Med Student Vaccination Chaos Is Hard to Stomach

Niala Manghat


March 05, 2021

I contracted and recovered from COVID-19 early in the pandemic. My fate was pretty much sealed when I volunteered to swab symptomatic patients at my local hospital's COVID-19 testing site. Still, I breathed a sigh of relief when news broke that vaccines had been approved.

I was even more relieved to hear that my fellow medical students and trainees were not forgotten when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced guidelines outlining priority levels. Med students were placed in Phase 1a, among the first groups set to receive the "liquid gold" when it hit hospitals. We wouldn't be pushed to the sidelines again like we were last year. Unfortunately, my relief didn't last long.

After the initial CDC announcement, individual institutions were given the ability to assess who was at highest risk and thus eligible for the vaccine sooner than later. Around the country, this means the vaccination of med students has been chaotic, confusing, and unequal. Ironically, more of us have probably received invitations from hospitals to help administer the vaccine. In exchange for our volunteering, we get a much sought-after recommendation that attests to our dedication during the pandemic. We receive a letter, but we don't necessarily get vaccinated.

Having already been through COVID-19 myself, I was honored to help the community when asked to volunteer. I wanted to take some of the burden off the healthcare system, even without receiving the vaccine. I remember how desperately I wanted to assist last year, instead of being relegated to sitting at home and learning from a Zoom call. That was why I had volunteered to swab patients. The request to help administer vaccines felt like going from the bench to joining the team to be part of the critical response efforts. As the process progressed, I was eventually offered the opportunity to be vaccinated, so long as I continued to volunteer administering the vaccine...

As future physicians, we are taught to put patients before ourselves. In our excitement to help during the pandemic, I find that it has been too easy to discount our own safety as well as the safety of those we share a home with. I had hoped that someone would consider our vulnerability, given the power imbalance between doctors and medical students and given trainees' lack of a collective voice.

In January, when the vaccines first arrived, medical students who were with a preceptor that received the vaccine could often tag along and receive one as well. Because those students were seeing patients who may have COVID, that made sense. What made less sense was hearing about students who were vaccinated when they would be moving onto an online rotation or a role with little patient interaction.

Although the decision-making process is understandably complex, it is hard not to be frustrated at times. Seeing the uneven, confusing distribution of vaccines to med students often gives the impression that personal factors, institutional membership, and luck are frustratingly big factors.

Some teaching hospitals have not only failed to offer any vaccines to medical students but have also stayed silent when it comes to providing students with details on the qualifications for receiving a vaccine. It's no wonder that students at Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine took matters into their own hands, driving hours across the state, looking for private administrators from whom they could obtain the shot.

Whether or not this action crossed a line, I can relate to the desperation that these students felt. This wasn't just about their own safety; it was also an attempt to avoid becoming a vector for the coronavirus while they saw patients during training. During all this chaos, we students have to self-advocate and self-regulate. We also have to learn the difference between the two, despite being new to medicine.

Perhaps most frustrating was news that some students with absolutely no patient interaction were receiving the vaccine, which happened at schools like Georgetown University. The administration says they did not sanction ineligible students to undergo vaccination. Social media has only furthered feelings of inequality as unvaccinated med students watch other med students post selfies with bright smiles next to their vaccination record card. Posting these pictures seems to provide bragging rights. The fact that the vaccines remain somewhat scarce and should be saved for colleagues at a greater risk has been overlooked in the excitement to finally be included.

As someone who volunteered at COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites without receiving a vaccine, it was discouraging to learn that students at an exponentially lower risk had received them. It sure seems to suggest that personal sentiments and connections can sway a critical assessment of which students are eligible.

The only way to move ahead is by operating collectively and in the best interest of the entire medical community, students included. I cannot help but think that the current piecemeal approach to protecting trainees fails to account for the realities of our situation. As new members of a community with the responsibility to uphold integrity of the healthcare system, our duty requires us to personally assess whether we truly require the vaccine at this time or whether we can hold off until the more vulnerable receive their safety shield first.

Niala Manghat is a fourth-year medical student at Windsor University School of Medicine, currently completing her clinical rotations in Chicago. She is passionate about issues related to mental health awareness. She hopes to volunteer her time giving back to underserved communities while completing her training.

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