‘Happiest place on the Earth’: How University of Waterloo pharmacy students are helping with COVID-19 vaccine rollout

KITCHENER — Maria Anton and Olivia Joy McPherson can see people laugh and cry after receiving their COVID-19 vaccine.

The third-year University of Waterloo pharmacy students work at the Health Sciences Clinic in Kitchener.

“We call it the happiest place on the Earth because it’s just the best feeling getting to see how excited people are,” Anton said.

McPherson credits some of that joy to the passion of the people working in the clinic.

“Everyone’s really passionate on the staff and I think that just kind of seeps into the patients,” she said. “Most people that I see are really happy and excited. We had one lady one week who just wouldn’t stop saying ‘thank you.'”

Both Anton and McPherson have experience giving COVID-19 vaccines at pharmacies and other locations in Waterloo Region.

“It’s been a really tough 14 months for a lot of people and this vaccine, it feels like the light at the end of the tunnel,” McPherson said.

Olivia and Maria

Maria Anton (left) and Olivia Joy McPherson at the Health Sciences Clinic (Supplied: Maria Anton)

At the Health Sciences Clinic, they’re tasked with drawing up doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

“Pfizer, as a vaccine, is very unique in that it’s very fragile,” McPherson said.

‘LIQUID GOLD’

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved by Health Canada in December 2020 and is available to anyone 12 and older.

“You kind of feel like you’re holding liquid gold,” McPherson said.

Anton said she’s always extremely careful when she brings prepared vaccines to stations around the clinic.

“I just pray I don’t trip and fall, because so many doses would be lost,” she said with a laugh.

Anton added she doesn’t usually let someone else handle her vials once they’re prepared.

“We treat the vaccine like a baby,” she said.

Nancy Waite, a University of Waterloo professor helping train and coordinate students working at the clinic, said the Pfizer vaccine is very different from many other vaccines available in Canada.

“There are vaccines that just come in a vial and you just draw out the dose, however much you need, and you’re done,” Waite said.

Pfizer vaccine

Pfizer, however, has very cold temperature requirements and needs a lot of preparation before it can go into someone’s arm.

“What we have to do with the Pfizer vaccine is, it comes in an undiluted form, so we have to dilute it with other liquids, normal saline,” Waite said. “You can’t shake it, you can’t even drive it in a car some place, it actually has a limited amount of time it’s supposed to travel. It’s a bit of a baby, this vaccine, it needs to be handled in a certain way.”

Waite said working with such a sensitive vaccine can make her a bit nervous.

“You can’t shake it, you have to dilute it just right,” she said. “Every time I pick up a vial of liquid gold, I think ‘there’s six doses in there, don’t mess up.'”

The entire clinic recognizes the importance of the doses, and Waite said there are policies to protect the vaccine as much as possible.

Staff at the clinic

Nancy Waite and other staff members work at the Health Sciences Clinic (Supplied: University of Waterloo)

“There’s a different importance to this vaccine, it has this special quality,” Waite said.

“We have things set up in very specific ways so that we’re not likely to bump into each other,” she added. “Nobody carries syringes, they go in little tubs, we have two hands on them.”

HEALTH SCIENCES CLINIC

Kitchener’s Health Sciences Clinic administers between 706 and 720 doses each day.

Entrance to Health Sciences Clinic

The entrance to the Health Sciences Clinic in Kitchener (Supplied: University of Waterloo)

“We’re that exact,” Waite said. “Once we open that vial (of Pfizer), it’s got six doses in it, we can’t save it to the next day.”

The clinic is also closing in on 28,000 total doses administered.

It’s located right in the Health Sciences building on Victoria Street in Kitchener and started as a partnership with the Centre for Family Medicine located in the adjacent building. Vaccines are administered in classrooms on the main floor of the building, with attendees weaving in and out of the rooms without having to backtrack and pass others who have come for a vaccine appointment.

“It’s kind of neat for us, because we’re used to seeing these classrooms in a different way,” Waite said.

There are dozens of staff and volunteers helping to make sure the clinic runs smoothly.

“Our building was never set up to be a clinical space, but it’s perfect for this,” Waite said. “This works actually really well in terms of how we can move people through and use the space in a way that was never intended.”

