Nursing students helping the local community during pandemic

Penn State nursing students have been actively involved in local Covid-19 vaccination efforts, helping local health care providers at numerous vaccination clinics, as well taking part in other community service projects.
By: Josh McAuliffe

DUNMORE, Pa. – Penn State Scranton’s nursing program is often lauded for producing first-rate professionals in the field.

Part of the reason for that sterling reputation is the nursing faculty’s commitment to ensuring students receive the types of real-world learning experiences that will help prepare them for the rigors of the job. While the program’s clinicals have gone virtual this semester, students are nonetheless getting plenty of valuable on-the-job training thanks to the local rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.

More than three dozen nursing students have been volunteering their time at local vaccine clinics, including several mass vaccination sites coordinated by campus alumna Allyson Favuzza and current BSN student Kellen Kraky, co-owners of the recently opened community-based primary care practice, Hometown Health Care of NEPA.

“I love doing this with the kids, especially because we haven’t been able to give them as many clinical experiences over the past year on account of the pandemic,” said Instructor of Nursing Theresa Baker, who along with fellow nursing faculty member Mary Beth Mecca has been overseeing the student volunteers at the Hometown Health Care clinics.

“Getting our students out in the public is a great thing,” Baker continued. “And they’re so good about volunteering – these students are often giving up their Saturdays and Sundays to do this. They’re providing a valuable community service.”

The vaccine clinics have been an “amazing opportunity, to say the least,” said junior nursing student Lucy Adams.

“With our clinical experience being entirely virtual this semester, we are missing out on the much-needed hands-on part of our degree. Being able to participate in vaccinating hundreds of people has definitely given us exposure and experience with communication, teaching and, of course, vaccinating,” Adams said. “A lot of credit should be given to Hometown Health Care for putting on these fantastic operations and also to our nursing faculty for offering us this opportunity and being there with us to teach and offer their experience.”

“It’s been an awesome experience doing these mass vaccine clinics for the community,” added junior Courtney Varcoe. “Getting out there in the clinical setting and doing something like this for the community is a win-win for all of us. It’s amazing to see the excitement that the people have on their faces after you’ve just given them their vaccine, and it gives us a glimpse of hope of getting back to some normalcy in our lives.”

Meanwhile, Instructor of Nursing Annette Blasi-Strubeck and four senior nursing students -- Chelsea DeGrazia, Brittany Hebron, Carissa Lozinger and Summer Czekaj – recently volunteered at a vaccine clinic at Throop Civic Center that was facilitated by Eric Pusey, owner of Medicap Pharmacy in Olyphant. There, the students vaccinated between 175 and 200 people, according to Blasi-Strubeck.

Associate Teaching Professor of Nursing and Program Coordinator Milton Evans, Ph.D., said the vaccine clinics serve a couple of critical functions. On one hand, the students are getting valuable hands-on experience. On the other, their commendable work in such a high-profile setting is itself a valuable endorsement for the program.

“I’m so proud of them,” Evans said. “The thing about nursing is that it’s not just being able to stick someone with a needle. It has a lot to do with communication skills, and being able to listen to and be an advocate for your patients. Nurses are educators – when a nurse comes into a room to give a patient their medication, they’re educating the patient. So, it’s so valuable when our students can go out into a community setting and sit down and talk to people. And if we do well when we go out into the community, the program looks good as a result.”

Hometown Health Care’s first mass vaccination clinic was held in late January at North Pocono High School for about 1,000 area residents eligible for the vaccine under the state’s initial Phase 1A category.

Given the logistics of vaccinating such a large crowd, numerous volunteers were needed. After Baker put the word out to the nursing students, about 36 showed up to assist the effort.

Since then, many of those students have continued to show up for additional clinics at North Pocono, as well as for the recent mass vaccination at The Pavilion at Montage Mountain that was coordinated by Hometown Health Care in conjunction with Lackawanna County. At that all-day event, close to 3,500 people received their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID vaccine.

Most of the student volunteers are juniors and seniors, and all of them have injection capabilities, Baker said.

