Pharmacist Brings COVID-19 Vaccines to Kids Lost in the System
Joel Thornbury, RPh, with then student pharmacist Kristen Coleman, now PharmD, at a vaccine clinic at Duff-Allen Central Elementary School in Eastern, Kentucky, held in the wake of massive floods in the region during 2022. The gymnasium served as a clinic for vaccinations and basic medical care and a distribution center for food and clothing.
Nearly 1 in 10 children in the state of Kentucky are being raised by a grandparent or another relative other than a biological parent—more than double the national average of about 1 in 25. Joel Thornbury, RPh, sees the effects of this daily in eastern Kentucky, an area where opioids and methamphetamine continue to take lives and separate families.
“Our communities continue to be devastated by substance use disorder, leading to a disproportionate rate of overdose deaths in Appalachia. The opioid epidemic has led to countless children being reared by grandparents or even great-grandparents, in some cases,” said Thornbury, who is a concierge pharmacist at NOVA Pharmacy in Pikeville, Kentucky.
With scores of kids thrust into homes that are sometimes ill-prepared to receive them, many end up years behind on recommended vaccines. “Sometimes when the school health aide runs the report of who’s missing vaccines, 150 kids may show up on it,” Thornbury said. Many of these children, he adds, do not have a pediatrician or family doctor and live with relatives or foster parents.
Thornbury has partnered with three rural schools, where kids are particularly far behind on vaccinations, to bring COVID-19 vaccines and other vaccines directly to students and teachers. The school sends consent forms home with the children. When the children bring their forms back, they are called out of class to get the needed vaccinations.
“My goal with these partnerships is to provide convenient access to a health care provider. The vaccine clinics get these kids up to date on immunizations and help keep them in school to receive the most important thing—an education!” explained Thornbury.
School gymnasiums, cafeterias, teacher break rooms, and even supply closets have served as improvised vaccination venues for Thornbury—and all the while, he’s gaining the trust of once-skeptical teachers and turning young students into allies.
Increase vaccine confidence by calling your local health department, reaching out to local schools, and offering to help.
When administering shots in teachers’ lounges, Thornbury overhears a lot of chatter: teachers who won’t get another dose of a COVID-19 vaccine because it “almost killed” them the last time or because they heard it contains a government tracking device, among other misinformation.
Undaunted, Thornbury joins in these conversations week after week. For the teachers who say they’re done getting additional doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, Thornbury reminds them that it is a virus like any other that could sweep through their school, and they should do what’s possible to prevent that. For those who buy into rumors like the one about microchipped vaccines, Thornbury offers that the smartphones they carry with them at all times can track their whereabouts but the COVID-19 vaccine cannot.
“Slowly but surely, those small interactions lead to ‘I’m not going to get it today, but I will do it next month when you come back,’” Thornbury said. “Or, perhaps, one teacher asks for a flu shot. Then another asks for a shingles shot. Eventually, one asks for a COVID vaccine.”
“Then the rest of them watch and they see how that teacher reacts to the COVID vaccine, and they decide they’ll go ahead and get it, too,” Thornbury said.
Children bolster vaccine confidence in each other in much the same way. Thornbury recalls one of the most memorable experiences he has had since bringing vaccines to the rural public schools. Two girls, about 6 years old, reported to the school vaccine clinic together—to hold each other’s hands.
Teary eyed, the first girl went with Thornbury to get vaccinated. Once she’d gotten her shots, Thornbury says, she went out into the hallway to get her friend. Leading her by the hand to get vaccinated, the first girl explained to the second girl that it actually wasn’t that bad.
“She’d become the advocate.”
Community Outreach Tools and resources to Know What Drives Vaccine Confidence are available at APhA’s Vaccine Confident microsite.