USC healthcare faculty and students contribute to vaccine distribution efforts

The Vaccine PODs are a communal effort, with even Mayor Eric Garcetti spending days at the Dodger Stadium site helping where he can. (Photo courtesy of Gilberto Peña)

Starting before the sun comes up, School of Pharmacy faculty and students, alongside physician assistant and nurse practitioner students, are front-line, contributing to Los Angeles’ vaccine distribution efforts by volunteering at the city’s various Vaccine Points-of-Dispensing sites. 

The city is currently operating five PODs to date, with locations at Lincoln Park, Crenshaw Christian Center, Hansen Dam, San Fernando Park and Dodger Stadium. USC School of Pharmacy currently runs the Lincoln Park location and contributes at Dodger Stadium, which is currently one of the biggest vaccine sites in the country.

Gilberto Peña, a first-year pharmacy student who volunteers at the vaccine distribution locations, said the amount of people in line everyday waiting to get the vaccine is so high that the volunteers must prepare for the day hours in advance. 

“We come in at 5:30 in the morning — you know it’s still dark, at 5:30 in the morning — to get set up,” Peña said. “By six we’re just drawing up doses, drawing up doses, just because we have thousands of people coming all at once. The gates don’t open ‘til eight but people start making a line around 6:30 in the morning.”

Despite the possibility of staying in drive-thru lines for hours on end, let alone hours past scheduled appointment times, those waiting to receive their dose of the vaccine at Dodger Stadium are more grateful than anything, according to Peña. 

“You would think they would be agitated, a little impatient, but it’s the exact opposite, which is amazing to see,” Peña said. “These people waiting upwards of six hours are really appreciative, are very happy, have so much positivity and just express their appreciation for us workers or us volunteers.”

L.A. County became the first county in the country to surpass 1 million cases on Jan. 16, and the data suggests that low-income Latinx and Black populations throughout the county are bearing the worst of it, the Los Angeles Times reported last week. 

“People living in the most impoverished neighborhoods of the county are now averaging about 36 deaths a day per 100,000 residents,” the L.A. Times article read. “By contrast, those living in the wealthiest areas are experiencing about 10 deaths a day per 100,000 residents.” 

The city’s distribution methods, which Mayor Eric Garcetti began Dec. 30, is a joint effort between the School of Pharmacy, L.A. County, the city of Los Angeles, L.A. Fire Department, Curative and the nonprofit Community Organized Relief Effort. Prior to vaccine approvals, these organizations worked together to host flu vaccination sites around the city to combat what many considered could be a “twindemic” during the winter months. 

Dr. Richard Dang, associate professor of clinical pharmacy and pharmacy residency program director, said that the flu vaccination and coronavirus testing sites were strategically placed throughout the city with the intention of eventually transforming them into vaccination sites when permitted. The current five locations were chosen in an effort to provide equitable distribution to underrepresented groups and ensure accessibility.  

“We are committed to getting as many vaccines in arms as possible,” Dang said. “Especially to helping reach out to those populations that typically may not trust the healthcare system, who may not have ready access to a healthcare provider, whether it be a clinic or a pharmacy or hospital, or even those who may have transportation issues who can’t get to these POD locations.”

Addressing vaccine hesitancy by engaging with the community is also a priority amid distribution efforts, Dang said. 

“Do you have concerns about vaccines? Let’s host a talking forum or a webinar for members of your community, for your particular organization,” Dang said. “Those conversations are ongoing right now, so that we can provide our partners in our community who are surrounding the University with as much information as possible to tackle vaccine hesitancy to encourage as many people as possible to receive the vaccine, and to make sure they actually have access and the ability to receive the vaccine, regardless of the circumstances.”

Dand said he hopes to reassure skeptics that the vaccine is safe and recommended everyone receive it when it becomes available.

“The vaccine has not skipped any steps, has not cut any corners and has gone through rigorous scientific clinical trials,” Dang assured. “A large number of experts have looked at the data and came to the same conclusion that it is safe and effective, and that the risks do not outweigh the benefits of the vaccine.”

A survey conducted by Pew Research Center published in December said approximately 60% of responders would get vaccinated and hesitancy is apparent throughout the country. However, Britnee Campos, a second-year physician assistant student, said she’s pleased with the turn out she’s witnessed so far while volunteering. 

“Even though there’s a lot unknown about the vaccine and long term what’s going to happen and there’s a lot of uncertainty with the vaccine itself, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the excitement and eagerness of everyone to get the vaccine and try and do their part to make this pandemic end,” Campos said. “It’s been a very surreal experience volunteering … and at the end of the day I just feel so grateful to have been able to get the opportunity to volunteer in the first place.”

Peña expressed a similar sentiment and said witnessing first-hand the efforts of healthcare workers and the enthusiasm from vaccine recipients has provided him a sense of hope.

[We’re] seeing a lot of division lately, but it’s really nice to really see all these different professions and representation — nursing, the fire department, pharmacy — everyone really coming together for a good common cause which is [to] really roll out this vaccine to healthcare workers that are putting their lives on the line, and now the elderly,” Peña said. “That’s really a good thing to see, and it provides a ray of hope to see people put differences aside and really come together for a common good.”

As of Jan. 12, 525,747 doses of the vaccine have been administered throughout the county, according to the L.A. County Public Health Department. Going forward, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a new priority list that is age-based rather than occupation, raising concerns over the risks front-line workers will continue to face. Still, the efforts from volunteers at these vaccination sites are slowly, but surely, contributing to the end of the pandemic, Campos said. 

“Seeing the relief on their face like [the vaccine is] one added layer of protection for them, and then for the older adults that we got to vaccinate — just seeing the glimmer of hope that they’ll be able to go back to the grocery store one day and see their families and not have to worry so much about like stepping outside,” Campos said. “I think that’s the most motivating part of it is just seeing that there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, you know.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Britnee Campos as a second-year physician’s assistant student. Her correct title is second-year physician assistant student. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.