Local Community College Role In COVID-19 Response And Vaccinations Feature Story

March 30, 2021

The way North Orange Continuing Education instructor Dr. Julie Shields sees it, volunteering to help vaccinate some 450 people against COVID-19 at an outdoor clinic in Aliso Viejo was the least she could do in the fight against a pandemic that has claimed approximately 550,000 American lives.

“I teach, but I’m also a healthcare provider and I went into healthcare because I wanted to help people,” said Shields, who teaches in the Pharmacy Technician Program at North Orange Continuing Education and in the Pharmacy Department at Cerritos College. “People were so grateful, they’re thanking you and you’re just saying, ‘No, thank you for coming in for your vaccination so we can beat this thing.’ I’m just thrilled to do what I can to be part of the solution.”

Colleges throughout Orange County have been part of the solution since the pandemic began. Santa Ana College, for example, opened its campus to house a vaccination site on February 17 to serve residents of high-risk Santa Ana, Anaheim and Garden Grove neighborhoods that have seen some of the highest COVID-19 rates in the region. 

“It’s a really good strategic move to put this (vaccination) center in this city and this community that has been hit so hard,” Rancho Santiago Community College District Chancellor Marvin Martinez told the Orange County Register. “The community here is very familiar with the college, they feel safe, they feel that it’s a credible, legitimate institution and they feel really comfortable coming to the campus.” 

In addition, Orange County Department of Education is operating vaccination pods in partnership with local school districts. And with clinical hours for nursing students at a premium during the height of the pandemic, the Golden West College Nursing Program evolved its curriculum to take advantage of a series of community-based clinical sites that are not only supporting pandemic response efforts but also getting students the critical hands-on hours necessary to meet state licensure requirements.

“Replacing clinical hours has been the biggest hurdle for nursing programs across the country,” says Associate Dean and Director of Golden West College’s Nursing Program, Dr. Alice Martanegara. “I’m so proud of our program and our community partners for coming together so we could solve this problem in a way that benefits students and the community.”

Martanegara, who noted the entire cohort of 45 Golden West College Nursing Program students returned to on-campus labs in the fall and will be graduating on time this spring, said students have been working at vaccination sites and caring for COVID-19 patients through partnerships with in-home providers. “There are a lot of people with COVID with underlying conditions who are in need of medical care but who have been told to stay home,” Martanegara said. “Our nursing students have been there for them.”

Said Shields: “Our attitude is not one of, ‘Here’s the class, take a test, now go into healthcare.’ There’s a lot that goes into training to become a healthcare practitioner.”

Healthcare practitioners can also earn a solid salary. Pharmacy technicians in the region are earning an average wage of more than $45,000 annually, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, and registered nurses are earning an average wage of more than $106,000.

But for those at Orange County community colleges, being a healthcare provider is about more than a salary. Shields plans to return for another daylong shift of volunteering to vaccinate residents soon. “I want to help,” she said.