Virginia Tech is hard at work preparing for an in-person fall semester, and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine has helped contribute to this “new normal,” vaccinating not our furry friends, but human members of our community. Full vaccination against COVID-19 is vital for the health of Hokie Nation and beyond. 

The college’s students, faculty, and staff have volunteered in our communities well before the COVID-19 pandemic, so it came to no surprise that so many sprang into action to help the vaccination effort. 

“Public health classes were mainly online, but we got to spend a lot of time together because so many were working at the vaccination clinics,” said Laura Hungerford, head of the Department of Population Health Sciences and professor of veterinary public health and epidemiology. Hungerford helped organize vaccination efforts for the college’s veterinarians and veterinary students. “College volunteers were on the front lines of testing, vaccinating, and educating the community from the start. They used their public health knowledge of masking, distancing, and hygiene to stay safe while changing the course of the pandemic.”

On April 2, 2021, Gov. Ralph Northam signed House Bill 2333, which expanded the pool of health care providers eligible to administer the COVID-19 vaccine in Virginia, including veterinarians. These newly eligible vaccinators registered with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), where they received additional training and joined college pharmacists who were already serving as vaccinators.

Rachael Carpenter, clinical instructor of anesthesiology in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, volunteered at various vaccination sites in Christiansburg, Virginia. She said that people were entertained to find out she was not a traditional vaccinator. 

"I get a lot of people saying, ‘I did not even feel it, you did it already, you are really good at this,’ so I tell them a little secret: I am a veterinarian, and my patients bite so I have to be quick.”

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of One Health, an approach to public health that highlights the interdependence of humans, animals, and the environment. Having veterinary medicine and public health in the same college provides a unique One Health approach to addressing public health issues. 

The college’s emphasis on One Health means that students studying veterinary medicine can also complete their Master of Public Health — students like Julia Utting. For Utting, the decision to become a vaccinator was an easy one. As a student earning her Master of Public Health, she had already signed up to be a volunteer with the MRC. 

"It was the perfect opportunity to help make an impact on this pandemic in the community, combine my interests of public health and One Health, and get experience in a field I never thought I would have the chance to get involved in. I think the contributions that veterinarians and vet students are making to public health by helping to vaccinate bring to light how all fields of health are intertwined and need to work together."

During her time as a vaccinator, Vanessa Oakes BS '12, DVM '16, MPH '16, clinical instructor of anatomic pathology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology (DBSP), worked with a variety of health care professionals. 

"We've got veterinarians, we've got physicians, we've got members from the rescue squad and nurses, and it's just really demonstrated how the health care community works so well together. So that has been really awesome to see and observe and be part of.”

Tanya LeRoith, DBSP clinical professor of anatomic pathology, emphasized the importance of vaccination. 

“Why do I spend a day [a week] vaccinating when it means I have to spend nights and weekends catching up with work? Because the vaccines are safe, effective, and the only way this pandemic ends without more lives lost.” 

To Oakes, being a vaccinator means making a healthier future for her beloved community. 

"This community means a lot to me particularly, and I like that I can use the skills that I learned here to give back to the community that helped raise me here.”

Thanks to the hard work of vaccinators and other health care professionals, Montgomery County has one of the highest vaccination rates in Southwest Virginia.

— Written by Sarah Boudreau MFA '21

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