A Penn State course gave students who are working through the COVID-19 pandemic the chance to learn the science of the vaccine in real time as it was rolled out in the U.S. and across the world.

“Vaccines, Immunity, and Homeland Security: Case Study of the SARS-COV-2 Pandemic” was offered this spring as a special topics public health preparedness course, PHP 597. Lessons explored vaccine development, the body’s immunological response to it, laws and policies related to vaccines, vaccine diplomacy, and more. 

Public health preparedness is an option of the Master of Professional Studies in Homeland Security offered online by the Penn State College of Medicine through Penn State World Campus. 

“Every week this course enhanced my knowledge of this virus and the nation and world’s response to the pandemic, and every week I was able to apply what I learned in this course to my profession,” said Kelly Hollenbeak, a nurse with Penn State Health who worked in a variety of roles during the pandemic, including vaccine advising, COVID screening, and working at a vaccination site. 

“As a health care worker, this course could not have been more relevant,” she said.

Students in the course have jobs in public health or health care, and COVID has impacted the scope of their jobs or the way they do them, said Gene Lengerich, one of the instructors and the faculty director of the public health preparedness option. Lengerich co-taught with Jennifer Osetek, assistant professor of public health.

A dose of the COVID-19 vaccine sits on a tabletop

“This was really an opportunity to dig very deep into what the latest news and science was regarding the vaccine,” Lengerich said. “We then used that science and data, which was changing on a daily basis, to assess public health practice and policy.”

The students and instructors also met once a week for a live discussion that was recorded for students to watch later if they could not attend. Guest speakers included a retired epidemiologist who volunteered with the Moderna clinical trials and a community health department representative who was working on vaccine access and hesitancy in underserved communities.  

Graciella McBrearty, who works in community health in Philadelphia, took the course to learn more about the U.S.’s large-scale campaign to distribute the vaccine. In her job, McBrearty helps ensure access to support and resources for people who receive Medicaid and Medicare.

McBrearty said she wanted to be knowledgeable about how to best answer questions about the vaccine from clients. Some clients, for example, did not understand the difference between the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the two-shot vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.

Erika Christiansen, who works as a medical office associate for Penn State Health, said the course has helped her better understand the decisions that organizations have had to make during the pandemic. She said she appreciated the opportunity to interact with experts and students who work in other fields.

“Our professors and instructors have given us such a unique opportunity to participate in debates and discussions and learn from experts about the pandemic as it develops,” said Christiansen, who took the course for the master’s degree in public health through the College of Medicine. She also received the Graduate Certificate in Public Health Preparedness through her studies. 

An immunization card for COVID-19 vaccine is shown

Austin Boccardi said he took the course to gain exposure and experience for a position he hopes to get: emergency manager for a hospital. Boccardi, who is currently a hospital security officer in Allentown, Pennsylvania, said he learned the importance of clear and consistent communication to the public and the media.

He also learned the value of thinking through response plans before they are initiated.

“Our actions cause ripple effects, so it is important to consider what those effects may be and what they may do,” Boccardi said. “While it is vital that we control this virus to the best of our abilities, we must recognize that our responses may affect other aspects of health, such as mental health.”

The program plans to offer the course again in Penn State’s fall semester and will update the topics to address the state of the vaccines, with topics including the pediatric vaccination campaign and perceptions of the vaccine. Osetek, one of the instructors, hopes the class could become a permanent addition to the course list.

She said students’ feedback has been positive. 

“It’s really gratifying to hear our students say they have experiences that they can use right away,” she said. “It’s something they can turn around and use every day and help us get a handle on this pandemic.”

Learn more about the master’s degree and certificate programs on the public health preparedness website.