When the Fort Washington Armory opened as a COVID-19 vaccination site in January 2021, Carly Galitz and Jennifer Shahar, both third-year DDS students at the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine (CDM), were among its first volunteer vaccinators.
“It was such an eye-opening experience,” said Shahar, and it was in part what motivated them to become “vaccine champions”—members of the Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) committed to educating others about COVID-19 and promoting vaccination. The two students also took inspiration and encouragement from an early success with Shahar’s father.
“He was hesitant about the vaccine,” said Galitz. “But when Jen explained it to him simply, he said, ‘Oh, okay, it makes sense. Sure, I’ll get that.’ So we thought if we could do that with everyone, maybe more people would understand that it’s not as scary as it might seem and be more open to it.”
In an effort to educate dental patients and the wider public, Galitz and Shahar produced an animated video, with English and Spanish versions, to present the fundamentals of COVID-19 vaccination such as antibodies and herd immunity “in a fun, easy way,” said Shahar. The video is posted across the College of Dental Medicine’s website.
As part of the CUIMC Vaccine Champion program, Galitz and Shahar received training on how to coach others one-on-one and support people who are hesitant to receive the vaccine. They serve as a resource for CDM employees and students with vaccination questions and help arrange vaccination opportunities. Galitz and Shahar have organized training sessions for other dental students to administer vaccines as well, now a group of around 50.
“Another thing that we’re trying to do is make a more streamlined way to find leftover vaccine doses,” said Galitz. “That way we can let our students know that if your patient is in your chair and wants a vaccine, they can go down to the Black Building right now and get it done.” The vaccination process can be complicated for patients, she said, and having students facilitate could make it much easier.
The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled a larger conversation about dentists’ involvement in the public health sphere. Many conditions are intertwined with oral health, and dentists may already counsel patients on tobacco cessation, hypertension, and diabetes. In Galitz and Shahar’s view, because most people see their dentist frequently, extending that role to discussing and administering vaccines for COVID-19—and other diseases such as HPV—makes sense.
“Now dentists can do this, and we should get the ball rolling because it’s necessary right now. It’s such a large task to reach herd immunity, and we see so many patients every day in our clinic,” said Shahar. “If I can convince one extra person to get vaccinated, or at least start a conversation, I think that’s a success.”