As their instructor watched closely, Sunshine Thao administered her first injection Friday morning to fellow pharmacy doctoral student Selomie Habtemichael.
Judging by the laughter, it was a success. “I haven’t fainted yet,” Habtemichael said. Thao looked relieved, her smile hidden by a face mask behind a face shield.
“Nice job, Sunshine,” said Dr. Christina Buchman, clinical assistant professor in Washington State University’s Department of Pharmacotherapy.
The three were the only people in a lab in the Cadwell Student Center on the campus of Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences. Habtemichael, of Seattle, and Thao, a native of Minnesota, are two of about 30 student pharmacists in the WSU Doctor of Pharmacy program extension in Yakima, which is based in the center.
Buchman was evaluating her students on their ability to administer vaccines. Success meant vaccination certification just in time for flu season, with the potential for a COVID-19 vaccine in the next several months.
“I feel way more comfortable about giving shots now. At first ... my only thought that was running through my head was hurting the patient,” said Thao, echoing the main concern of fellow students Aracely Flores and Maria Villanueva, Yakima natives who preceded Thao and Habtemichael.
Buchman evaluated two students at a time over several hours Friday. She guided them as they prepared what they needed for one subcutaneous and two intramuscular injections, everything from syringes and sharps disposal to alcohol swabs, cotton balls and bandages.
Other aspects of a quick and painless vaccination process — a calm demeanor, distracting small talk, the right angle in the right place and a steady hand — were up to the students and would likely improve with experience.
“That was much better,” Buchman told an earlier student who wiggled the plunger a bit on a previous try.
Assessment for vaccination certification happened after students had been learning remotely about giving injections. Arranging the in-person assessments in Yakima and Spokane, the other extension location of WSU’s Doctor of Pharmacy program, was challenging.
Organizers had talked about delaying the in-person vaccination certification because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but students didn’t want to wait. Resulting plans ensured everyone’s safety, with full PPE for all involved, a limit of two students at a time, a specific path through the lab and instructors and students sanitizing stations for the next pair of students.
The longer-than-usual process also offered a brief but welcome chance to say hello in person. “It was great to see you. I miss you guys,” Buchman said.
Students will provide a service expected to be in high demand this flu season, which runs from fall through the spring. In normal times they would be giving flu shots at fairs, but with those canceled due to COVID-19, instructors and students are exploring other ways to give flu vaccines, said Angela Stewart, associate dean of the Yakima extension.
“We generally partner with Howard’s Drug in Selah,” Stewart said of administering vaccines at the Central Washington State Fair. Around 2,000 people got flu shots at the fair in Yakima last year, she said.
“We are working with the (Yakima Health District) to do some mobile community clinics throughout the (Yakima Valley),” Stewart added. They’re also talking with the health district about ways to help get children caught up on required vaccines; some parents have delayed them due to personal safety concerns stemming from COVID-19.
A potential COVID-19 vaccine will also add to the need for more people certified to administer vaccines. According to the state Department of Health, five federal regions — four states and a city — have been chosen to be pilots in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s plans.
Washington isn’t among them, but state health officials will develop plans based on lessons learned from the pilot project, according to a news release.