As the coronavirus pandemic continues and demand for vaccinations rises nationwide, Dr. Kellee Vess, an associate professor of nursing at Tennessee Wesleyan University’s Fort Sanders Nursing Department, has never seen a time like this. Recognizing the need and a unique opportunity to help, Dr. Vess, her colleagues and TWU Fort Sanders Nursing students have volunteered in recent weeks to administer COVID-19 vaccines all over the Knoxville, Tenn. area.

According to the National Council of State Board Nursing (NCSBN), high volume in populated areas and nurse shortages in rural areas have created a problem for the COVID-19 vaccine. There simply aren’t enough nurses to administer the vaccine at the rate that is needed. As a result, partnerships with nursing education programs are being encouraged so that nursing students who have been taught the principles of the COVID-19 vaccine can help administer it.

TWU Fort Sanders Nursing, in its ongoing partnership with Covenant Health, answered this call. To this point, the nursing school has provided more than 30 student and faculty volunteers who have given more than 250 hours of service at five different Covenant Health locations. And the numbers keep climbing as Covenant Health, a network of hospitals in Knoxville, continues to utilize TWU volunteers.

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“It was a great experience,” said Dr. Vess of her time volunteering at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center. “It was just humbling. And I was so proud to be a nurse. I’m so proud to be a nurse [and] that I could go into the hospital, help give the immunizations to people that are caring for COVID patients day in and day out. It felt like such an honor to be able to help them in that small way.”

The vaccines are largely being administered to Covenant Health’s frontline workers.

Nursing student Michael Dalton administers a COVID-19 vaccination.

“How many people are actually frontline that we don’t think of as frontline?” said Michael Dalton, a senior nursing student at TWU Fort Sanders. “Of course, we think of the ER and ICU. But what about the people that are actually behind the scenes that we’re helping? It was just amazing. I had such a great experience with that. It made me proud that I’m continuing on with this career.”

“We gave 700 vaccines in three hours,” said senior Carol Stiles of one of her shifts at Parkwest Medical Center. “Those 700 people were almost all Covenant Health employees. Everyone seemed to know everyone and were all genuinely happy to see each other. People were saying, ‘Happy Vaccination Day,’ as if it were a celebration. There were smiles all around. I got a sense of pride, unity, and family being around this bunch.”

Members of the TWU Fort Sanders Nursing family have worked as teams in Covenant Health facilities in Roane County, Morristown, Loudon, Oak Ridge, and Fort Sanders Regional in downtown Knoxville. No matter the location, the students and faculty have seen the impact of the vaccines.

“I really felt like the people were hopeful,” added Dr. Vess, when asked about the morale at Fort Sanders. “People were very energized getting their vaccines. Lots of people talked about what the future is going to look like after they get their second vaccine.”

“I have volunteered three times so far and plan to continue as my crazy schedule will allow, because it is the most important and rewarding thing I have done in a long time,” Stiles said. “I am part of history in doing this. I am literally helping to stop this terrible pandemic.”

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Outside of the service opportunity, the experience has also served as an invaluable learning opportunity for the TWU Fort Sanders students. Despite the pandemic, students have been able to remain in clinical settings, providing a chance for hands-on training in an unprecedented situation.

“This is a rare opportunity for students to directly learn about population health, participate in a public health program, gain clinical experience and ultimately save lives,” said Dr. Maryann Alexander of the NCSBN in a letter sent to nursing programs.

“Any opportunity that students have to practice their technical, communication and patient teaching skills is beneficial to forming their identity as a professional nurse,” said TWU Assistant Professor of Nursing Dianna Vermilyea. “It also allows students to network and interact with other nurses and managers at Covenant and to showcase the knowledge and abilities gained through our nursing program.”

“[The Covenant Health employees] had open arms for us nursing students, they were so excited for us to come and help them,” Dalton added. “That alone, just everyone working together, let me know in my heart that this is the path that I need to be on, to have that group effort. And for everyone working together as a team, it touches you inside to let you know that this is what God is wanting you to do.”

“Just being in the hospital setting and practicing a hands-on skill is very beneficial to my education,” Stiles added. “We gave so many vaccines in such a short period of time. I am very comfortable talking with clients and confident in giving IM (intramuscular) injections now. During my time volunteering, I made some connections that will help my future career too. The experience was pretty incredible. Everything about it was positive. I felt truly proud to be part of making a difference.”

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Tennessee Wesleyan University website. TWU is a Sullivan Foundation partner school.

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