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Upstate staff at the farmer's market.

Led by students, Upstate mobile vaccine clinic offered COVID-19 doses to area’s most vulnerable

Over the course of several rainy, muggy summer months in Syracuse, a team from Upstate Medical University trekked across the city offering COVID-19 vaccines to people who might otherwise have trouble accessing the shot. The team of medical students, mentored by self-described Upstate “street doctor” Sunny Aslam, MD, approached homeless people, visited shelters and went door-to-door in some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable neighborhoods.

Much like the vaccine debate raging across the country, reactions to their visits were mixed, said Aslam and Mobile Vaccination Clinic Coordinator Elana Sitnik, a second-year medical student at Upstate.

“We were either saints or devils,” Sitnik said of how people responded to being offered the vaccine. “Overall, however, it was very successful and most people were very receptive.”

From May until mid-August, the mobile vaccine clinic staff of Aslam and four students – armed with a cooler of vaccines and little else – spent every Tuesday canvassing the community for willing recipients. During that time, they administered the vaccine to 164 people. The majority received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Sitnik said, with some opting for the Pfizer vaccine at the end of the summer.

Sitnik, who is also pursuing her master’s in public health while at Upstate, said she was eager to get involved in the project when Aslam approached her about it in the spring. Having worked in an emergency department in Philadelphia prior to coming to Upstate, Sitnik said her background prepared her for this unique experience during the health crisis of a generation.

“It was a really great experience for me,” she said. “It also reaffirms that I’m in the right place since these opportunities are available to students. There are people at Upstate who care and are putting so much effort into making this happen. And as president of Students for National Health Plan (SNAP) I spend a lot of energy trying to convince people that universal health care is a good thing. So it was nice to be out there providing universal health care as opposed to just debating people about it.”

Learning about public health in the classroom is one thing; experiencing it first-hand is another. Sitnik said she was struck by many of the stories she encountered in the field. One woman said she wanted the vaccine but her daughter was too busy working to bring her to get it. Another man worked overnight at a pharmacy and was always too tired after his shift to stay late and get the shot. Both appreciated Upstate’s clinic coming to them, Sitnik said.  

“People were saying we feel overlooked and we appreciate you seeing us and providing us with this,” she said. “And the people who were most excited about seeing us were the people who already had their vaccines.”

Sitnik and Aslam said the mobile clinic’s role was to offer the vaccine to those who might have trouble accessing it otherwise. The team also visited shut-ins and elderly in suburban and rural parts of the county and answered questions at the downtown farmer’s market.

“We weren’t interested in persuading anyone,” she said. “We were really just there to offer it and answer questions. And not involve ourselves in anything that was even close to confrontational.”

Aslam launched the project with fellow Upstate doctor David Lehmann, MD, who provides medical care to the homeless throughout Onondaga County. Aslam said addiction and pain medicine administrative staff Tiffany Senke and Vishal Anugu were also instrumental in coordinating the clinic. Aslam’s goal was to put Upstate medical students in charge of the clinic to put their experience into their hands.

“We’re always teaching our students about leadership, about public health and population health and this is a once-in-a-century event,” Aslam said. “And now these folks will be able to say, ‘yes, I ran a mobile COVID vaccination team in Syracuse.’ This type of experience is something no one will ever be able to take away from them; they vaccinated some of the most vulnerable people and contributed to public health.”

Caption: Upstate Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Sunny Aslam, MD with Upstate medical students Robertha Barnes and Kasia Rybczyk at the downtown farmer’s market to answer questions about the COVID-19 vaccine.