Since mid-December, COVID-19 vaccinations have been distributed throughout the United States. A Saint Leo University adjunct professor who teaches in the master's in emergency and disaster management degree program has played a role in the distribution of the vaccine.

Dr. Wendy Nesheim, who teaches emergency and disaster management in the graduate degree program, is also a registered nurse. She and her teams have been sent to many locations around the globe to aid in disaster relief efforts for hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and even following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. (Check out this blog article to read about Nesheim and some of her students' involvement in the recovery efforts for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017.)

Nesheim is the team commander of a disaster medical assistance team known as GA-3 DMAT. The group is based out of Georgia. In February, she had 20 members deployed with her to Pima County, AZ in the Tucson area. The team included nurses, physician assistants, and paramedics.

Answering the Call for Emergency and Disaster Management Support

According to Nesheim, there is a formal process in place through which her disaster management team is notified about the need to deploy to a particular location.

"In general, when there is a presidential declaration of a state of emergency due to a disaster, we are called in to provide medical care," she explains. "When local areas become overwhelmed and they don't have enough resources from the state, then the state will request assistance from one of the DMATs."

This is exactly what happened in Arizona where there became a need for emergency and disaster management professionals to lend a hand.

"The DMAT groups are on rotation," she explains. "Our on-call month was February, so we looked at our personnel roster and we got assigned to go to Arizona."

The team is part of the National Disaster Medical System under the Secretary of Health and Human Services. There were four other teams stationed around the state when her team was there.

Details of the COVID-19 Vaccination Mission

Her team spent two weeks in the area and worked every day. They distributed both the Pfizer and moderna vaccines. Initially, health care workers, teachers, and residents over age 70 were being vaccinated, but she says local officials then reduced the minimum age to 65. Any unused vaccines were offered to the volunteers assisting with the distribution process.

"Our team gave about 1,000 vaccinations per day," she says. "On our busiest days, we were at five different locations around Tucson. We were normally at four locations each day."

In addition to the sites in more populated areas, some of her team members gave injections at pop-up vaccination sites in rural areas.

Time is of the essence in the whole process, she says.

"The Pfizer vaccine has to be kept colder than others, and it has to stay out longer to thaw. That's why timing is critical when giving these vaccines."

She adds that many sites don't know how many vaccinations they will be receiving from one week to the next.

Like most other areas, Nesheim says the goal is to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the residents in the Tucson area.

Explaining the Point of Distribution (POD) Process for Vaccine Distribution

The concept of a point of distribution has been used to determine how each site is logistically laid out, she explains. For the drive-up sites, vaccine recipients must drive through to receive their shot and then park in a designated area for between 15 and 30 minutes. For walk-in patients, they receive their shot and then wait in a separate area for the same amount of time.

"A point of distribution is designed so that the flow of people goes one way. You certainly don't want people going back to the areas where newcomers are entering."

She explains why individuals must remain present for several minutes as soon as they receive their shot.

"We want to make sure people don't have a serious reaction to the vaccine. If that happens, we're prepared at every location. We have Epi-Pens, other injectable medications, and life-saving medical equipment available to stop the reaction. Fortunately, we didn't see any serious reactions from anyone there. The main effect has been a sore arm."

Signs of Hope

Based on what Nesheim and her team have observed, there is a sense of hope among the individuals with whom they have vaccinated and interacted.

"Some people are very excited and relieved to be getting vaccinated. It's as if a burden has been lifted from them. However, we still remind them about the importance of continuing to wear masks, handwashing, and social distancing because we still aren't sure on how long the vaccine will protect someone."

Plus, this vaccination mission has been quite different from what she and her team are used to experiencing.

"When one of our team members gives the vaccine, we tell the recipient 'congratulations.' Some people even get stickers and lollipops. It's like all of the adults are turning into kids. But it's such a happy and uplifting deployment for us because we typically go into situations after a major natural disaster has occurred, such as a hurricane or earthquake, and people have lost everything. In this case, while people have been impacted by the pandemic in many ways, we can sense that we are giving them hope and that they are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel."

It's also very rewarding work, she adds.

"Even though we're on our feet for 12 hours per day to conduct these missions, I know this is a good thing we are doing and the entire team is so proud to be part of it. I told my students that I was being deployed to do this work. I worked all day and then came back to the hotel room to grade papers."

Looking Ahead Toward Herd Immunity

Nesheim explains the concept of herd immunity and how the COVID-19 vaccine factors into it.

"Herd immunity is when a large percentage of the population has built up an immunity to a virus or disease," she says. "They can gain this immunity from either getting exposed or through a vaccination. The theory is that if at least 70 percent of the population is immune, it will be very difficult for a virus to survive."

She says there is plenty of work that remains but that people should be hopeful.

"We have a ways to go with this vaccine process, but more vaccines are being produced and distributed every day, so we should be hopeful that we can gradually start getting back to our 'normal' activities in due time. I personally would love to see some sense of normalcy by the fall, but so much depends on how quickly we can vaccinate, how many people choose to get it, and how long the vaccine will actually last."

Community COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

Along with the efforts of Nesheim and her team, Saint Leo University is supporting the community surrounding its residential campus in Pasco County by serving as a vaccine distribution site for the Florida Department of Health in Pasco County. The university has welcomed thousands of people to its campus to receive the COVID-19 vaccine since supply became available in January.