TAHLEQUAH, Oklahoma – As the demands of the pandemic continue to increase, the health services arm of the country's largest Native American tribe is using the 54 students from its new medical school to help administer COVID-19 vaccines.
Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in in the Cherokee Nation's capital of Tahlequah, in northeast Oklahoma. It's the first tribally affiliated medical school in the U.S. in reservation land. On top of handling patients with common medical conditions, health care systems like CNHS are under pressure to vaccinate people, while also caring for those who have already contracted the virus.
“Our health care systems across the state are very stressed,” said Dr. Natasha Bray, associate dean for academic affairs. “We’ve got a high volume of patients who are very sick, and in addition to caring for an unprecedented number of individual patients who have a high acuity of health care needs, we’re asking our health care centers to shift to deliver vaccines in a very short period of time. So when you think about employees being sick and being out, the amount of stress that’s on the system just taking care of patients who are ill, and now trying to pivot to deliver vaccines to the community – it’s a big challenge.”
Cherokee Nation Health Services has made it a mission to use every vaccine it receives, letting none go to waste. But the tribe has more than 140,000 citizens living just within its 14-county reservation, so finding extra personnel to work the vaccination pod helps reach more people.
“Cherokee Nation Health Services asked our partners at the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at Cherokee Nation if their medical students could assist in our vaccination efforts,” said Dr. R. Stephen Jones, CNHS executive director. “This has allowed us to increase the number of vaccinations we can give each day. This is a great opportunity for our future physicians to gain experience on the front lines of this pandemic that will affect and enhance their educational experience.”
Officials said this is likely the first time medical students anywhere have been thrust into such a volatile situation.
“It’s not an experience that many first-year medical students get to have,” said Holton Fox, first-year student. “So I’m very thankful for that opportunity, to get that first-hand, one-on-one experience with patients. It gets you comfortable talking to patients.”
So far, CNHS has administered more than 14,000 doses to tribal citizens. Considering the short amount of time since the first immunization was rolled out, Bray called it a "monumental accomplishment." She said students were excited to serve the community and make a difference, but one of her jobs is to ensure they do not overcommit themselves.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to actually engage in the care of patients in a pandemic,” Bray said. “But we have to balance that with their developing curriculum needs to make sure we train them to be physicians not only for today, but for the next 20 to 30 years of their careers.”
The college tries to limit students to around two hours a week of volunteering. While their willingness to inoculate patients is beneficial to all concerned, the college works to limit disruption to their class and learning environment.
“Going into medical school, I never thought this would have happened – having to wear masks for class and still being on campus, but having to self-distance. It’s definitely been a challenge, but it has not affected our curriculum or learning environment whatsoever,” said Fox.