Sacred Heart Trains Nurses, CHP Volunteers for COVID Vaccine Team

SHU is part of elite national effort to save lives quickly, safely and efficiently

Sacred Heart University is preparing a cadre of health-care students, faculty and staff, plus local volunteers, to help disseminate the COVID-19 vaccine through the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), a specialized force that includes just 15 university-based units nationwide. SHU is the only Connecticut institution of higher education to be part of this lifesaving effort.

Administered through the federal Department of Health and Human Services, the MRC is a network of approximately 900 local entities that train about 190,000 skilled volunteers to respond to public health crises, reducing vulnerability and building resilience and recovery.

Formed in 2012 by Linda Strong, associate professor at SHU’s Susan L. Davis, R.N., & Richard J. Henley College of Nursing (DHCON), the University’s MRC unit has responded to natural and manmade disasters, including Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Corinne Lee, clinical assistant professor in the DHCON, assumed the role of director of the MRC and continued Strong’s legacy of addressing health inequities and disparities in the neighboring communities such as those in the City of Bridgeport.

“The profession of nursing is committed to meeting the needs of marginalized populations,” Lee said. “One goal of the SHU MRC unit is to have nursing students and faculty provide education on vaccine safety and reduce vaccine hesitancy in populations with high COVID-19 positivity rates.”

In 2020, SHU refreshed its roster of about 40 people, who are required to complete local training, nationally mandated FEMA preparedness and training specific to their roles in the current crisis, said Sofia Pendley, clinical assistant professor in SHU’s department of public health, who co-leads SHU’s unit with Lee.

Volunteers generally assume roles based on their certifications and qualifications. SHU’s unit is part of Connecticut’s Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Region 1 that covers Fairfield County. The current SHU roster includes volunteers from both the nursing and health-care disciplines. Sacred Heart is training and preparing volunteers as Connecticut and local health departments roll out the “vaccine strike team.” A dozen are confirmed for the strike team, but that number is expected to grow with the impending FDA decision. The University is also exploring the possibility of becoming a regional mass vaccination site as it has the space and facilities to assist in such an operation.

In addition to considering the issue of vaccine hesitancy, the organization has been laser-focused on expanding their network of volunteers in preparation for a mass vaccination mission or a way to best disseminate the vaccine, said Pendley. Lee and Pendley are in the process of applying for grant funding that will support volunteer efforts during SHU’s mass vaccination mission.

“SHU is proud to be on the front lines, helping to get the vaccine disseminated safely, efficiently and quickly,” Pendley said, noting the University’s pioneering spirit. “The unique part of this effort is the national structure and system that recognizes and partners with nursing and health professionals across the country. When we combine our efforts, we are stronger.”

The next step is to begin training students, faculty and staff from SHU’s St. Vincent’s College, which will greatly increase the roster numbers, Lee said. Two more training sessions will take place this month to cover specifics of the COVID-19 vaccine, such as storage of the vaccine and the particular details of arranging for and completing dissemination to health-care workers and first responders in the area.

In addition to health-care students and faculty, the University’s team includes experienced faculty and staff across SHU and in the local community.

“This provides a great opportunity for students and faculty in nursing and the College of Health Professions, but also to staff and other nonmedical volunteers. There is a need for volunteers to serve other important volunteer tasks, such as greeters, intake and registration roles,” Pendley said. “We’ve had wonderful feedback from staff, faculty and administrators from across the University. The COVID-19 vaccine campaign is a team effort, and the enthusiasm we have received shows the University’s commitment to ending this pandemic.”

Photo caption: Nursing students with Professor Corinne Lee, right, at a past flu shot clinic.

By Katelyn Norkowski
Katelyn Norkowski Katelyn Norkowski