Eriell Wallace, a nursing student at New Mexico State University, administers a COVID-19 vaccine during a clinic at NMSU on April 30. | NMSU photo by Josh Bachman
Nancy Mestre and dozens of other students from New Mexico State University’s School of Nursing stepped up to the front lines over the spring semester to join a massive effort to administer COVID-19 vaccines to thousands of New Mexico residents, contributing to the success of the state’s highly praised vaccination campaign.
Altogether, about 80 nursing students volunteered more than 1,000 hours in their spare time to assist in weekly drive-through vaccination clinics at NMSU over 18 weeks, starting in January.
Mestre, a level four nursing student, volunteered at several clinics throughout the semester and gave so many shots, she lost count by the end of last month.
“It’s probably up there in the thousands right now,” she said in April. “In January, every Friday, we were doing at least 500 doses. But with most older adults now vaccinated and younger adults starting to come through, we’re doing about 300.”
The on-campus vaccination effort, led by Jon Webster of NMSU Facilities and Services and carried out by a small army of volunteers – mostly employees and students from NMSU – was a collaboration with the New Mexico Department of Health. Deputy Fire Chief Louis Huber of the NMSU Fire Department served as the incident commander of each clinic.
After the final drive-through clinic wraps up Friday, May 21, volunteers from more than a dozen NMSU departments and outside organizations will have administered approximately 9,000 vaccines over 18 clinics, collectively working an estimated 5,400 hours, Webster said.
Webster and Huber staffed each clinic with about 75 volunteers from the NMSU School of Nursing, Aggie Health and Wellness Center, NMSU police and fire departments, Doña Ana Community College, Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine, New Mexico National Guard, Doña Ana County/City of Las Cruces Office of Emergency Management and the New Mexico Department of Health.
Webster described the effort as teamwork at its best.
“We could not have accomplished this without all the many volunteers who braved the cold, heat and wind to make this possible,” he said. “It truly was amazing to see so many people step up to help vaccinate our community through these trying times.”
The final drive-through clinic is only open for those who received the first dose of the Moderna vaccine four weeks ago and need the booster, Webster said.
For the nursing students, the vaccination effort served as a once-in-a-lifetime public health lesson.
“This was public health nursing on the front lines of the COVID vaccination effort,” said Alexa Doig, director of the NMSU School of Nursing. “It was a great experience for our students to talk to people and engage in health education about the vaccine while giving out the shots.”
Maria-Elena Armendariz, another level four nursing student, quickly discovered that volunteering at the clinics involved much more than giving shots. She first worked as a scribe, checking in people as they arrived at the clinic site, before assisting as an inoculator, a job she said she tried to perform with compassion.
In some situations, she encountered individuals who were so nervous about the vaccine she’d have to calm them down, she explained.
“A few times, I came across people who hyperventilated,” she said. “I tried to make them feel more at ease and comfortable by talking to them about anything else but the shot.”
Mestre said the vaccination effort was unlike her hospital clinical experiences, because it required patient education at a rapid pace. She interacted with hundreds of people each day, she said, but only had limited time to provide information and answer questions.
“It’s patient-teaching on the spot,” she said, “and that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from this.”
Doig said her students were ready and willing to help in any way they could when she sent out a call seeking volunteers in late December as NMSU finalized plans to serve as a vaccination site. It makes her proud, she added, knowing her students contributed to the overall success of the state’s vaccination campaign and were part of an effort to protect New Mexicans from a disease that has killed more than 4,100 residents.
New Mexico’s vaccination rates are among the highest – and most-lauded – in the nation. Earlier this month, state health officials announced 50 percent of eligible New Mexicans were fully vaccinated – a critical milestone in the state’s fight against COVID-19. To date, the state has administered more than 1.8 million doses – a number that continues to climb each day.
“When you’re living through history, you don’t realize how monumental it is. I’m incredibly proud of my students for showing up and giving time to help their community,” Doig said. “They did such good work.”
Years from now, Armendariz said she will look back at her contributions with pride.
“I am going to be able to say in the future when all of this has settled that I was a part of this amazing effort to end the pandemic,” she said, “and that makes me proud.”
Mestre said she hopes people understand the significant role vaccines can play in ending the current pandemic.
“Vaccinations are super important, not only for stopping a pandemic, but also epidemics as well,” she said. “Anyone can make an impact with pandemics or epidemics by getting vaccinated.”
New Mexico residents 12 years of age and older are currently eligible to get the vaccine. To learn more or make an appointment, visit VaccineNM.org.
The Aggie Health and Wellness Center will continue to offer vaccines to NMSU employees and students through its vaccination campaign, “Sleeves up, Aggies!” It also provides vaccine mini-events to any Las Cruces campus department by request. To set up an event, call 575-646-3459. To schedule an individual vaccine appointment, call 575-646-1512.
Author: Carlos Andres López – NMSU