Without the help of university students, thousands of Sacramento’s most vulnerable residents might not have gotten COVID-19 vaccines. The University of California, Davis School of Medicine provided the workforce while UC Davis Health provided support.
UC Davis Health went beyond the hospital walls to get people in underserved communities vaccinated, which included mobile vaccine clinics to reach people experiencing homlessness and setting up clinics in houses of worship. The academic medical center has distributed more than 165,000 doses to patients, its employees, and community members.
The university health system’s school of medicine encourages its students to volunteer at 11 student-run clinics in the Sacramento region. Volunteer licensed physicians, some of whom are UC Davis Health providers, oversee and advise the students, placing an emphasis not just on quality care, but also on providing care to underserved communities.
Khadija Soufi, who recently completed her first year at UC Davis School of Medicine, helped lead an effort at Shifa Community Clinic to vaccinate even more community members. The student-run clinic provides culturally appropriate care and multilingual services to its predominantly Middle Eastern, South Asian, refugee, and Latinx patients.
Soufi saw firsthand in her native Algeria and through her experiences in other countries how inequities and the lack of health care can affect quality of life for people.
“That’s what drew me to medicine was the idea of being an advocate and being there to provide care for people in their time of need,” she said. “It just comes from the very essence of medicine to serve everyone equally, it’s the core of what I hope we want our society to be.”
In January, clinic leaders at Shifa noticed some essential workers in the surrounding community were having difficulty getting vaccinated. Common barriers included lack of transportation and feeling uncomfortable in English-only spaces.
Shifa medical director Shagufta Yasmeen learned students were eager to operate a vaccination clinic. She acquired a pharmacy-grade freezer to store vaccines and requested Sacramento County Public Health to provide vaccine doses each week. Vaccination efforts started in earnest at Shifa in February.
That’s when Soufi became Shifa Community Clinic’s vaccine clinic director, responsible for everything from training medical students how to administer the vaccine and making sure everyone followed procedures to overseeing the flow of patients during the vaccine clinic. She even helped recruit students who can speak a variety of languages to make sure patients from diverse communities would be served.
Those 12-hour days can be hectic, but are always rewarding.
“Being a part of this effort in my community is an incredible feeling and the most gratifying project I’ve ever been part of,” Soufi said. “There’s something amazing about seeing how thankful patients are and being able to respond to an imminent need in the moment – it’s hard to describe.”
In the beginning, students provided several hundred doses during a typical vaccination clinic. About 20 undergraduate students registered and admitted patients while two shifts of eight medical students administered vaccines. UC Davis faculty members answered students’ questions and provided guidance. By June, the team had provided more than 8,000 doses.
Vaccine clinics at Shifa were initially well attended, but crowds soon tapered off. Taking the clinics to nearby mosques, churches, and other trusted community locations was key to keeping the momentum going.
While the operation provides excellent care, it’s not the only reason people come. Many of the students speak foreign languages, which makes it easier for patients who do not speak English well to feel comfortable. For these students, the medical center, and their partners, it’s all about providing equitable access to vaccines and other kinds of care during a pandemic that hit communities of color the hardest.
“Being able to communicate with a patient is the very basis of trust,” Soufi said, who regularly matches wary patients to students who can speak their language. “As soon as they hear students talk (in their native language), that barrier is no longer there.”
Students also accommodate other needs.
About 30% of vaccine doses are reserved for people who do not have access to the internet, with students scheduling appointments by phone. For people with limited mobility, students administer shots in vehicles, making sure to reserve space for parking.
During Ramadan, many Muslims wondered how fasting would affect their ability to receive the vaccine or how to manage potential side effects during this religious observance. Soufi said providing culturally appropriate counseling helped many community members ask questions they may not have felt comfortable asking someone who doesn’t understand this important practice.
She believes many people underestimate the importance of meeting people in their comfort zone, whether it’s through language, location, or cultural practice. When medical professionals give one member of a community a good experience, they share that with friends and family.
Soufi knows word of mouth is huge in immigrant communities.
“Vaccine hesitancy and inequity isn’t this black box we can’t address,” she said. “There’s always ways with the right people and organizations that build trust in the community. When we do it right, they will come.”
Community vaccination clinics
UC Davis Health partners with community organizations to immunize medically underserved people across Yolo and Sacramento counties. The effort has distributed thousands of doses since February.