After nine months of death, despair, and fear, the one-two victory of Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine approvals is a major turning point for everyone in health care. Social media timelines suddenly sprang to life with vaccine selfies as besieged health care workers got their first doses. It is truly a turning point in this relentless pandemic, and it finally feels like we can imagine the end of this nightmare.
But there is one group in health care notably absent from many vaccination clinics so far: medical students.
Nationwide, medical students have seen their education change in ways big and small, and we’ve learned to adapt to every curveball. No two experiences are alike. My school, for example, barred students from seeing any COVID-positive patients; fourth-year students only will begin seeing COVID+ patients in January. Students at different medical schools have cared for COVID patients all along, accepting the same risks as hospital employees.
Now that there are vaccine options, medical students should be part of every state’s Phase 1A distribution for health care workers. If not, students could soon be the only care team members not protected by the vaccine.
I count myself lucky. I go to medical school in New Jersey, a state that put medical students in its Phase 1A distribution. I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine on December 23 and immediately started volunteering in clinics to administer vaccinations as quickly as possible to our entire health system. But too many of my medical student colleagues nationwide aren’t as fortunate. They continue to see COVID patients and, in many cases, are volunteering at vaccination clinics with no clear guidance as to when they’ll be vaccinated.
I read a disheartening comment on Twitter that medical students don’t need to be part of Phase 1A because we are “22 to 26 years old” and therefore not at great risk of severe COVID infection. Even if that age range was accurate (it is not), this take ignores the reality that the average person in their mid-20s is not exposed to COVID daily, through experiences we have little control over and must have to graduate on time and be fully prepared to train in residency.
Am I arguing that medical students should be prioritized above, for example, the ICU staff that care for entire COVID wards every day? Not at all. But neither should medical students be forced to wait until later phases, which could mean months of additional COVID exposure without the protection of a vaccine.
State leaders have the power to specifically include medical students in Phase 1A, as New Jersey has done. One issue is that most policymakers have no concept of what a medical education entails or the consequences of falling off the requirements’ strict sequence. Consider a third-year student who contracts COVID. She will be pulled from rotations, likely for several weeks, and need to make up the mandatory clerkships at the end of the academic year. That likely means her fourth year will not commence on time, when she will miss out on vital early year rotations in her chosen specialty and necessary for letters of recommendation to match into residency. If her preparation for Step 2 CK is delayed, that creates even more interruption. One illness puts her at a significant disadvantage for residency applications—and that’s for a “normal” course of COVID. Students who are severely ill and must take a leave of absence risk having their medical education derailed by an entire year if they miss too many required clerkship weeks.
Medical school leaders, however, do understand the rigors of our schedule. I implore administrators to stand up for their students and advocate for them to receive a COVID vaccine as soon as possible. My own dean worked hard to advocate for medical students in planning meetings with state and local leaders, and our entire student body will receive the vaccine in the next few weeks. It’s imperative medical school leaders nationwide take the same strong stance, both at the state level and within their affiliated hospitals.
The COVID-19 vaccination rollout is historical and beyond complicated. There will naturally be slip-ups along the way, but I see teams working seven days a week to get this right in my own hospital. I also see my peers stepping up to help, as I knew they would. Within minutes of sending out opportunities to volunteer in our hospital clinic, more than 200 shifts were filled by students eager to be part of this moment. As we move into community clinics in the coming weeks, students at my school will volunteer hundreds of manhours each week.
We’re happy to do it. Getting my vaccination was thrilling and relieving. But my first day volunteering in the vaccination clinic was more meaningful. The relief on hospital workers’ faces is clear even behind their masks. There is an energy in the air and even a sense of giddiness. The tool that will help end this pandemic is here.
Students deserve the vaccine in the first phase of distribution. We deserve to be protected in the hospitals where we spend so much time preparing to be the next wave of frontline COVID fighters. We need champions to advocate for us so we can continue learning. Please, give us the vaccine.
Lauren Burgoon is a medical student.
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