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As COVID-19 vaccines roll out, medical students help with inoculations

Stacy Weiner, Senior Staff Writer
January 7, 2021

As vaccine efforts launch across the country, medical students have quickly stepped in to administer shots and fill other vital vaccination needs. They say it's an experience they’ll never forget.

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Third-year Albany Medical College student Niki Wadhwa administers the COVID-19 vaccine to an intensive care unit staff member at Albany Med on one of the first days of vaccination.
Third-year Albany Medical College student Niki Wadhwa administers the COVID-19 vaccine to an intensive care unit staff member at Albany Med on one of the first days of vaccination. So far, dozens of students there have volunteered to help.
Credit: Albany Med

When Kelsey Wood learned that she would be among the first people in the country to administer the COVID-19 vaccine, she was — understandably — somewhat nervous.

After all, the fourth-year Albany Medical College student had never given an injection before, and several questions nagged at her. Would she be able to calm anxious recipients? Would she insert the needle to the right depth? Would recipients have troubling side effects? And would she accidentally waste some of a vaccine that’s nearly liquid gold?

But Wood was also deeply proud to join the extraordinary nationwide vaccination effort. “I felt like the people receiving the vaccine and the people administering it have agreed to be a team to fight this virus, despite any concerns,” she says. “I was just so grateful to be involved.”

Across the country, as new COVID-19 cases soar and hospitals are stretched thin, the United States is launching an unprecedented effort to distribute and administer millions of vaccines at record speed. And medical students are eager to pitch in and help out.

“Within the first days, we saw some 10 schools develop plans for students to assist with vaccination, and we expect more to follow,” says Katherine McOwen, AAMC senior director of educational affairs. Exactly how many schools will enlist students is still unclear, she notes, as hospitals assess fast-moving issues of vaccine supply and demand as well as state and local rules about who can administer the injections. One thing is certain, though: “Countless students want to help.”

“Now that we’re finally presented with an opportunity to do our part, students are extremely excited. … We just know we are part of history.”

Christina Thomas
Tulane School of Medicine volunteer coordinator

To do that, students have been flooding volunteer sign-up sheets and stepping up to complete any necessary trainings.

At Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, volunteer coordinator Christina Thomas had dozens of students eager to work on the rollout’s first shifts.

“It’s been so hard as we’ve watched the front-line workers taking the brunt of the pandemic. We’ve wanted to help, but we don’t have enough clinical experience,” says the second-year student. “Now that we’re finally presented with an opportunity to do our part, students are extremely excited. When our sign-up sheet went out, all the available spots were taken within a minute or two,” she adds. “We just know we are part of history.”

Med students mobilize

As COVID-19 vaccination efforts launch across the country, the scale of students’ involvement has ranged broadly and often evolved rapidly.

At Albany Medical College in upstate New York, leaders started out with approximately 20 students, but soon its volunteer roster more than doubled. At Indiana University School of Medicine, hundreds of students are expected to administer shots at 50 hospitals throughout the state.

Paul Wallach, MD, Indiana’s executive associate dean for educational affairs, didn’t hesitate when state officials asked for help. “Knowing our students, I could answer with a wholehearted yes,” he says. “Inside of a week and a half, we had 400-plus volunteers.”

Although students require appropriate supervision, their involvement frees up nurses and other providers struggling to handle the influx of COVID-19 patients, experts note. What’s more, injecting a vaccination isn’t terribly complex. Every medical student learns how — though some do so later than others.

Tulane University students usually don’t practice inoculations during their first two years, so in August, Thomas suggested creating a special training. Her aim was to build a cadre of volunteers to provide flu shots — and perhaps even a COVID-19 vaccine if it materialized. Now, in addition to the many advanced students who already learned the skill, Thomas has 170 students trained to administer vaccines as soon as officials give the go-ahead.

“Inside of a week and a half, we had 400-plus volunteers.”

Paul Wallach, MD
Indiana University School of Medicine executive associate dean for educational affairs

At Indiana University, students who needed vaccine training took an online course on such skills as injection techniques and donning personal protective equipment, practiced them in person, and then demonstrated them to a nurse, says first-year student Brandon Toliver, who took the training last month.

Not all students can administer vaccines, though. In New York, for example, officials require that vaccinators have one year of clinical experience. Even so, Manhattan’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) has managed to sign up nearly 50 student volunteers who qualify.

Medical students across the country who can’t — or can’t yet — vaccinate are filling other roles. 

Somdeb Banerjee, a second-year Tulane student who helped administer vaccines at the end of December, monitored patients for side effects following vaccination, and other students informed patients when to get their follow-up doses. Banerjee says he just wanted to contribute in some way.

He still vividly recalls an experience early in the pandemic, when he volunteered at a drive-through testing center. “I greeted around 50 people that day, and out of those 50, five had lost a spouse in the week before. I’ve never been able to forget the looks on their faces, but at that point, there’s nothing we can do except say I’m really sorry,” he says. “That experience definitely motivated me to help protect people in any way I could.”

Contributing to history

When fourth-year ISMMS student Amanda Tomlinson set out to administer vaccines on Dec. 16, she wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What she found at Mount Sinai Morningside in Manhattan was a roomful of front-line providers clapping with gusto as the first box of the long-awaited serum arrived.

“This is a spot of brightness” as COVID-19 ramps up again, says Tomlinson. “You could tell people were so excited and so grateful and so hopeful. Personally, I almost teared up thinking about the fact that we’ve finally gotten to this point. I’ll remember this for a long time, far into my career.”

Tomlinson and others say recipients generally found the vaccine not particularly painful. What about worries over getting the vaccine from students? That wasn’t much of an issue, either, say those involved.

“The staff [receiving the vaccines] has been wonderful,” says Mara McErlean, MD, director of the Patient Safety and Clinical Competency Center at Albany Med. “I could barely get out that this is a student who hasn’t had much practice when the staff person said, ‘Of course it’s okay. We are a teaching institution. This is what we do.’”

“I almost teared up thinking about the fact that we’ve finally gotten to this point. I’ll remember this for a long time, far into my career.”

Amanda Tomlinson
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai student

Banerjee thinks most members of the public will also be comfortable getting vaccinated by students. He notes his experience spearheading a student-run effort that tests for HIV, hepatitis C, and syphilis. “I let people know very clearly that I’m a student,” he says. “Out of the hundreds of patients I’ve tested, it’s never been an issue.”

Tomlinson will be happy to administer vaccines to the next group that qualifies, but for now, she’s particularly excited to help front-line providers.

“My mom’s a nurse who actually had COVID earlier, and while I was giving vaccines, she texted me that she was getting her vaccine the next day,” she says. “I was so happy for her, and I was thinking, ‘I’m vaccinating someone else’s parent, someone’s sibling, someone’s child.’ Those people must feel just as happy and relieved as I did when I heard that my loved one was going to get the vaccine.”

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