Vaccinating the Vaccinators

By: Gavin Jenkins

On Dec. 16, 2020, Pitt’s Dr. Deanne Hall and Jacob Murawski made history.

Hall, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacy and Therapeutics, sat down in front of news cameras and pushed up the sleeve on her black blouse. A hush fell over the campus conference room as Murawski, a second-year student in Pitt’s School of Pharmacy, injected Hall with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

When Murawski finished inoculating Hall, the room erupted in applause. As people clapped, Hall leaned forward and told Murawski he did a good job.

“The educator in me couldn’t help it,” said Hall, who has worked at Pitt since 2000.

On Dec. 8, Pennsylvania’s Department of Health expanded the authority of supervised pharmacy interns to inject people under an emergency vaccination distribution plan for COVID-19. By inoculating Hall, Murawski became the first pharmacy student in Pitt’s history to administer a vaccine before graduating.

Four other pharmacy trainees—Abigail Reigh, Haley Fribance, Nathaniel Tost and Josh Dorazio from Duquesne University—followed Murawski and vaccinated another four health care workers who, like Hall, will in turn inoculate other UPMC employees in the coming weeks.

Wednesday’s historic event served as a dry run for UPMC’s mass vaccination clinic that began yesterday.

“It’s a very exciting time to be a student,” Murawski said. “I’m just glad to be a part of this and to be in a situation to help.”

Hall, who also is the director of the ambulatory care residency program at UPMC, said she was well aware of the moment’s significance. “I got chills when I got it, and it wasn’t just from the vaccine,” she said. (The Pfizer shot must be stored in super cold temperatures.)

Murawski said he was nervous administering the vaccination. “It’s such a huge moment for Pitt and the country,” he said. “I can’t wait to tell my family about this.”

Dr. Patricia D. Kroboth, dean of the School of Pharmacy and Dr. Gordon J. Vanscoy Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences, said she, too, was moved by the day’s events.

“It’s emotional for the entire world, but the reality that it’s pharmacists, and that we are part of it, is causing me to tear up now,” she said, her voice cracking.

Students have long been required to learn how to inoculate patients during their third year of pharmacy school at Pitt. But, anticipating a tremendous need for vaccinators due to COVID-19, this fall, Kroboth made the training a requirement for all second-year students and allowed first-year students the opportunity to learn, too.

“What we’re so proud of is how our students were ready, trained and waiting for this waiver,” said Dr. Melissa McGivney, associate dean for community partnerships at the School of Pharmacy.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 11, but there are a limited number of doses available during what is Phase 1 of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ distribution plan. Earlier this week, 15 other UPMC employees received the vaccine. UPMC’s goal is to inoculate any employee who wants the vaccine by the end of January, according to Alfred L’Altrelli, pharmacy administration residency program director.

“We only had five people planned because we want to learn from the process,” L’Altrelli said of the Dec. 16 event. “Since the vaccine is such a scarce resource, we want to be absolutely sure no doses get wasted. This is the start of a massive process in the weeks to come.”