University of Southern California: USC pharmacy students share stories from the vaccination clinic front lines

As a fourth-year student at the USC School of Pharmacy, Lee has worked at two COVID-19 Los Angeles vaccination clinics since they opened around the new year. He’s watched people break down, cry and even plead with him after his site ran out of vaccines.

“Early on, we had people literally standing out here for eight hours just waiting to see if there was an extra dose for them, and we would have to turn them down every single time. It was so hard,” Lee said.

But he’s also seen how much progress has been made in a little over two months. He still sees tears, but with a much different tone. Those tears of disappointment are now ones of gratitude.

“I’ve seen the progression from day one to now and it’s just been absolutely incredible,” Lee said. “I think the most rewarding thing that I’ve gotten from all of this, and it keeps me motivated, is how grateful people are to even be able to get the vaccine.”

I’ve seen the progression from day one to now and it’s just been absolutely incredible.

Trevor Lee

USC School of Pharmacy student pharmacists have played major roles at COVID vaccination sites at Dodger Stadium — one of the largest mega-distribution sites in the country — and at Lincoln Park next to the USC Health Sciences Campus. The students have done everything from setting up stations to counting and preparing doses and even administering vaccines.

The vaccination efforts have been spearheaded by Richard Dang, assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at the USC School of Pharmacy, ever since the school partnered with the city of Los Angeles in fall 2020 to distribute free flu shots to Angelenos at the Lincoln Park clinic. That eventually turned into a COVID vaccine point of dispensing, with the Dodger Stadium mass vaccination site opening in mid-January.

As someone who has been to countless Los Angeles Dodgers games, Lee said it’s amazing to see such a large site being used this way.

“It’s just a great experience, in general, to have something like Dodger Stadium open where we can provide thousands upon thousands of vaccines,” he said.

Pharmacy students embrace providing COVID vaccines, helping to restore normalcy
Unlike Lee, Sara Popko admits that she has never seen a game at Dodger Stadium. However, like Lee, she has worked at both sites and seen how far vaccine rollout has progressed in a matter of months.

Popko, also a fourth-year pharmacy student, started at the Lincoln Park location giving around 500 vaccines per day, which is up to roughly 1,300. At Dodger Stadium, they’re now doing around 13,000 vaccinations a day.

“It’s extraordinary, honestly; I love it so much,” Popko said. “Every day that I’m there, I’m reminded of what it is that I’m doing and that it’s making such a big impact on the world.”

Something that has really stuck with me is how much we’ve all grown together .

Sara Popko

After a year of having to maintain distance and work through a screen, Popko said this experience represented a return to some semblance of normalcy, not only from seeing people receive vaccines but from the teamwork it took to put these sites together.

“Through these months, something that has really stuck with me is how much we’ve all grown together because you end up seeing the same people on a very frequent basis,” Popko said. “It’s been a while since we’ve been in quarantine, so now for us to all be back and socializing and kind of having to learn to interact again, it’s rewarding in that sense.”

The two sites, particularly Dodger Stadium, have received plenty of attention over the last few months, with visits from L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and even Ellen DeGeneres, on whose show both Lee and Popko made an appearance.

As exciting as it was to see their work getting recognition, the two seemed to relish in the responses from regular people who just want to get back — or close — to their lives pre-pandemic. From an elderly woman who simply wanted to hug her grandchildren again to a middle-aged former vaccine skeptic who had recently lost his mother to COVID-19, the impact and scale of their work is evident.

“Experiences like that give me the chills and make me want to come back and continue to keep doing what I’m doing,” Lee said. “It’s usually not one big thing; it’s just these little experiences that I’ve had that keep me pushing every single day that I come here.”

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