On the evening of December 21, Margaret M. McGovern learned that the plan had changed again.
The vice president for health-system clinical programs and strategy at Stony Brook University’s system of hospitals and health schools got a call from the pharmacy director. In addition to the health-care workers they already planned to vaccinate that holiday week, the director said, New York state wanted Stony Brook to vaccinate thousands more from the community. In just a few days, they would arrive on campus needing the shots.
Ten months into the pandemic, McGovern knew what to do: “Set up a team, call the team, the team gets on the phone right away,” she said. “The goal is always to get the doses that we receive Monday and Tuesday into the appropriate human being by the end of the week.”
Stony Brook is six weeks into a state-led effort to vaccinate as many New Yorkers as possible. So far they’ve vaccinated more than 10,000 people. It’s one of several universities across the country helping their states inoculate people from Covid-19. The effort is precarious. Each week can bring new allotments of the vaccine, new guidelines about who qualifies, and, in the case of last week, a new White House with new priorities.
The Biden administration has promised to ramp up the effort to vaccinate Americans and has asked universities to help. Colleges essentially have two roles: vaccinate members of their communities and spread the word about the importance and safety of getting the injection. Last week, the new president called on colleges to “increase vaccine awareness, reduce hesitancy, and ensure that students, faculty, and staff know when they are eligible to get the vaccine, and where to get it.” College students, the document said, could serve as “trusted messengers” who will spread the vaccine gospel to their families.
Kevin B. Sneed, dean of the college of pharmacy at the University of South Florida, has been educating people in the Tampa area about the vaccine since early June. Sneed directs an initiative to improve underserved populations’ participation in clinical research, so he already had strong relationships with members of the African American and Hispanic communities. He knew almost as soon as the pandemic began to take hold last spring that those groups would be hit the hardest.
So seven months ago Sneed began hosting vaccine-information sessions over Zoom with church groups in the Tampa area. Sneed estimates that he’s done just under 40 Zoom sessions, sometimes with 70 people signing up and many more joining their family members on the call. More recently, he’s also spoken with Black sororities and fraternities and college coaches and has appeared on the news.
“Even though we’re talking about Covid-19, it’s putting a spotlight,” Sneed said, on the “lack of access to health care — things that typically affect African American and Hispanic communities. That’s why it became particularly important to do our part to make sure people were informed.”
People ask lots of questions, Sneed said. He uses a question-and-answer period at the end of each session to dispel rumors and misinformation that often come from Facebook.
“It seems like there’s something new every day,” Sneed said. A lot of people, he said, are worried that the vaccine was developed too quickly. People wonder whether corners were cut and if that makes it unsafe. Sneed explains that even though this specific vaccine is new, scientists have been working on coronavirus vaccines like it for much longer.
“I take them back to 2013 and say, This is a seven- or eight-year journey that we’ve been on with the goal of a rapid deployment,” he said. “Oh, OK,” he’ll hear in response. “So you all didn’t start cooking up a vaccine in May of 2020.” People are more receptive once they have more information.
It was a hard year, though. Sneed lost several friends to Covid-19 — some younger than him, he said. He’s had to tell people with diabetes that they might die if they contract it.
The University of South Florida is also administering the vaccine. They’re responsible for vaccinating their employees and students, as well as everyone in their households.
Donna J. Petersen, dean of the College of Public Health, has been in charge of the university’s pandemic response. For the last couple months, that has meant coordinating the vaccine rollout. She had to find freezers and the dry-ice machines needed to keep the Pfizer vaccine stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, as well as space to bring in many people.
“It’s been a zoo,” she said. They vaccinated 180 people a day at a clinic on campus earlier this month, then, as they were ramping up their capacity, had to pause the program and are now waiting for more supplies. At first, the university created an intricate plan that would dictate who from their population would get priority based on their health status and time spent on campus. But an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis on December 23 threw a wrench in those plans. Since then, they’ve only been able to vaccinate people 65 and over. (The order also said health-care workers and residents of long-term care facilities could be vaccinated, but members of those groups are less likely to get vaccinated by the university.)
“We didn’t know what kind of supply we would get, so we had to make sure we had the space, the manpower,” she said. Then there are the thermal challenges the vaccine presents. “Once you thaw it out, you have to get it in people’s arms.”
“The good thing about universities,” she said, “is you have all these experts. You even have logistics experts.”
Once the university gets more doses and can vaccinate younger people, Petersen said people with underlying health conditions who work on campus will be prioritized, followed by critical workers who have to be on campus every day — facilities, custodial, and dining staff.
In Arizona, educators are now being vaccinated, including people who work at universities. Arizona State University is vaccinating people in the general population who qualify, but the university is also allowed, under state guidelines, to set aside a portion of that allocation for its employees. Within that group, the university is making prioritizations.
“We want to do the right thing by our community,” said Nichol Luoma, ASU’s vice president for university business services. “It’s hard when demand is greater than supply.”
People 65 and older are the first priority and are being vaccinated now. Next are the people who spend the most time on campus, some of whom have been vaccinated. Earlier in the pandemic, ASU started asking everyone to use an app to register when they would be on campus, so now the university has data showing who’s there the most. Janitorial and food-service staff are outsourced, Luoma said, which meant it’s taken a little longer to get them signed up, but she expects they’ll be getting vaccinated by next week.
“We’re trying to be very cognizant of the different populations,” Luoma said. People were asked to sign up online, which Luoma said was less intuitive for older people, so staff were calling them to help them register. She said bilingual staff would also help people register.
Luoma herself got vaccinated because she’s overseeing the university’s testing program. She said she understands some people’s concerns about the vaccine.
“I am a person that really researches things that I put into my body,” she said. “I will tell you that a month ago I wanted more information.”
But she quizzed the doctors at ASU about the vaccine and is now an evangelist. She tells people who are unsure that she and others in leadership positions at the university got it.
“When people aren’t confident in leadership around them,” she said, “I think a university who bases what they do on science and facts can be a reputable source that people will listen to.”
McGovern, at Stony Brook, said that “there’s no doubt that there are populations that don’t trust vaccines.” Universities have to do what they can to remove language and technology barriers.
“If nothing else, this Covid pandemic has taught us we need to be able to pivot quickly,” McGovern said. “It is changing every day.”