Inside the Health Sciences Clinic

A look inside the Health Sciences Clinic in Kitchener (Supplied: University of Waterloo)

HANDS-ON TRAINING

When it comes to training students on how to handle the Pfizer vaccine, Waite said the best technique is just to get people’s hands on the vials.

Olivia Joy McPherson pulls vaccine dose

Olivia Joy McPherson draws a vaccine dose (Supplied: Olivia Joy McPherson)

“We literally sit down and train them,” she said. “We will talk them through the process initially, we have videos, we have things they can read ahead of time. But, they actually come into the clinic, which is the best way to do it because we actually want them to use the vaccine.”

Students learn to prepare doses under supervision with instructors guiding them through the process.

The school is also now offering training to community pharmacists and other health-care professionals who are administering Pfizer doses across the region.

McPherson said team members at the clinic share tips and tricks with each other on how they’re handling the vaccine and what seems to be working.

“I’m like ‘oh, I twist the plunger to get the bubbles to detach,'” she said. “Everyone kind of has what works for them and sort of their technique.”

CHANGES AT THE START OF THE PANDEMIC

In March of 2020 when the pandemic hit, McPherson was working in the intensive care unit at Grand River Hospital.

“Everything starts shutting down and we have our first COVID patient in the ICU,” McPherson said. “It felt very surreal, it was really intense, we didn’t know anything.”

McPherson said the pharmacy students changed from business casual clothes into hospital scrubs and learned how to wear PPE.

“It was exciting as a student, not what I was expecting, but this is really cool,” she said. “Then, as a human, you’re like ‘oh my goodness, this is really scary.'”

At the same time, Anton worked in the psychiatric ward at Grand River Hospital.

“A lot of it was patient intake. The psychiatric ward was really busy once the pandemic hit,” she said.

Shortly after the pandemic began, Anton said she moved into the emergency department, doing medication reviews for newly admitted patients.

“Occasionally there would be some COVID-positive patients,” she said. “At that point, it was really scary going into a room with a patient who is positive. But, the hospital did take so many measures to make sure that our safety was the number one priority.”

UW’s pharmacy program combines co-op work with classes, which all moved online when the pandemic began.

“I haven’t seen some of my peers for almost two years now, like face-to-face, because we were working and then we a completely online term, then we all went back to work again in the fall, and then in the winter we were fully online again,” McPherson said.

Vaccination station

A vaccination station at the Health Sciences Clinic (Supplied: University of Waterloo)

According to Waite, some in-person lab work is now permitted at the university again.

“There’s been an exception for clinical learners, so we have brought the students back in, as appropriate, into some of our labs so they can learn some of the hands-on things,” she said.

FUTURE IN PHARMACY

Anton and McPherson said their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced their desire to help people once they graduate from university.

“I definitely want to work in a hands-on capacity,” Anton said. “I don’t think I can work at a desk or behind-the-scenes. I definitely really love being at the forefront of what’s going on.”

McPherson said the pandemic has reinforced her passion for community pharmacy.

“I love working face-to-face with patients and teaching them and listening to their stories and being someone that can make a difference,” she said.

“I feel so grateful that I get to be here and doing this.”

VACCINE DISTRIBUTION IN WATERLOO REGION

There have been more than 312,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered in Waterloo Region to date. More than 61 per cent of residents over the age of 18 have received at least one dose, and more than 21,000 people are now considered fully vaccinated.

Pfizer vaccine

Vaccine pre-registration is open to all residents aged 12 and older.

Regional vaccine clinics are located at:

  • Cambridge Pinebush, Cambridge
  • First Nations, Métis and Inuit clinic located at Anishnabeg Outreach, Kitchener
  • Health Sciences Campus, Kitchener
  • New Vision Family Health Team Vaccination Clinic, Kitchener
  • The Boardwalk, Waterloo
  • Wellesley Vaccination Clinic, Wellesley

Pharmacies and primary care facilities are also administering shots, and there are mobile clinics working to vaccinate homebound residents.

Ontario has administered more than 9 million doses so far, and more than 700,000 people are fully vaccinated.

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