“These are long days, and there’s a lot of work to do, and our students work really hard. And for us faculty members, it’s great to watch them put into practice what we’ve taught them,” said Baker, noting adjunct nursing faculty member Deborah Lewis also volunteers at the clinics.

In addition to administering vaccines, the students’ duties have included checking IDs and insurance cards at registration tables, assisting with crowd control, wiping down vaccination stations, observing patients in the minutes following vaccination, and walking people to their cars. They’ve even gone out into the parking lot to administer the vaccine to people who couldn’t exit their cars.

“We’ve just been amazed at how well they’ve worked together as a team. You talk about team dynamics; here, you actually see it in motion,” Baker said. “The students’ injection skills are amazing -- rock solid. One person will hold hands and talk to the patient while the other person administers the shot. And they’re so engaged with the patients. They’re talking to them, reassuring them, calming them down. They’ve just been fabulous, and people come up and tell me how great they are. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

Junior nursing student Logan DeSanto views her work at the clinics as a privilege.

“We’re very fortunate to be able to provide the COVID-19 vaccination to so many people who have been waiting to receive it,” DeSanto said. “The team members of Hometown Health Care have been so welcoming and great to work with. And we have some of the best professors around who are willing to take time out of their days to go to these clinics to observe and teach us.”

“This pandemic has been a very unsure and odd time for everyone, so as a nursing student and member of our community, having the opportunity to give some of our citizens the vaccine as well as ease their mind at the same time has been so rewarding,” added junior Lauren Owens. “As nurses, we need to be extremely resilient and flexible, and these clinics have made us just that. We are adapting to what is going on in our environment and doing all we can to help everyone survive it.”

As it happens, the clinics are hardly the only way in which the program is providing a valuable community service.

During the fall semester, the nursing majors held a walk-up flu vaccine clinic for their fellow campus students, and participated in several community events, among them Regional Hospital of Scranton’s Flu Kickoff Campaign.

And, just before Easter, Student Nurses Association (SNA) members Hannah Tolerico and Stacey Pusti delivered care packages and uplifting handwritten messages to the residents at Carbondale Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. The packages included activity and crafting items and hygiene products collected by club members throughout the spring semester.

“Each semester, the SNA club organizes a community outreach event. As the pandemic has greatly impacted long-term care, this is one way the club is reaching out to the residents,” said Assistant Teaching Professor of Nursing and SNA faculty adviser Justina Ferguson.

No matter the venue or the occasion, the students always represent themselves and the campus exceptionally, according to Baker.

“After one of the clinics, I said, ‘I didn’t see student nurses today, I saw Penn State nurses,’” Baker said. “These are great opportunities to show what our students can do. The community knows we put out good nurses. And, better still, our nurses stay here in the community.”

Scranton nursing alumna and student build primary care practice while coordinating vaccine clinics

DUNMORE, Pa. – It would be an understatement to say that Allyson Favuzza and Kellen Kraky have been busy since opening Hometown Health Care of NEPA, their new community-based primary care practice, at the beginning of this year.

The two Penn State alumni have been on the frontlines of northeast Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution, hosting some of the region’s biggest mass vaccination clinics over the past few months.

Favuzza and Kraky have coordinated several mass vaccinations at North Pocono High School, located near their Covington Twp. office. And, in late March, they teamed up with Lackawanna County to successfully administer the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to close to 3,500 area residents at The Pavilion at Montage Mountain.

And they’re not stopping anytime soon. On April 28, they’ll be back at Montage administering another 3,500 first doses of the Pfizer vaccine to area residents ages 16 and older. As has been the case with all of Hometown Health Care’s mass vaccination clinics, students and faculty from Penn State Scranton’s nursing program will be on hand as volunteers.

Lack of rest aside, Favuzza and Kraky wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

“That’s what we’re here to do – take care of the population. So, there’s nothing better than to be able to do that on the level that we have been,” said Favuzza, a family nurse practitioner who has received all four of her nursing degrees – associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctor of nursing practice -- from the campus, the College of Nursing and Penn State World Campus.

