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In a time of great need, student nurses step up to get shots into arms

Cal St. Long Beach nursing student Naomi Muñiz
Cal St. Long Beach nursing student Naomi Muñiz is part of a growing group of student nurses who are being called upon to help with with the COVID-19 crisis and to deliver the vaccine.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

As a student nurse, Naomi Muñiz had only given a real shot one time. Yet there she stood inside Long Beach Memorial Hospital, preparing to inoculate healthcare workers against COVID-19 — veteran nurses lining up before her and staff treating vials of the vaccine “as literally gold.”

“I felt pretty confident about my technique,” the 23-year-old Cal State Long Beach student said. “You just pinch the arm at the deltoid and go in, straight like a dart.”

But, she said, “I was nervous to get it right.”

By the end of her first shift in December, she had administered 40 shots, joining a growing corps of volunteer student nurses from Cal State universities who are jump-starting their careers at a time when there’s a great need for healthcare professionals trained to administer vaccines.

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The call for help went out even before the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Los Angeles County: “HealthCare Heroes Needed.”

“Have clinical hours to make up? Ready to get a head start on your ... public health community hours? Just want to be an amazing person and help California get out of this pandemic?” Dr. Rebekah Child, chair of the nursing department at Cal State Northridge, wrote to students.

In the dark days of the pandemic’s “surge upon a surge” — with available intensive care unit beds at or near zero and nursing staff maxed out — several Southern California hospitals reached beyond their own desperately needed staff and tapped into a ready and willing population of student nurses who could help give vaccines.

ICU availability in Southern California at 0%, and the crisis is expected to get worse, officials warn.

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Muñiz had just wrapped up a stressful semester rotating in critical care at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. But on her first weekend of winter break, she returned, working back-to-back shifts vaccinating staff, putting one of her first-ever clinical lessons into action.

“It wasn’t even a question of do I want to,” Muñiz said. “If they need help and I can help, I’m going to go in.”

Cal St. Long Beach nursing student Naomi Muñiz.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Sam Sherry, 35, a nursing student at Cal State Northridge, volunteered this month to give vaccines to employees at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center and planned to volunteer again.

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“It’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck situation,” said Sherry, who will graduate in May. “I’m proud to be working toward being a nurse at this time.”

Sherry participated in a flu vaccine clinic in October and said the mechanics of the COVID-19 vaccine clinic were basically the same: A room is set up with multiple stations, people come in and get screened, they receive the shot, you observe them for signs of an allergic reaction, and then you send them on their way.

“Just a regular old vaccination clinic,” Sherry said. But doing it amid a pandemic doesn’t feel ordinary.

“Even though you only give a shot to one person at a time, you’re still very aware that this is a pandemic, it’s worldwide,” Sherry said. “Everybody is pulling their weight and working toward that common goal.”

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Students helped to staff vaccination sites in other ways, too, sanitizing chairs between shots, delivering syringes, and putting Band-Aids on patients. Many of the healthcare workers who had been on the frontlines for months asked to be photographed as they received their shot.

The students’ call to duty comes as the pandemic has made aspects of their education difficult, with teaching shifted online. When the pandemic took hold in March, many hospitals — wary of increasing exposure to the virus and limited in personal protective equipment and staff time — closed their doors to students.

That posed a problem, as students are normally required to complete theory and clinical courses simultaneously, and a certain amount of clinical instruction must be spent in direct patient care.

Muñiz, for example, was supposed to do her critical care and psychiatry rotations last summer but couldn’t because of the pandemic. That pushed her planned graduation date from this May to August — a delay that pained her, thinking of the burnout and stress that current nurses are experiencing.

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“I wish that I could have been more helpful throughout this,” she said. “You’re delaying nurses from graduating. ... I just felt useless.”

Nursing directors worked the phones, calling partner hospitals and institutions in an effort to find ways for students to help and to get their clinical hours.

“When you-know-what hits the fan, another pair of hands that can do even the most simple task is really priceless,” CSUN’s Child, a nurse of 20 years, said.

She got students helping in clinics, screening patients and visitors at hospitals, and volunteering at COVID-19 testing sites. Now Child is working with L.A. County to bring student nurses to its vaccination site at the Cal State Northridge campus.

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“They get clinical experience,” Child said. “It also fulfills their need in their heart of hearts — which is why most people get into nursing — to help people.”

Other Cal States in Southern California, including Fullerton, Los Angeles and San Bernardino, have also partnered or are in talks with local hospitals and health departments about supporting the vaccine effort. They have worked to get their own nursing students vaccinated as well, and are coordinating with the state’s Board of Registered Nursing to award clinical or public health credit to students for time spent administering vaccines, when appropriate.

Jessica Lachman, a Long Beach State nursing student who will graduate at the end of 2021, gave the first shot to a healthcare worker at Long Beach Memorial last month — at 4 a.m., the beginning of what would be a 12-plus hour volunteer shift.

“I have so much respect for the profession,” she said, “and you’re vaccinating nurses and doctors who are the top of their field. It’s a little intimidating.”

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But she was eager to pitch in.

“I want more than anything to be a nurse and to be in healthcare and to help others,” Lachman, 31, said. “Being able to do something for people that have been working around the clock to take care of our community — it called to me. It was an awesome experience.”

Stacy In, a Cal State Northridge nursing student who supported other nurses giving vaccines, said she felt like she was part of a historic moment. In, 42, a piano teacher for 18 years, switched careers after being treated for cancer, inspired by the nurses who took care of her. She hopes to become an oncology nurse.

“There was a lot of sense of relief and hope,” In said of a marathon vaccination day at Valley Presbyterian Hospital. “It was very special for me to be there to witness that. ... It wasn’t so much about what we were doing that day. It was just being there.”


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