Governor, U.S. senators come to Quinnipiac to celebrate success of Public Health College Corps

August 24, 2021

Elected officials speak with President Judy Olian in the Mount Carmel Auditorium.

A moment of urgency became a time of opportunity this summer for Quinnipiac students and the Connecticut Public Health College Corps.

A moment of urgency became a time of opportunity this summer for Quinnipiac students and the Connecticut Public Health College Corps.

For five weeks, 110 college students from Quinnipiac and other universities spoke with their vaccination-hesitant peers about the COVID-19 vaccine. They listened, nodded, and shared facts.

Most of all, they motivated many young people across the state to get their COVID-19 shots.

On Tuesday, the groundbreaking work of the Connecticut Public Health College Corps was recognized by several state and federal leaders, including U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Gov. Ned Lamont. The guests also included President Judy Olian, School of Health Sciences Dean Janelle Chiasera and Hamden Mayor Curt Leng.

Batool Naqvi ’22, a health science studies major at Quinnipiac, told the delegation about her time working in the neighborhoods of New Haven.

“When I was talking with peers around the same age as me, they were more afraid of the long-term side effects of this vaccine,” Naqvi told the leaders. “They weren’t sure what was going to happen 15 to 20 years from now, even though the vaccine had been rolled out for a year.”

Naqvi heard the concerns and shared the science with her peers. On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued full approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, erasing a frequent concern of many young people.

“You have been very impactful in this summer job,” Olian told the students. “As I said to you at the outset when we first met, there are very few people who can say they saved lives over the summer. You did that, so thank you.”

Chiasera said it’s possible that the college corps could expand its work to other needs around the state. “There is a model here now that we can use to get our students out there to help our communities face some pressing issues, such as health equity, opioid addiction, mental health and substance abuse,” she said.

Murphy said Connecticut’s leadership during the pandemic, including the formation of the College Corps, has been an inspiration for the country. He said 64 to 65 percent of people in the 18-24 age group in Connecticut have been vaccinated. “But it’s not good enough, we still have a lot of work to do. Nine out of 10 patients in ICUs in Connecticut are unvaccinated. That tells you all you need to know about the protection from having this vaccine,” he noted.

“I’m intrigued by the idea of the platform and the model to take on other lingering issues and crises in the state,” Murphy said. “I’m glad that you’re thinking big, but we need to be really clear. It’s OK that you have questions. It’s OK to want to know all the information.”

Over days and weeks this summer, it became more than a calling for the Connecticut Public Health College Corps. It became a mission of kindness and compassion.
“I’ve watched you guys at work in so many clinics,” Blumenthal said, pointing to one last Friday in Hartford. “I’ve seen you emotionally embrace people with doubts and questions. It’s amazing.”

The Connecticut Public Health College Corps was formed as a partnership between Quinnipiac and the state Department of Public Health. The Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges (CCIC) was a liaison between the state Department of Public Health and Quinnipiac and played a vital role in enabling the partnership. The University of Connecticut, Mitchell College and Capital Community College were among the other participating schools. Students were trained by Quinnipiac faculty for a week, and they said it really paid off.

Gabriella Montenegro, a senior health science studies major at Quinnipiac, handed out flyers with vaccination clinic locations and talked to the vaccine hesitant at shopping plazas and outside businesses in Bridgeport. “We had iPads with us to make appointments for people, and we also told them about clinics where you didn’t need an appointment,” she said.

Montenegro said most of the people she met expressed concerns about how fast the vaccines were produced and said they didn’t have enough information about long-term effects.

“In talking with people teetering on the edge of whether to get vaccinated or not, I was able to give them the facts, and I did change some people’s minds, as we got a lot of signups during our five weeks,” she said, adding that during her last week on the job, she visited a vaccination clinic on East Main Street in Bridgeport. “We got to see people getting their vaccines, and it was rewarding to see our hard work pay off,” she said.

Naqvi mentioned that some people she spoke with said working and childcare duties prevented them from getting to a clinic during daytime hours. “They don’t have the time to take off from work or take a day off to recover, but the New Haven Green vaccination site was available every day, and a single mother went during her lunch hour. That resonated with me, and I think having more clinics with more flexible hours would be beneficial going forward.”

Another corps participant, Joe Pearl, remarked that fear sparked by “medical racism” was very real in some of the areas he canvassed. “But we are not seen as imposing figures trying to force the vaccine on people … we can be a resource for trying to understand why they are afraid and work backward from there.”

Gov. Ned Lamont praised the students for “listening, caring and being in the community.” He also quoted the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt for summing up their outreach mission: “Nobody cares what you know until they know that you care.”

Heather Aaron, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Public Health, said the work of the Connecticut Public Health College Corps and others has raised the bar, but there is still much work to do, especially in communities of color.

Lamont said the good work of the corps illustrates that the internet may not be the most effective way to send the message.

“You have to look people in the eye — you knew how important that was. Our infection rates sort of flattened out the last few weeks, thanks to you, and I’d love to have you stay involved — maybe by calling some of the folks who got that first shot who now trust you and know you — and remind them why the next shot is really so important,” he said.

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