Access to COVID-19 vaccinations is no longer a problem for most Americans who are eligible for them, and more than a third of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
For osteopathic medical students, signing up for the shot wasn’t easy in the beginning, despite the fact that students were staffing vaccination clinics. Nicholas Harriel, OMS III, president of the Student Osteopathic Medical Association (SOMA), shared with The DO a story of how SOMA worked to increase access to COVID-19 vaccines for its members earlier this year. Among other actions, SOMA partnered with the AOA. Following is an edited interview and more details about the SOMA and the AOA’s advocacy.
Early reports about vaccination challenges
We had all these students who were helping at vaccine clinics but who weren’t even third or fourth in line to get vaccinated themselves. In December, the CDC released vaccine guidelines, including detailing who was included in Phase 1A and Phase 1B of the rollout. Phase 1A included health care personnel, which we fell into within our clerkship years, so that would be years three and four.
Around the end of December, we heard from our members and chapter leaders that some students hadn’t received guidance on whether they would receive the vaccine, whether their schools had a plan or whether the hospitals they were working in had a plan for them to get vaccinated.
In January, we launched a survey to better define the situation and the issues our members were facing. We collected 103 responses in a survey that represented 71% of osteopathic medical schools nationwide.
Data backs up anecdotal evidence
At the time, 44% of respondents informed us that their schools had not yet released a vaccination plan to them. Among those who had seen a vaccination plan, we did see that the clinical years were being prioritized. And that was for many reasons.
In some states, the didactic years would not have been considered health care personnel because they’re not actively working within health care settings. Only 9% were eligible to receive the vaccine in the nonclinical years, while about half of respondents were eligible to receive the vaccine in their clinical years. That made sense, but we also saw that students who did not have formal guidance on whether they would receive the vaccine were taking matters into their own hands. Roughly one-third of all respondents reached out to local health departments, state societies, and other non-school affiliates to inquire about receiving the vaccine or to get information about the vaccine.
Reaching out to the AOA
By Jan. 20, (then SOMA President) Clara Hofman, DO, along with myself and many other national leaders, had formulated a letter and sent it to AOA President Thomas Ely, DO, and AOA CEO Kevin Klauer, DO, EJD, outlining what we had learned. In addition to this letter, we shared resources on our social media to assist any students who needed help pursuing vaccination.
The info we shared included the recommendation to reach out to health departments and contact state societies to determine if they were operating vaccine clinics. At some schools, we learned that they were signing up their first- and second-year medical students to participate in vaccine clinics so that they would then fall within the 1A eligibility criteria. We included that within our recommendations.
Overall, we received positive feedback on the recommendations and resources we provided. And we were grateful that the AOA took action after receiving our letter, advocated for us to the CDC and President Joe Biden and also developed a template letter to help us advocate for ourselves.
Eventually, the concerns and reports we had been hearing from students started to slow.
Worth it to work together
In my second and third years of medical school, I really got to see the impact of what we can do as advocates, and I saw how quickly we can help shift conversations and provide student insight. We take our member concerns, which are student concerns, and we bring them forward to our affiliate organizations, such as the AOA, to ensure that those conversations not only include, but also revolve around their student stakeholders. I have seen the power of organizations like SOMA, the Council of Osteopathic Student Government Presidents (COSGP) and others. And I have seen the power of working with partner organizations.
We’re only strong if people are willing to listen and come to the table and work with us, so when we first identified the vaccine issue, immediately, we shifted, “How are we going to affect positive change in this? And which stakeholders and affiliate organizations will help us do it in the most effective way?” The AOA was first on our list.
During the deadliest pandemic of our lifetimes, osteopathic medical students and other healthcare personnel dedicated themselves to the health and wellness of others. SOMA President Clara Hofman, OMS IV (Now DO), wrote a letter to AOA President Thomas Ely, DO, and AOA CEO, Kevin Klauer, DO, EJD, emphasizing the need to prioritize medical student access to the COVID-19 vaccine. The AOA responded swiftly through a series of actions detailed below. The AOA:
- Contacted CDC leaders to urge the CDC to highlight the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ (ACIP) recommendations on states prioritizing medical students for the COVID-19 vaccine in future CDC communications. CDC leadership relayed the AOA and SOMA’s concerns to the CDC COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force.
- Communicated with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) leadership to discuss the issue of prioritizing medical students for the COVID-19 vaccine. ASTHO is a national organization representing the commissioners of state and territorial health departments. AOA drafted a letter advocating for the inclusion of medical students as a priority in vaccination plans and shared it with ASTHO for distributing to all health commissioners across the U.S.
- Drafted and submitted a sign-on letter that includes 43 specialty and state affiliates to President Joe Biden citing that many states are not facilitating vaccine access for all physicians or including medical students among those being prioritized. The letter stated that medical students are often in a clinical setting as part of their education and are untapped resources if they are not immunized.
- Developed a grassroots template letter for students to forward to their governors on the lack of clear inclusion of medical students in state and local COVID-19 vaccination guidance. To date, this effort has facilitated more than 650 student emails to their governors.