to help administer vaccines.
When the pandemic struck, Kevin Huang (D.O., ’24) looked for ways to help out. He found a very uplifting way when he became part of the first group of UNE students to volunteer at Maine Medical Center vaccinating health care workers.
“The opportunity to volunteer, to administer COVID vaccines, caught my eye,” he stated. “I definitely got goosebumps when I walked into that room to help for the first time. It is still an overwhelming feeling, knowing that I am doing my part.”
The students were part of a massive effort to vaccinate thousands of frontline health care workers against COVID-19. The University has an active registry of students, from nursing, pharmacy, physician assistant, and UNE COM who are willing and trained to administer vaccinations.
Karen Pardue, Ph.D., M.S., RN, CNE, ANEF, dean of the Westbrook College of Health Professions and interim UNE provost, says not only does the experience help students hone their skills, but it also helps workers at the hospital focus their time on patients.
“They have had a surge of patients, and the staff are very busy just caring for patients,” she said. “I think it speaks volumes that we are the institution that they immediately thought of when they needed support and assistance. It is the same way that we reach out to them to help train our students. They are our primary clinical site for that.”
DOCTORS-IN-TRAINING JOIN THE BATTLE
In Maine and elsewhere, students from the College of Osteopathic Medicine have done their part to take care of sick residents and assist vaccination efforts.
In Lewiston, Drew Smith-Freedman (D.O. ’22), who is completing his clinical rotation at Central Maine Medical Center (CMMC), said he was elated to find out he would be vaccinating his fellow frontline health care workers.
“As a medical student during the pandemic, I’ve found it difficult to feel useful. I have been trying to give back as much as possible, including testing people for COVID, which is very much reactive. Vaccinating people, however, is a way to be proactive,” said Smith-Freedman. “To be given a chance to be part of the solution is wonderful.”
For Smith-Freedman, the experience was also personal: he had the privilege of vaccinating his younger brother, Duncan Smith-Freedman, himself a first-year UNE COM student. But though he acknowledged the vaccine’s effectiveness, Drew Smith-Freedman cautioned that the fight against COVID-19 is not over.
“The fact that we have a vaccine that seems to work is wonderful. Just don’t forget that there are many people who haven’t been given the opportunity to receive it yet,” he said. “Please continue to social distance, wear a mask, and make good choices.”
In Nashua, New Hampshire, third-year UNE COM student Olivia Patsos has been helping both on the clinical and clerical front of the vaccine rollout at Southern New Hampshire Health Center. She said an early December email clearing her to administer vaccines to her colleagues was the best Christmas present she could have received.
“I feel extremely privileged to administer and receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a medical student on the front lines during a historical point in time,” Patsos exclaimed. “I feel trusted and competent to educate, spread awareness, and administer the vaccines, and I applaud my clinical site for giving me that opportunity.”
Further south, in Newark, New Jersey, Molly Kaminsky (D.O., ’21) has spent much of her free time volunteering alongside retired doctors and nurses at a mega-vaccination site in a closed-down Sears shopping center. The uplifting experience – Kaminsky said some have become choked up with joy after becoming vaccinated – has reaffirmed her decision to enter the medical profession.
“Simply put, I wanted to pursue medicine to help the greater good. There are inherent systemic inequalities in health care that were, and continue to be, exaggerated by the coronavirus pandemic,” Kaminsky explained. “The significant demand on the system necessitated critical thinking and rapid change by all players involved. Learning medicine during this historical time further fueled my passion to create equal opportunities for health care access for all patients.”
Jane Carriero, D.O., dean of UNE COM and vice president for Health Affairs, said she is not only pleased to see students assist the sprawling vaccination effort – she expects them to do so.
“This what they will be doing for the rest of their lives,” she said. “I’m glad they are rising to this challenge; this is the live they’ve chosen.”