“Overall, it’s been going very well. The clinics have been a big success, and the feedback we’ve received has been so positive,” added Kraky, who received her bachelor’s degree in biobehavioral health from University Park and is now finishing up her second bachelor’s degree in nursing at the campus.

“It’s been amazing to see people’s reactions as they’re getting their vaccines,” Kraky continued. “A lot of them are elderly people who haven’t seen their grandchildren in a year. We’ve had people cry. They’re just so thankful and that just makes the process so rewarding. It’s infectious.”

Favuzza and Kraky were both quick to praise their partners in the mass vaccination efforts, among them the Lackawanna County Area Agency on Aging, North Pocono School District and, of course, the campus nursing program, from the numerous student volunteers to faculty members Theresa Baker, Mary Beth Mecca and Deborah Lewis.

“They’ve been awesome to work with, and we’ve had so much feedback from the public on how great the students have been,” Kraky said. ”From administering the vaccine to their overall bedside manner with the patients, they’ve just been invaluable to us.”

“The clinics have been extremely well run,” Baker said. “And, to see what Ally and Kellen are accomplishing, it makes you realize you’re doing the right thing as an educator.”

“Kellen’s an all-around terrific student – she’s very mature, very professional and just a great human. And Ally is someone you would want to put up on a poster for the program,” noted Associate Teaching Professor of Nursing and Program Coordinator Milton Evans. “Certainly, they’re both wonderful representatives of our program.”

The respect is mutual.

“While Penn State is the only nursing program I experienced as a student, I precept students from all over the place, and I teach at two colleges. Not to be partial, but I think at Penn State you come out a little more prepared, because you get more experience,” said Favuzza as she praised the faculty, including Dr. Michael Evans, assistant dean for undergraduate nursing education at the Commonwealth Campuses for the College of Nursing and an associate teaching professor of nursing.

“Mike Evans is a big reason I’m where I am today. He played a big part in my decision to continue my nursing education, and I owe him a lot,” Favuzza said.

“A Penn State degree in general is a great thing, and the amount of support you get from the nursing program is excellent,” Kraky said. “The faculty all have their own niches, and they teach us so much. And they get to know us, which I think is so important. There’s a real sense of community you get from a program like that.”

Favuzza and Kraky first met several years ago while working together at the Wright Center for Community Health, where they bonded over their shared passion for patient care.

Ultimately, that passion helped drive their decision to open their own primary practice, a dream realized in January following a lot of hard work, which included completely renovating their office with the help of family and friends.

Open six days a week, Hometown Health Care already has about 1,000 patients. And it’s only likely to grow in the wake of the vaccine clinics, which is why Favuzza and Kraky are in the process of bringing on additional staff.

“Between vaccinating people and the amount of great PR we’ve been getting, everyone is getting to know our name and where we are. Which is a good problem to have,” Favuzza said. “And we’re getting to do what we like -- take care of our patients and take care of the community.”

“Moving from that corporate medicine feel and towards more of a community health model where you know all of your patients by name and they don’t feel like they’re just a number, that’s why our phones are ringing off the hook,” Kraky said.

And Favuzza is paying back her alma mater, precepting several campus nursing students this semester.

“She’s bringing the next generation forward,” Baker said. “Looking back at Allyson as a student nurse, you knew she was going to do great things. She had the drive, the smarts, the compassion.”

As it happens, Favuzza has also been quite the mentor to her business partner.

“Allyson is probably the smartest person I know,” Kraky said. “Her passion and excitement has really translated to me, and her knowledge in the field is unmatched. She’s a big reason I went back to school for nursing.”

And Kraky plans to continue following Favuzza’s lead. In the fall, she intends to begin pursuing her nurse practitioner certification at Penn State.

For now, though, the business partners will continue building their practice, while also doing their part to bring the region back to some semblance of normalcy, one COVID-19 vaccination at a time.

“It’s amazing to come to our office every day and have this be all ours,” Kraky said. “It makes all the hard work worth it.”