First-year student Kortum finds renewed drive through volunteering

First-year student Spencer Kortum volunteered at FSU PrimaryHealth during the vaccine rollout.

Spencer Kortum shares his account as a first-year student amidst the pandemic and how volunteering at FSU PrimaryHealth's COVID-19 vaccine rollout renewed his drive to finish the challenging year. 

Each Tuesday morning at 10:30, I settle into my desk at my apartment and open my laptop to join my small group over Zoom; a familiar refrain throughout my first year as a medical student at the Florida State University College of Medicine. Months of learning the nuances of human physiology and clinical skills over this online platform is a far cry from the year I envisioned prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

I wasn’t even in Tallahassee when the 2020 summer semester began, yet alone getting the face-to-face interactions with patients, professors and classmates that were especially important to me. Even more so as a new student from an out-of-state university who knew only one other classmate. However, I have never questioned whether virtual learning would be sufficient, at least in the short-term.

The diligence and ingenuity of the FSU College of Medicine faculty was nothing short of amazing and allowed for the best possible experience that one could have attending medical school virtually. Telehealth video conferences with standardized patients and connecting with classmates through social media really allowed me to make the most of that time, despite the isolation many have experienced over the past year.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, has claimed more than 570,000 lives in the United States alone and upended the lives of every citizen.

Ask any student at this medical school why they want to become a physician, and you’ll likely hear them say how they desire to use medicine to help others. I decided to follow through with that calling and volunteer with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout organized at FSU PrimaryHealth, the College of Medicine’s primary care clinic, established in 2019 to address local community health needs. Through this opportunity I witnessed what it is like to make a difference in the lives of those in our community during an unprecedented time. Health-care leaders, including members of our faculty, are restoring hope through their efforts at FSU PrimaryHealth.

Though I have learned a lot over the past year, I am in a unique place in my training with a long way to go before I have the expertise to help patients medically. Therefore, my role during the vaccine rollout is to be a helping hand so that health-care professionals can safely and effectively deliver the vaccine to patients. Patient education and assistance was one are where I could make a difference.

Patients arrive on the hour each hour, and after filling out the necessary paperwork, receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from medical assistants and nurses. After receiving the first dose, while seated in their vehicle, the patients are directed by medical students to a parking spot where they are monitored for the next 15-20 minutes for side effects. One of my responsibilities is setting a timer so patients know when their monitoring period has ended. I also explain to patients how to set up an appointment for a second dose of the vaccine.

Overseeing the entire process is Dr. Daniel Van Durme, senior associate dean for clinical and community affairs and a physician at FSU PrimaryHealth. He also serves as the university’s chief COVID medical officer, playing a critical role in the vaccine rollout.

“The vaccine rollout in Florida, and in most of the entire country, was a pretty chaotic process,” Van Durme said, noting the registration systems crashes, long waiting lines and the unpredictability of vaccine supplies. “For the first couple months, it was very much ‘get them into arms as quickly as you possibly can’ because we don’t get more shipments until you use up what you’ve got. The whole idea was speed.”

Van Durme spent his after-hours studying the Leon County Health Department’s drive-through vaccine rollout process and developed a plan that was adapted for FSU PrimaryHealth, beginning with a 10-patient, trial-and-error period before opening it up to the community. He quickly realized how unpredictable the supply chain was in the early days of distributing the vaccine.

“Making vaccines is not like making cars, or widgets, or coffee cups, or headphones,” Van Durme said. “It’s extraordinarily complicated and the companies can’t always predict what they are going to get out of batch. We had to take it on faith that we would get second doses from the companies. As more vaccines become available we are starting to pick up those pieces.”

Since vaccine eligibility was extended to all adults over 18 on April 5, FSU PrimaryHealth has been preparing for the increase in demand. The facility now has its own ultra-cold freezer, allowing for storage of the Pfizer vaccine, which can help in maintaining supplies.

Most importantly, FSU PrimaryHealth is making an impact in the zip code with the highest rate of poverty in the state, in a direct effort to carry out the College of Medicine’s mission. The Florida Chamber of Commerce has reported that the 32304 zip code, where FSU PrimaryHealth is located, has more households below the poverty line than any other zip code in the state.

“We knew that we needed to provide vaccines for people who had nowhere else to go,” said Van Durme, who praised the efforts of local agencies, including Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare and the Leon County Health Department, for their roles in a more effective vaccine rollout throughout our community. “The amount of coordination and communication has been absolutely tremendous. I talk to colleagues across the state that say they have nothing like it.”

The process of learning medicine, yet alone beginning to implement that knowledge in a meaningful way, begins with being with patients. Spending time at FSU PrimaryHealth and observing both the obstacles and successes has given me a renewed drive to push through the remaining Zoom lectures as I wrap up my first year.

“Vaccination is the only way out of this pandemic, and the only way to return to something resembling normalcy,” Van Durme said.

For those of us studying at the College of Medicine, normalcy cannot come soon enough, especially with the upcoming Summer Clinical Practicum and other in-person coursework.