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Physician Assistant Studies students are administrating COVID-19 vaccines at multiple locations in Chapel Hill and Carrboro—an experience they’ll remember as future health care providers. Douglas Brittingham and Karla Chavez, both second-year PA students, have administered dozens of vaccines at the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education over the past several weeks as part of a public health elective.

Physician Assistant Studies students who participated in the Carolina COVID-19 Student Service Corps
Physician Assistant Studies students who participated in the Carolina COVID-19 Student Service Corps.

“Vaccination programs are one of the most effective public health measures that we’ve had. To be part of a potential solution—this is great,” Brittingham said. “These are the roots of public health. We’re preventing disease at a large scale in a local population.”

Brittingham is a non-traditional student who attended San Diego State University and worked in a hospital in California before deciding to pursue PA school. “Working in the hospital setting solidified my interest in PA. I knew I wanted to work in health care, but I didn’t know what specifically I wanted,” he said.

Both students are a part of an interprofessional initiative called the Carolina COVID-19 Student Service Corps. The corps is an opportunity for student volunteers to engage in service activities to address the specific needs of UNC-Chapel Hill students, faculty, and staff, as well as our surrounding community. Brittingham added that distributing vaccines through this program has taught him that efficacy, safety, and availability are the main issues that concern patients, and that it is rewarding when he is able to answer patient questions.

“We’re expected to be flexible, resilient, and lifelong learners,” Brittingham said. “There are so many uncertainties in health care when you’re working with patients, so this was one big uncertainty we were working with this year.”

Jason Hrdina, an assistant professor in the PA program and the director of clinical education, said the pandemic is an invaluable public health education opportunity for students.

“Not only are our clinical phase students front line health care leaders administrating the COVID-19 vaccine, they are acquiring interprofessional experiences working alongside experienced nurses and doctors learning tips and tricks, learning how to address patients’ questions and concerns regarding the new vaccine, and attaining an appreciation for emergency public health operations during a global pandemic,” Hrdina said.

Chavez was born in Mexico and moved to Nash County, North Carolina when she was four years old. She attended a community college and transferred to North Carolina State University where she majored in human biology. She was inspired to pursue a career as a PA because she saw a need for health care initiatives in rural areas and a need for translators in the medical field.

“I would go to the doctor with my parents, and they don’t speak English,” Chavez said.  “I would go as their translator. I thought it was the coolest thing to see them interact, and I felt they knew everything about the body. I saw a lack of interpreters and health care workers because we were in a rural area, so I got really interested in helping people who come here and don’t speak the language.”

Brittingham and Chavez both agree that the most rewarding part about distributing vaccines is meeting the people who receive them. Chavez said that despite the uncertainty and isolation from the pandemic, she finds hope in the positive spirit of patients, including a story she recalled from an older adult.

“[He] pulled out a picture of his grandkids from his wallet and told me he had not seen them since the pandemic started,” Chavez explained. “He was so grateful for me and the vaccine and told me that when this is all over he is going to find me and give me a big hug.”

Brittingham and Chavez both agree that knowledge is the most important tool in fighting the pandemic. “As a provider, this is really teaching me the importance of education, educating our populations about the course of the disease, treatment, and prevention,” Brittingham said.

Chavez said she has noticed that Spanish-speaking patients are often more comfortable receiving care when working with a medical provider from a similar background. She said speaking Spanish can be critical in allowing her and other medical professionals to further educate patients about the vaccine. Chavez is a student scholar thanks to support from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust.

The pandemic affected the students’ first year of didactic learning, but they both find clinical work to be fulfilling.

“We like the camaraderie; we like the human side of science,” Brittingham said. “That’s why we chose this profession.”

Following graduation slated for December 2021, Brittingham is considering a career in emergency medicine, while Chavez hopes to return to rural North Carolina to serve Spanish-speaking communities.

“All different aspects of health care were working together to make this one thing happen,” Chavez said. “It’s good to see how it’s all full circle.”

Paul Chelminski, (’95 MD, ’03 MPH) has directed the PA program since its inception in 2015. Jason Hrdina, MPAS, MPH, EM PA-C, is a physician assistant in emergency medicine at UNC Hospitals. The Physician Assistant Studies program is housed in the Department of Allied Health Sciences, part of the UNC School of Medicine.

-Hanna Williams, Public Relations Intern