As the first coronavirus vaccines are administered across the country, federal and state leaders should consider a plan to summon a tremendous, yet untapped reservoir of talent and energy to help lead us out of the pandemic — college students.
Health care systems are increasingly overwhelmed caring for the ill; their workforces physically and mentally exhausted. Adding the responsibility of vaccinating the nation may push them to a breaking point.
The pandemic also has revealed the consequences of a chronically underfunded public health infrastructure. While public health leaders know what must be done, their critical work could be supported by a national COVID-19 Vaccine Corps, a volunteer pool to help contact trace, inform, and support the logistics of distributing, administering, and tracking hundreds of millions of vaccine doses.
To be sure, the notion of such a service corps is not unique nor far-fetched. Each Election Day a vast constellation of civic-minded individuals works at polling sites so voters can engage in the democratic process. Now, in a time of national emergency, this distinctly American model could be reimagined to engage undergraduate and graduate students, even recent graduates, as the foundation of a new national COVID-19 Vaccine Corps to support a vaccine distribution campaign that will last upwards of a year. Like poll workers, volunteers could be paid, or other incentives, such as student loan forgiveness and community service credits, could be considered.
Why is such a concept essential and urgent? Consider the complex logistics associated with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines which require two doses: Pfizer’s three weeks after the first and Moderna’s four weeks later. This schedule will require extensive record-keeping and logistical coordination. How do we ensure that people return for the correct second dose at the correct time? Where can we safely accommodate large numbers of people seeking vaccination? How do we assist elderly or disabled people who live independently but are unable to drive to vaccine sites? Without a plan to address these fundamental questions and the people necessary to execute it, the vaccination effort and our nation’s ongoing recovery will be less than optimal.
Students could fill any number of roles during the vaccine campaign. The most immediate would include: assisting with the vaccine intake process; transporting special populations to vaccine sites; completing documentation and record-keeping files; manning observation areas for individuals who just received a shot; administering the shot (in the case of specially trained nursing and other health professions students); and staffing phone banks tasked with appointment reminders or interpretive services.
Colleges and universities, with special resources and infrastructure, could offer stadiums, gymnasiums, surface lots, and conference spaces as safe and ideal locations for community-wide vaccine administration as more vaccines become available to the general public. Indeed, as evidenced by UMass Lowell’s Recreation Center being repurposed as a COVID-19 field hospital, many colleges and universities are employing creative problem-solving right now.
The pandemic already has demonstrated that young adults, when called to service, will selflessly step forward. In March, as the new virus spread around the world and hospitals prepared for the worst, some medical schools, including UMass Medical School, worked with state leaders to graduate and license medical students two months early, allowing them to join patient care teams during the first surge. Their presence helped to save lives, and while their sacrifices were exceptional, they are not an anomaly.
Currently, many young adults find themselves at home, taking online classes and seeking opportunities beyond the virtual realm to learn and serve, as most in-person experiential learning options have been all but eliminated. They are a vast talent pool waiting to be tapped.
Students surely will answer the call if offered the chance to be part of an extraordinary and potentially life-changing experience that contributes to the success of America’s nascent vaccine campaign and helps restore aspects of life as we knew it.
Health and public officials would be wise to mobilize a most precious and treasured resource — young people — to serve as the foundation for a well-trained, public service-oriented COVID-19 Vaccine Corps. The nation must not delay in utilizing this sizable group of motivated Americans who are ready, willing, and able to step up to assist with the unprecedented vaccine campaign that will help to usher in the end of this pandemic.
Dr. Michael F. Collins is senior vice president for health sciences for the University of Massachusetts system and chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Marty T. Meehan is president of the University of Massachusetts.