By Harry Minium

She was probably in her late 70s and one of more than 5,000 Norfolk residents to receive a COVID-19 vaccination at a large clinic at Scope.

Old Dominion University nursing student Kristina Ward-Carriles noticed the woman was crying as she sat for her injection.

"I thought she was nervous, so I told her, 'Don't worry, we're here to take care of you. I'm sure you've had plenty of shots. Has anything bad happened before?'" Ward-Carriles said.

But she was surprised to learn they were tears of joy.

"I'm just so happy," the woman said. "I haven't seen my kids and my grandkids for almost a year. Thank you so much for what you're doing. This means I'm one step closer to holding my babies again."

Ward-Carriles, a California native and a junior in the nursing honors program, was among nearly 30 nursing students and ODU faculty who volunteered at Scope last month. By the end of the summer, all of ODU's 160 undergraduate nursing students and dozens of faculty will have helped administer the vaccine to tens of thousands more.

Working largely with Sentara Healthcare, ODU faculty and students have already taken part in vaccinations given at Scope and the Hampton Convention Center. On Feb. 27, they will give a second round of vaccines at both locations.

"The vaccines are what is going to pull us out of the pandemic, and our nursing students know that," said Janice Hawkins, a clinical associate professor of nursing. "That's why they stepped up."

When asked to volunteer, Ward-Carriles said she did not realize quite how gratifying it would be.

"This might sound strange given that we were poking people with needles all day, but there was a joyous feeling there," she said. "I felt this overwhelming sense of community.

"There were doctors there who were working beside us. It was a historic event. Hopefully, it's the first step in ending the pandemic."

Sentara officials called Karen Karlowicz, associate professor and chair of ODU's Virginia Beach-based School of Nursing, last month and asked if students and staff would help with the mass clinics, as well as some of Sentara's clinics for its health-care workers.

"They needed help with their employee health clinics because they couldn't cut staff loose to do vaccinations," Karlowicz said. "And when they started these really large-scale community vaccination clinics, they needed the help of many volunteers.

"Our students and faculty stepped up to the plate without hesitation. They didn't think twice about it."

Karlowicz said there is no way to quantify how many people are being helped by those affiliated with ODU. Many faculty and alumni are volunteering through the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps, which works with local health departments in emergency situations, and some are helping through the military.

ODU alumnus and faculty member Ingrid K. Mahoney, for instance, is volunteering with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps in Virginia Beach. Recently, she administered more than 700 vaccinations at a Navy clinic.

"People don't always tell me what they're doing, but I am aware that many have volunteered and have been called in to help," Karlowicz said.

Although students and faculty are trained to do injections, they all had to be trained to inject the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

For every six students administering injections, one faculty member must be on hand to supervise. Students also help with the complicated paperwork needed to track each dose.

Karlowicz said she's appreciative to Sentara Healthcare for not only enlisting ODU's help, but also for providing vaccines to students and faculty.

"If you were giving vaccines, you did not leave without being vaccinated," she said. "We're so grateful for all of the support we've received from Sentara.

"It was so good to see the collaboration of a lot of different groups, from the cities of Norfolk and Hampton to the various community leaders and Sentara. It was a really good experience for the students to see this kind of collaborative effort."

Although the media is full of reports of angst and fear about potential vaccine side effects, Karlowicz said that's not what she's seen.

"People were so appreciative that we were giving them vaccines that will keep them from getting super sick," she said. "No one was fearful. Some of them were taking off their shirts they were so eager to get vaccinated."

The vaccine is safe and effective, Hawkins added.

"The vaccine went through the same process that every other vaccine goes through," she said. "They were able to get it done so quickly because they cut out a lot of the bureaucracy. They still had to meet the same standards for FDA approval. The efficacy rate is 94 or 95%. It's difficult to understand not getting it."

Over 40 million Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to media reports.

Karlowicz said nursing students are gaining valuable experience.

"It's rare as a student that you get to do that many injections over a really short period of time," she said.

Karlowicz went through a similar experience in 1976 while a nursing student in Atlanta, when she helped vaccinate people against the swine flu.

"There was even more hysteria around the swine flu than there is about COVID," she said. "But I volunteered along with a whole host of my classmates, and we did it willingly because that's what we were educated to do, to help people in a crisis."

Norfolk has emphasized vaccinating the elderly, especially from inner-city neighborhoods where residents often don't have access to quality health care. Ward-Carriles' first patient was a 98-year-old man who, like the grandmother she injected, had not left his house in almost a year.

"It was such an awesome experience," she said. "It's something I don't think I'll ever forget. As a beneficent human being, I want to be a part of anything that helps bring an end to the pandemic in any way I can.

"That's all that matters."

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