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N.C. community colleges prove vital to COVID-19 vaccine distribution

As K-12 schools move towards in-person learning, Gov. Roy Cooper announced last week that teachers would move up in priority for the COVID-19 vaccine. Health departments across the state have been relying on community colleges’ facilities, faculty, and students to run vaccination clinics.

Laura Leatherwood, president of Blue Ridge Community College, said she offered her school’s resources to Henderson County in early January. 

“I reached out to the two CEOs of the hospital and the health department and said, ‘We are here. We have facilities. If you all get into this vaccine and you need a site for distribution, give me a call,’” she said. 

Nursing students and faculty have been volunteering their time at the on-campus vaccination clinic at Blue Ridge since Jan. 11. Leatherwood said that she even takes a shift at the clinic herself. 

“We couldn’t have done it without a clinical partner to bring the vaccine piece and the clinical piece,” Leatherwood said. “And really, they could not have done it without the community college.”

The vaccination clinic is mutually beneficial to the college and the community. Nursing students have not been able to go through their normal clinical placements because of restrictions in hospital settings due to COVID-19. But vaccination clinics have offered students an opportunity to interact with patients as well as help their community. 

Ashley Colbertson is a nursing student at Blue Ridge Community College and has been volunteering at the vaccine clinic on campus via a partnership with Pardee Hospital. She said 600 people were signed up to get vaccinated on Friday alone. 

“It just makes sense,” she said. “And we’ve actually missed a good six months of clinical experience. But Pardee has gone above and beyond to make sure that we did get as many opportunities as we can.”

Colbertson said the patients — mostly senior citizens at this phase of vaccine distribution — have been very grateful to the volunteers, making for a rewarding and uncharacteristically positive clinical rotation.

“These citizens have been so grateful. They come in and they’re just smiling ear to ear, and I’ve received multiple little bracelets and crafts,” she said. “They’re usually in a clinic and they’re in a lot of pain or they’re in the hospital for something negative, so it’s a breath of fresh air to have people be so cheery and happy.”

Leatherwood said having the vaccination clinic on campus has increased awareness of the community college’s resources.

“From a goodwill standpoint, the visibility that is brought to our campus from people that typically would not come through for our courses has really opened their eyes to the opportunities for the community at this campus.”

Camille Reese, vice president of instruction at Mitchell Community College, said they have also had students volunteer at vaccine clinics.

“We’ve gotten really positive results,” she said. “One of our board members is an employee at Lake Norman Regional Medical Center, and he reported back to the board the positive comments that our students got for their professionalism and their ability to work with patients.”

Shelley White, president of Haywood Community College, said her faculty and students had received a similarly positive response. She said faculty have taken advantage of Haywood’s new paid volunteer leave program to give time to the vaccination clinic.

“We just had a great response from our employees with them coming back and talking about the experience of the clinic and how appreciative people are and being able to see the community come through and be a part of that,” she said. “So it’s just been a great, great partnership there with our employees being able to volunteer and have that time be paid.”

Mark Poarch, president of Caldwell Community College, emphasized the importance of his college’s resources in an area without a major hospital.

“As with many rural communities, initially there were some challenges with resources in terms of our health department team,” he said. “They just don’t have an army of folks over there to take care of things. So one of our business leaders reached out to me and wanted to brainstorm and think about if there were ways that the college might be able to help with this.”

Poarch said he was proud to offer the college’s resources to the community. 

“We have offered up to do anything we can to support our community through the challenges of COVID,” he said. “We have what we call a civic center in our county that the college owns, and we have offered that facility up should our healthcare community need it.“

Leatherwood said that while she is glad Blue Ridge’s facilities are being used for vaccinations, she will be glad to see her students returning to normal clinical rotations.

“I’m just looking forward to the day that we get everybody vaccinated, and I can go back to running a college instead of a vaccine clinic.”

Michael Taffe

Michael Taffe is a reporter for EducationNC. His reporting focuses on the community college system.