Carolina Nursing students are fighting COVID-19, one vaccine at a time

Undergraduates from the UNC School of Nursing are assisting in North Carolina's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and gaining hands-on experience by delivering vaccines and volunteering at Carolina Together Testing Program sites on campus.

A nurse gives a patient a COVID-19 vaccine.
A student from the UNC School of Nursing gives a COVID-19 vaccine to a patient at the Friday Center. (Photo by Thomas Costello)

The UNC Friday Center for Continuing Education normally feels like a large conference facility, with big event spaces and smaller classrooms branching off a lobby with high ceilings, furnished with clusters of couches and chairs.

Now, it feels like a very large doctor’s office.

The system is thorough and efficient. Areas are stanchioned off to make sure no one accidentally misses a part of the process. There are color-coded masks to signify that you have checked in properly and plenty of staff on hand to gather information for the state’s vaccination tracking system and the patient’s own medical records. Nurses and doctors of all specialties are answering patient questions and guiding them through each step.

A handful of those health care professionals are actually UNC School of Nursing undergraduate students, donning the familiar gray scrubs at curtained stations at the far side of the main room.

These accelerate bachelors of nursing students are chatting with patients, updating medical records, answering concerns and, most importantly, administering doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. Assistant professor Vickie Lester and retired faculty Anita Tesh are there with other School of Nursing faculty to supervise, but these students are handling the learning experience like seasoned nurses.

Kevin Donadio, who spent a few years as an EMT before pursuing his nursing degree at Carolina, is preparing to vaccinate an active family nurse practitioner. Despite it being his first time vaccinating patients, Donadio looks at ease “behind the needle.”

When asked how it’s going, he pauses thoughtfully.

“It feels historic,” he said.

While there are a few medical professionals at the Friday Center for their doses, most of the patients qualify for this round of vaccinations because of their age. As they leave the post-immunization observation area — where UNC Health Care employees are on hand to make sure everyone is feeling well after the shot — there are a lot of masked smiles as volunteers cheer them on.

“Congrats on your second dose! You did it!” they said.

Nursing student Mina Konuksever, whose coursework includes three different clinical experiences this semester, sums up the feeling of collective positivity.

“The time flies by,” she said. “Lots of people are very excited to get their vaccine, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to be a part of such an important aspect of public health.”

While these students are congratulating their patients, another group of Carolina Nursing undergraduates is just a few miles down Raleigh Road at the Carolina Union, helping in the massive effort to administer COVID-19 tests to all on-campus students on a weekly basis.

These students are part of the Carolina Covid Student Services Corps, a group of over 1,500 undergraduate and graduate student volunteers who are donating their time to support Carolina Together initiatives during the pandemic. Student volunteers lead efforts at the three Carolina Together testing sites on campus, participate in COVID kit making in the Genomics lab, data review and contact tracing. Led by School of Nursing professor Meg Zomorodi, through her work as assistant provost and director for the Office of Interprofessional Education and Practice, Carolina Covid Student Services Corps is providing Carolina students a chance to learn and lead during this pandemic.

“Incorporating the CSSC in the “Public Health Nursing in Community Settings” course has allowed our students to collaborate with students from across all the health professions,” Zomorodi said. “It’s an invaluable practical experience and an important part of our mission – advancing health for all.”

With the process now in place, Associate Dean Louise Fleming is making sure all her students have the opportunity to lend a steady hand in this vital moment. Fleming and Clinical Assistant Professor Susana Barroso-Suarez have made sure the more than 300 undergraduate students are trained to administer the COVID-19 vaccine and incorporated the Friday Center vaccination site into the undergraduate clinical experience.

“It’s a big undertaking, working with several institutions and training every student, but we are fortunate to be in the position to help our undergraduates make a really big impact in our community,” said Fleming.

Starting on March 1, these future Carolina Nurses will be out in full force, fighting the pandemic one vaccine at a time.

Learn more about the UNC School of Nursing