Lauren Echols, a first‐year medical student at Penn State College of Medicine, is in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity. She’s taking part in the campaign to vaccinate residents of central Pennsylvania against COVID-19.

Echols is one of many medical, physician assistant and graduate students who make up the student vaccine task force. The group supports Penn State Health’s vaccination efforts by answering the questions of people who speak another language when they arrive for an appointment, monitoring patients who just received a vaccine or actually giving doses to people.

Knowing how severely COVID-19 affected Latino and Hispanic Americans, Echols feels her role as a Spanish-English translator helps bridge the gap between underserved communities and health care systems.

“When patients have the opportunity to speak with someone and ask questions in their primary language, it puts them at ease,” Echols said. “By staffing our clinics with interpreters, we can form deeper connections with vulnerable communities and gain their trust. We want them to be comfortable interacting with the health care system.”

View a gallery of the student vaccine task force at work

Learning in real-time

Since the beginning of the pandemic, students at the College of Medicine have been doing their part to combat COVID-19. Some performed contact tracing, while others helped positive patients quarantine by arranging for grocery or medication deliveries. Another group of students scribed for doctors in the COVID-19 units at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

So when Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine gained emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December 2020, Dr. Jed Gonzalo, associate dean for health systems science, wasn’t surprised when medical students organized a group to help with vaccination efforts.

“We emphasize to our learners how critical it is to help their patients navigate the complexities of health care systems,” Gonzalo said.  “This concept, known as health systems science, teaches future health care clinicians to understand the complex factors that go into a patient’s care beyond the hospital stay or visit to a doctor’s office.”

“The pandemic has presented an opportunity for our students to witness, in real-time, the importance of health systems science,” Gonzalo said. “The work our students are doing in helping to develop our organizational plan for vaccinating our patients and doing the vaccinations allows them to provide meaningful care to patients in their communities and gives them the experience they can take with them into their future practice.”

The student vaccination task force, started by MD/PhD medical scientist training program students Monica Manglani and Derek Nye, spans more than four counties and includes 155 members, including some from the College of Medicine’s University Park Curriculum. The students have worked more than 400 shifts as vaccinators, translators and monitors after receiving training. While some get credit through the COVID-19 response student elective led by Gonzalo and Dr. Ami DeWaters, a few choose to volunteer their time by ushering or screening at sites.

Ensuring equitable access

Manglani leads a distribution equity sub-group focused on bringing the vaccine to underserved patients. Members of the group interpret for patients and their families at Penn State Health community vaccination sites and at events led by other organizations including Lebanon Family Health, the Latino Hispanic American Community Center in Harrisburg and the PA Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Network.

Aditi Sharma, a doctor of public health student at the College of Medicine, is the team’s only Nepali-language translator. Sharma said that her role as an interpreter is vital to making sure the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese (NSB) community in the Harrisburg region, which has grown in recent years, has access to and information about COVID-19 vaccines.

“Many times, elderly NSB patients come into our vaccination clinics accompanied by relatives who hope to double as translators,” Sharma said. “But their English proficiency is limited and they are relieved to find someone who can help them navigate the vaccination process and answer their questions.”

Now that all adults and children ages of 12 years old and older are eligible to be vaccinated in the U.S., Manglani said the work of those focused on equity in distribution is just beginning.

“Vaccine distribution inequity is a nationwide problem. The goal of our student task force is to address the structural forces that lead to health inequity and injustice within our community,” Manglani said. “Interpreters and medical and public health professionals who are fluent in other languages can break down some of the barriers between health care systems and underserved communities.”