Relief and Excitement as USC Pharmacy Teams Vaccinate Frontline Healthcare Workers

Outdoors at Lincoln Park Recreation Center, across the street from the USC Health Sciences Campus, first-year pharmacy student Gabriela Dutra-Clarke carefully administered a dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine to Jeannie Garcia, a certified nursing assistant.

Garcia, who works for Project Homekey—a state program that provides long-term housing for those experiencing homelessness—was among the frontline healthcare providers invited to make a vaccine appointment through the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

After getting the shot, a grateful Garcia asked to take a photo with Dutra-Clarke to commemorate her first dose of the vaccine. It marked the end of constant worries about transmitting the virus to her family after each workday. “I’m going home to my dad who is 69 and has multiple chronic illnesses,” Garcia said.

The Vaccine Points of Dispensing (PODs), a partnership of L.A. County, the mayor’s office, L.A. Fire Department, the nonprofit Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE) and other groups, uses preexisting, city-run testing and flu-vaccination sites to deliver COVID-19 inoculations in some of L.A.’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, where Black and Latino families have borne the brunt of the pandemic and test positivity rates have ranged from 23% to 31%.

‘Everyone is coming together’

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (R) and California Governor Gavin Newsom (C) tour the mass Covid-19 vaccination site at Dodger Stadium on January 15, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Irfan Khan / POOL / AFP) (Photo by IRFAN KHAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The USC School of Pharmacy’s involvement in the Lincoln Park clinic POD began in fall 2020 with the school’s distribution of free flu vaccines to Angelenos at City of Los Angeles COVID-19 testing sites, an effort spearheaded by Richard Dang, assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at the USC School of Pharmacy and president-elect of the California Pharmacists Association.

“We’re excited to use our pharmacists’ and students’ expertise in vaccinations and to build upon our experience with our flu vaccine clinics to bring COVID-19 vaccine clinics to the community,” Dang said.

Every day, 30-40 people work at 10 vaccine stations at Lincoln Park—resulting in about 1,000 to 1,200 vaccinations per day. Licensed pharmacists and intern pharmacists prepare doses, perform injections, and closely monitor each vaccine recipient. Meanwhile, other volunteers ensure that everyone qualifies for the shot, screen people for allergic reactions, and fill out vaccination cards.

“This moment calls for teamwork, and everyone is coming together to play their part,” says Vassilios Papadopoulos, dean of the USC School of Pharmacy. “Pharmacists and other frontline healthcare workers, first responders, local and state government, universities, nonprofit organizations, corporations—there is a true sense of collaboration.”

‘Bonding experience’

Volunteering to administer COVID-19 vaccines has been a memorable experience for Dutra-Clarke and her first-year classmates at the USC School of Pharmacy.

Wearing protective face shields, as well as cardinal-and-gold masks on top of surgical masks, pharmacy students get to use their clinical skills together in the same physical space—a rarity since starting the program in August 2020. “It’s been a bonding experience,” Dutra-Clarke says.

Another highlight of the experience is seeing “the excitement all of the patients show when they sit down preparing to get vaccinated,” notes fourth-year pharmacy student Trevor Lee. “Knowing there is a light at the end of the tunnel with these vaccines is an incredible feeling.”

When the vaccines began arriving in mid-December, the school immediately sought volunteer inoculators. Dozens of pharmacy students signed up overnight, says Carla Blieden, assistant professor of clinical pharmacy and director of community outreach.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment, and our students recognized that,” Blieden says.

As for Dutra-Clarke, a 2019 biology graduate of UC Santa Barbara employed at CVS before starting pharmacy school, having the opportunity to deliver the vaccine to patients at Lincoln Park confirmed that she made the right choice in selecting pharmacy as a profession and USC as her school. “It’s the perfect combination,” she says.

As the eligibility pool for vaccinations expands beyond frontline healthcare workers, and with the Dodger Stadium mass vaccination site open as of Friday, January 15, the need for volunteers is growing. Many USC alumni pharmacists already serve as preceptors to supervise this vital student work, according to Dang. He notes that numerous alumni have signed up for immunization training to become recertified so they can volunteer in clinical roles as well.

“There is a strong sense of Trojan spirit here,” Dang says. “We won’t rest until everybody is vaccinated.”

The County of Los Angeles is seeking licensed clinical professionals (LCPs) to volunteer (unpaid) to help with mass vaccination efforts; learn more about these volunteer opportunities. If you are a California licensed pharmacist who is specifically interested in precepting at a USC School of Pharmacy COVID-19 vaccine clinic, learn more about volunteer requirements and sign up here.

At the Dec. 30 launch of the Lincoln Park COVID-19 vaccine dispensing site, from left: L.A. Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas, Dean Vassilios Papadopoulos, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, Assistant Professor of Clinical Pharmacy Carla Blieden, Assistant Professor of Clinical Pharmacy Richard Dang and Sean Penn, actor, director and co-founder of Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE). (Photo / Office of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti).