Rain, thunder, and lighting couldn’t stop dozens of volunteering UConn Health professional students from going door-to-door in the South End of Hartford on August 23rd to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to residents.
Working in partnership with the City of Hartford Department of Health and Human Services, Harriott Home Health Services, and the Hispanic Health Council, the volunteering UConn medical, dental, pharmacy, and nursing students and residents in training joined UConn doctors, nurses, and Connecticut Area Health Education Center Network (CT AHEC) staff.
The community event was a continuation of neighborhood canvassing begun last spring by the City of Hartford, UConn Health, and CT AHEC.
The volunteers divided into deployed health care teams and knocked on doors in a part of the city where COVID-19 vaccine rates are low to offer vaccines on the spot and answer any questions residents might have.
“If willing, we vaccinated them right then and there,” says UConn School of Medicine Professor Emeritus Dr. Bruce Gould, medical director of Hartford’s Department of Health and Human Services. Gould was a volunteering preceptor observing and guiding the students giving vaccines. “The response from the residents of the neighborhoods has been incredibly positive and the experience of volunteers has been incredibly fulfilling.”
The first-year medical students, under the supervision of physician preceptors, had the unforgettable experience of administering the first vaccines of their careers. They just learned how to vaccinate during their first week of medical school and had the opportunity to put into practice what they learned just days later.
One of those new first-year medical students administering her first-ever shot was Julia Levin, 24, of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, who was recently in the AmeriCorps program with CT AHEC at UConn Health.
“It was surreal,” says Levin about the first shot experience. “It feels good. I really like this unique event. It removes all barriers to vaccination by reaching those who may have barriers to take that next step to be vaccinated.”
Fellow first-year UConn medical student Amar Kalaria, 22, of Milford, also gave his first vaccine. “It was great. A little nerve-wracking at first but it was good to vaccinate someone in the community.”
The recipient of that UConn medical student’s first vaccine agrees.
“He did good!” exclaimed Yany Lugo, 40, a resident in the south-end of Hartford after receiving a surprise knock on his door from Kalaria, who successfully gave him his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in the convenience of his driveway.
“It’s good that they can come to you, instead of trying to find a shot,” Lugo said. “I have a 4-year-old. She’s vaccinated now, so why not get vaccinated [myself]?”
Kalaria added: “I feel strongly about COVID vaccination and spreading correct information. It is important for us in the health care field to reach out and encourage others to get vaccinated. I am excited to be involved in the community as I will be here in Connecticut for the next four years at least.”
Pharmacist and PGY-1 resident at UConn Health, Dr. Gabriella Salerno, modeled for volunteers best practices for engaging community members in a thoughtful conversation about the purpose of the vaccination and how to answer community member concerns. Working with a Community Health Worker, Salerno administered the first vaccine of the evening.
“I get so excited to see students get the opportunity to be out in the community, it’s an eye-opening experience for them,” says Barbara O’Neill, associate clinical professor in the UConn School of Nursing who served as a preceptor with a community physician for the students. “It’s super important. People who enter the health professions want to help. When you go out into the community and knock on a door to help someone it’s really an amazing feeling.”
Gould also stressed to the volunteers: “Our community is everybody, not just those who come to our clinics. We need to always go beyond our doors and exam rooms. When we do door-to-door vaccinations it is truly going out to our community.”
Gould, whose great grandfather died at the age of 36 from the 1918 flu pandemic, also shared that as a long-time primary care provider he’s given more shots in the last two years than in his entire career. A skill he had to relearn. Gould wants everyone to know: “The vaccine is very effective. Its purpose is not to prevent infection but to get better COVID outcomes.”
Priya Gupta, 22, of Rochester, New York, is another first-year medical student at UConn who is really excited to be out in the community already making a difference.
“People have been really excited to have a way to fight COVID,” says Gupta. “I hope to vaccinate more people and make our community safer.”
Courtney Cummings, 23, of Salem is a second-year UConn dental student. She helped organize the door-to-door vaccine event and recruit student volunteers with her second-year dental school classmate Eddyson Altidor, 23, of Brooklyn, New York. They both serve as CT AHEC Farmworker and Urban Communities Health and Wellness summer 2022 coordinators.
“It’s awesome. This is a great event for first-year students to practice what they were taught. It’s really rewarding to see and to offer my peers opportunities to volunteer in the community,” says Cummings.
“It’s enlightening being here in the community, walking the streets. It’s making a huge difference,” says Altidor. “It’s a dream come true. I’m here and it’s awesome.”
In addition to vaccinating residents, students also answered questions, took medical histories, filled-out intake forms, and collected demographic, medical and vaccination information for the City of Hartford’s Department of Health and Human Services.
“The Door to Door COVID-19 Vaccination and Education campaign is truly a unique opportunity for our health professions students to learn with and from each other as well as the skilled and approachable Community Health Workers, nurses and dedicated staff from partner agencies,” says Petra Clark-Dufner, director of CT AHEC. “Successful community-based training like today’s program is the result of strong academic community partnerships that have the same goal – improving the health and wellness of all of CT’s citizens and providing meaningful experiences for tomorrow’s healthcare workforce.”
The next door-to-door vaccination event in Hartford is planned for the morning of Saturday, September 17.