Assistant Dean Leads Pharmacy School in Mass Vaccination Initiative

Zara Risoldi Cochrane, PharmD, leads a school of pharmacy initiative to vaccinate people living in the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia.

In the early days of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Zara Risoldi Cochrane, PharmD, and colleagues at Shenandoah University School of Pharmacy had to be ready to act quickly whenever a shipment arrived. Several pharmacists would be sitting in a meeting, Risoldi Cochrane recalls, when phones would start to ping.

“They’d say, ‘We’ve got vaccine coming. We need volunteers.’ You’d see pharmacists rush out of the meeting and head over to the clinic to participate. That’s how important this is to us,” said Risoldi Cochrane, assistant dean of student affairs.

Initially, predicting the size and timing of vaccine shipments was difficult, but that didn’t deter the fully volunteer effort that has led to vaccination of more than 36,000 people in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and beyond. The vaccine clinics relied on participation by student pharmacists, who had recently earned expanded authorization to vaccinate in the state, and the assistance of health care professionals who came out of retirement to pitch in.

Shenandoah University students, faculty, and staff volunteered to support clinics in collaboration with two regional health care systems—Valley Health and Inova. The university also applied to the Virginia Department of Health to be a vaccine provider and partnered with Valley Health to run a large community-based vaccination clinic on campus at the athletics and event center, where they vaccinated 1,200 to 1,500 people a day.

“We were only able to pull this off because we are a trusted partner in the community,” Risoldi Cochrane said. “When it comes to countering vaccine hesitancy, it’s all about trust.”

As a proven health advisor in the community, the Shenandoah University School of Pharmacy has fielded countless questions about the vaccine over the last seven months. “When [patients] know there’s a pharmacy school on campus, they pop over or send an email to say, ‘I have some concerns about this.’ We get all those questions,” Risoldi Cochrane said.

The pharmacists are prepared to address any question or concern that potential patients send to them. Most often, people express skepticism about how a vaccine could be developed, approved, manufactured, and distributed so quickly. Risoldi Cochrane is quick to point out the many factors that aligned to make this possible.

Practice Pearl

Listen and respond to patients’ values—what they care about and what they need right now—when recommending vaccination against COVID-19.

Learn more

Risoldi Cochrane explains that the mRNA technology that powers the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines had already been in development for many years; it was not initiated in response to COVID-19. Researchers and health care providers openly shared data and research about COVID-19 with one another. While lack of funding often drags out the drug approval process, this was not an issue with these vaccines. The government provided funding that allowed pharmaceutical companies to conduct steps simultaneously to develop and stockpile the vaccines before they were authorized, which meant no lag time between the Food and Drug Administration issuing the Emergency Use Authorization and the vaccine rollout. Filling the clinical trials with willing volunteers was not a problem because of the global focus on the virus.

When answering vaccine questions, Risoldi Cochrane uses this approach: She listens to patient concerns and responds with the facts. She also tries to speak directly to their values.

Recently, an older adult shared his fears about potential unknown side effects of the vaccine. After explaining what’s known about vaccine side effects and weighing the risk of side effects against the risk of contracting COVID-19, Risoldi Cochrane asked him what he had missed most during the pandemic. His answer was swift, “My grandchildren.” She responded that two weeks after the second dose, he’d be fully vaccinated, and it would be safe to get together with people again.

“That’s when he agreed to get the vaccine,” Risoldi Cochrane said. “You’ve got to bring it back to each individual’s values, what they care about, what they need right now.”

Details on the vaccine development and approval process are available by clicking the hyperlink.