By Tina Bellon and Melissa Fares
NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. states, facing a backlog in administering coronavirus vaccines, are asking medical and nursing students, and even firefighters, to help give the shots and free up healthcare workers battling a raging pandemic at overcrowded hospitals.
At least seven state health departments are seeking volunteers for their vaccination sites, some partnering with local universities or nursing schools to offer incentives such as tuition discounts and hands-on training. Others are teaching first responders to administer shots.
The national rollout of COVID-19 vaccines are the best hope to end a pandemic that has cost the lives of more than 320,000 Americans and crippled the U.S. economy.
This month, U.S. regulators authorized the first two COVID-19 vaccines, one from drugmakers Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE and another from Moderna Inc.
As of Wednesday, nearly 10 million doses have been delivered across the country, but only about 1 million administered due to staffing shortages at hospitals and the special requirements for preparing the shots. The slow pace of the vaccination campaign threatens the federal government’s goal of inoculating nearly 20 million people by year’s end.
While inoculation is currently focused on frontline healthcare workers, the vaccination drive is expected to expand to tens of millions of essential industry workers beginning in January or February.
From New York to Tennessee, states are hoping medical and nursing students will free up medical staff focused on tending to the record numbers of new COVID-19 patients.
“Being able to staff vaccination clinics with volunteers from our reserve workforce means that staff at the vaccination sites can continue to perform their normal duties, which is crucial as our hospitalization rate has increased,” said a spokeswoman for Indiana University’s School of Medicine.
‘STRIKE BACK AGAINST COVID’
As the first vaccines arrived, Indiana health officials called on the state university because of its far-reaching campuses. More than 630 of Indiana University’s medical and nursing students have signed up as volunteers and receive 90 minutes of online and hands-on training.
Fourth-year medical student Nicholas Clough began administering COVID-19 vaccines to frontline healthcare workers last Wednesday. He has lost several family members during the pandemic.
“It finally felt like it was a real, tangible strike back against COVID,” said Clough, 26.
The University of Wisconsin is offering a $500 tuition credit to students with medical credentials working at understaffed hospitals during the winter break, including administering vaccines.
The university is also talking to government officials to turn universities into vaccine distribution hubs, a spokesman said.
In California, fire department paramedics have been trained to administer the vaccine, initially to fellow employees.
“They have already received online training and will have another one-hour live training session,” said Peter Sanders, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department, which expected its first shipment of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday.
Michigan has set up a volunteer registry allowing officials and hospitals to recruit help for upcoming vaccine clinics.
“We encourage all medical and nursing students to register now so they will be ready when their assistance is needed!” a health department spokeswoman said.
Other states are not actively recruiting nursing students. A spokeswoman for Georgia’s health department said the state might do so later, as the vaccine becomes more widely available to the public.
Depending on state licensing laws, medical and nursing students are allowed to administer vaccines, often under supervision of a fully-licensed professional.
Facing a shortage of vaccinators, the Association of Immunization Managers, a nonprofit representing state and local health officials, recommends relaxing regulation or adjusting licensing requirements.
At least two states, Massachusetts and New York, have changed their laws in recent weeks to expand those who are eligible to give shots.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Dec. 13 allowed medical, nursing, pharmacy, dentistry, podiatric and midwifery students to administer flu and COVID-19 shots under supervision.
(Reporting by Tina Bellon and Melissa Fares in New York; Additional reporting by Deena Beasley in Los Angeles; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Aurora Ellis)