UMKC Pharmacy Students Help Play Vital Role in COVID-19 Immunizations

Just as they do with flu vaccines, they will help pharmacies

Distribution of the coronavirus vaccines is expected to begin soon. For community pharmacies that provide immunizations, that means business is about to become extremely busy.

UMKC School of Pharmacy faculty member Sarah Oprinovich, Pharm.D., is also a practicing community pharmacist in Kansas City. Just like with the annual flu shots, she said community pharmacies will be a major area where people come to get their coronavirus vaccines.

“This vaccine is going to hit and people will still need their medications, so it's going to be an additional workload,” Oprinovich said. “We normally staff up for flu season, so it's kind of that staffing up, except we figure that this is going to be a very concerted effort, very quickly.”

To meet the additional staffing demands, Oprinovich says student interns will be a valuable resource. Each year, third-year pharmacy students at UMKC participate in a pharmacy practice experience that includes becoming certified to administer immunizations. This year’s class participated in 160 immunization events at clinics and pharmacies to administer more than 5,500 flu shots to Missouri patients.

That experience will be invaluable as the coronavirus immunizations begin. Oprinovich said she will be requesting the third-year students who worked with her earlier this year during the flu shot season to help again with the coronavirus vaccine because they’ve already been through the process of setting up and operating vaccine clinics and know the workflow.

“To be honest, every organization under the sun is saying we need help, so they’ll be busy,” Oprinovich said.

Len Sapp, Pharm.D., a 2007 graduate of the UMKC School of Pharmacy, is the pharmacy manager for a Kansas Cityarea  Walgreens store. Since August, his pharmacy has administered more than 1,500 flu shot vaccines as well as several hundred non-flu vaccines. With the coronavirus vaccines, Sapp says his store and pharmacies like his that offer vaccinations will need additional staff to meet the expected demands.

“New technician and intern staff will be vital in the entire process from patient registration to vaccine administration, as well as operating the regular retail pharmacy business,” he said.

How much additional staff pharmacies will need is still up in the air without knowing what the actual vaccine distribution will look like. But Sapp said stores like his are already being encouraged to hire and train new staff members.

“The bulk of our flu vaccines are given from September through December, making this our busiest time of the year,” he said. “Walgreens is projecting a greater demand for the coronavirus vaccine, therefore requiring increased staffing levels above our normal peak season needs.”

Oprinovich said that it’s not just pharmacy student interns who can make a difference. Those without a pharmacy background can also work as technicians, helping in areas such as working behind the counter as cashiers or helping with paperwork. All that is needed is to pass a background check.

“Anybody could do that,” she said. “You don’t have to be in pharmacy school. My message to the rest of the student body is we can use your help and you can be a part of this public health effort.”

As with the flu shot vaccine, health care workers are exploring other avenues such as mobile immunization sites, Oprinovich said.

“We're looking at things like whether the university will potentially be a site for vaccinations as well,” she said. “So, there’s just a lot of potential for where we're going to be able to use those students and move them around.”

When the vaccines do arrive, Oprinovich said the immunization process will be an interdisciplinary effort to ensure they are available to everyone. There’s also the logistics of ensuring the vaccinees are stored properly and being administered within the proper time limit, in some instances as short within hours of being thawed.

“The nursing school is involved in this. The medical school is involved,” she said. “We're trying to work together so we don’t end up targeting the same population and leave one population out. That's another big discussion, how do we make sure that we're covering, especially those that fall between the cracks very often. How do we make sure that they have not fallen into the cracks here?

“Pharmacy is just one piece of the puzzle. Just like with the flu shots, our goal is to increase the accessibility of these vaccines.”

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