by Matt Jardin |
As another flu season begins and the coronavirus pandemic continues, UAA/ISU Doctor of Pharmacy students took to the streets as part of the Alaska Assisted Living Home Immunization Program (AK ALH) to protect some of Anchorage’s most vulnerable people.
For the past four years, pharmacy students have devoted two Saturdays in October to visit assisted living homes across Anchorage and administer flu vaccines to seniors. This year, they were also able to bring vials of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to provide booster shots.
“Not only are students spearheading this effort, but we're also creating a face for pharmacy and what our profession can do for our community,” said Liv Swonger, third-year pharmacy student and director of AK ALH. “The population we serve is high-risk for many reasons. Their outcomes aren’t always the greatest if they do get sick and they’re not vaccinated. Part of what we’re trying to do is vaccinate the residents, but also the staff as that extra protective layer.”
In addition to vaccinating those who might not have the means to travel to a pharmacy themselves, the immunization program has become a proven way for students to receive hands-on training as they provide necessary care to the people they hope to one day serve.
“We have three goals with this program,” said Duane Wood, second-year pharmacy student and AK ALH co-director specializing in inventory. “Our primary goal is to give back to our community and protect those at increased risk of disease or with limited access to health care. Our second goal is to produce high-quality health care providers. And our third goal is to educate the community and those at risk of health care issues or just confused about their health.”
Taking place Oct. 9 and 16, participation during this year’s immunization program was at an all-time high. Over the two weekends, 64 students and volunteers traveled to 112 assisted living homes and administered 1,059 flu vaccines and COVID-19 boosters.
On the flip side, reception from assisted living home patients and staff was overwhelmingly positive, all of whom appreciated the flexibility to ask questions and talk about concerns, which is something not always possible in a typical pharmacy — all of the benefits of going to a pharmacy without any of the limitations.
“We were actually able to take the time to talk with the individuals that we’re immunizing. That's something that is not always an option in a retail pharmacy where it’s constantly go, go, go,” said Joseph Diaz, first-year pharmacy student and co-director of AK ALH. “Any vaccine hesitancy we were able to talk through. That really helped make a difference and we were able to immunize a portion of the population that otherwise would have held out much longer.”
Supervising the students in the field are registered nurses and pharmacists volunteering their time. Each one answered a call put out to local medical organizations, as well as to UAA’s own nursing, public health, public administration and WWAMI programs.
“Even with the setbacks and staffing issues that COVID created in the medical field, there are still people willing to donate their time off to help assisted living home residents get access to vaccines,” said Tristan Underwood, second-year pharmacy student and AK ALH co-director specializing in volunteer coordination. “That sets a good example for me as a student that as health care providers it's our responsibility to take care of our community.”
Community involvement has been a part of AK ALH since the beginning. Founded by UAA Medical Assisting program director Lisa Nash in response to her mother being placed in an assisted living home, Nash solicited the first group of volunteers (many of whom continue to volunteer with AK ALH today) and worked with Providence Alaska Medical Center to donate flu vaccines to the program.
This year’s flu vaccines were provided via a new partnership with Soldotna Professional Pharmacy. Expanding the program offerings to also include the COVID-19 vaccine was an easy decision thanks to another contribution from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
“All the opportunities this team has to make a difference makes me honored to be part of something bigger than me,” said Renee Robinson, Pharm.D., associate professor of pharmacy and AK ALH faculty supervisor. “Without the students, volunteers and partnerships we’ve built, none of this could happen. Those relationships are how we make health care part of care.”
Looking ahead, the AK ALH team is optimistic that the addition of the COVID-19 vaccine to its lineup can lead to the immunization program offering even more vaccines. Equally encouraging is its growth in participation, output and response this year, which they hope can serve as a beacon for the community.
“Programs like this are becoming more important and more in the spotlight,” said Mary Spatafore, first-year pharmacy student. “We are setting an example of what is possible. We are full-time students and we have great people supporting us with their time and supplies. I think it shows that big things are doable with fewer resources than you would think. Maybe it'll encourage others to feel like what they want to do is possible.”