‘Very frustrating’: Some health systems vaccinate stay-at-home workers as providers struggle to get doses

‘Very frustrating’: Some health systems vaccinate stay-at-home workers as providers struggle to get doses
Staff at VCU Medical Center in Richmond receive 4,000 doses of the 4,000 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. (Source: VCU)

Third and fourth-year medical students at Virginia Commonwealth University came back from winter break expecting to resume clinical rounds, a key part of their curriculum that allows students to take a hands-on role in in-patient care.

Instead, at a Jan. 1 meeting, faculty from the medical school’s Office of Student Affairs — along with Dr. Arthur Kellermann, the CEO of VCU Health System — made a surprising announcement.

Medical students were being pulled from their clinical responsibilities for the next two to three months. Faculty cited an ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 at VCU Medical Center, which has seen more than 89 cases since the beginning of December, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health. But they also informed students that they wouldn’t be included in the health system’s first phase of vaccine distribution.

“This meeting was very out of the blue for us,” said one third-year student in attendance. (She’s part of a group of concerned medical students that’s since sent an anonymous letter to Kellerman but asked not to be individually identified out of fear there could be consequences from senior faculty and staff at VCU. The health system, like many others, has policies against speaking to the media without going through a liaison, and the Mercury granted anonymity in this article to some students and employees who had concerns about retribution at work.)

“Up until Jan. 1, we had all been asked to return to Richmond after the holidays to continue our clinical training,” the student said. “No one had mentioned that we wouldn’t have access to vaccines.”

The letter says that “unlike the CDC, who declared medical students essential personnel, it appears that VCUHS disagrees, valuing employees who can telework and have no patient contact, over clinical students who are promised and expect patient interaction for their training.”

It was a much different approach than the one taken by other state medical schools, including Virginia Tech Carilion, which began offering vaccines to students in late December.

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The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.