Even if third-year nursing student Catherine Denton—who worked as a patient care tech on UVA Health’s COVID units—hasn’t cared directly for coronavirus patients, she’s seen its ravages up close. It’s why, when the first vaccine arrived in December 2021, she was eager not only to get the shot, but to give it to others, too.

“This is an opportunity to tangibly change what’s been happening,” said Denton, of Charlotte, NC. “It’s frontline, right there, in the middle of what is the most important thing right now, which is community health.”

"It's a lot more than shots in arms."

Emma Mitchell, associate professor, who developed the vaccine clinic simulation as part of her community health class

Denton and her peers wishing to administer vaccines that protect against coronavirus will soon have their chance, thanks to an effort led by professors Bethany Coyne, Sarah Craig, Tomeka Dowling, and Emma Mitchell that offers new training and education as part of Mitchell’s spring Community and Population Health course. By early March, 48 third-years will be eligible to participate in public health vaccination clinics taking place in a former Big Lots retail store in Charlottesville's Seminole Square shopping center, a place affectionately called “Big Shots,” earning both credit and clinical hours along the way.

“It’s a really historic moment in our country,” said clinical instructor Catherine “Cat” Elmore, a vaccinator since January who led her clinical groups of students through vaccine clinic simulations in late winter, “and we think students should be able to participate, just like other healthcare providers are able to participate.”

“It’s a really historic moment in our country, and we think students should be able to participate, just like other healthcare providers are able to participate.”

Catherine Elmore (PhD 21), clinical instructor, who trained BSN students to staff public health vaccination clinics

Beyond learning the specifics of administering the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are other lessons, too: about reactogenicity (the vaccines’ common and expected side effects), vaccine distribution disparities, strategies for “sharps” disposal, to allay fears, and tend to the concerns of people with chronic health conditions.

"It’s not just about putting a shot in the arm, though that’s an important part of it,” explained Mitchell, “but also about incorporating pre-vaccine teaching, post-vaccine education, and learning to convey answers to members of the public who have questions.”

The students’ training—which mirrors training for all UVA Health vaccinators—prepares them to serve across three roles: greeters, vaccinators, and post-vaccine educators and monitors. All students assigned to vaccination roles will practice under supervision from clinical instructors Elmore, Trish Higgins, Vickie Southall, Sharon Veith, and Hui Zhao

While the learning is not optional, volunteering to vaccinate is. But almost all are eager.

“Five, ten years after the pandemic is over,” said Madison McMahon, a third-year BSN student, “being able to say I was a nursing student and was able to vaccinate people against this virus will be really cool.”