Infection control internships help students, health services

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As the fall 2009 semester loomed at Pennsylvania State University, it became clear to Shelley Haffner that she needed extra help in order to respond to the threat of novel H1N1 influenza on campus. Haffner is the infection control nurse manager at University Health Service, and the person responsible for infection control and prevention.

Fortunately, Pennsylvania State University has a School of Nursing and a School of Health Policy Administration, two sources of student help for Haffner. A message was sent through those departments seeking a student intern. She wound up with four interns: three senior nursing students and one senior health policy and administration student. All four students were undergraduates.

Haffner's interns were invaluable in responding to the pandemic threat on campus, she said. They helped collect data, helped run the flu clinics and were generally "a tremendous asset," she said. They even donned a human-sized green germ costume at public events around campus to promote awareness of H1N1 influenza.

Lauren Zaun was a senior majoring in nursing when she was selected as an intern. She did a number of activities, including extensive planning for the vaccine clinics and repeatedly donning a Flu Bug costume to talk about prevention strategies and vaccination.

The Flu Bug made its debut at the Homecoming parade, which meant that Zaun spent her last Homecoming in a large green costume.
"It was kind of like a new Disney character. It got a lot of attention. A lot of people knew it was the flu; others thought it was a sick frog," Zaun said. "When we were handing out fliers, people would say things like 'Oh, I have to take one from the bug.'"

Many students wanted to be photographed with Flu Bug, while others felt badly for Zaun and so took her handouts. "It was interesting," Zaun said. "I never got the flu, but I didn't mind being the flu."

The student interns focused heavily on encouraging vaccine uptake, Haffner said. For example, they targeted a large dance marathon called "THON" that occurs on campus. THON features students dancing for 46 hours to raise money for children undergoing cancer treatment and children in remission. The event, which raises millions of dollars, also features a confluence of vulnerable people-college-age students, children in remission and the families of children with cancer. The infection control interns helped raise awareness and push vaccination among THON participants before the event to reduce the risk of contracting or spreading influenza.

"I didn't want to see THON not happen because students didn't want to get immunized," Zaun said. "We really had to spread the word that if you were sick, not to come to THON."

Although Haffner does not have data showing how many of the THON students were vaccinated, she said the interns' campaign to vaccinate THON participants was effective, and noted that "students will listen to other students."

From the student perspective, that communication was still a challenge. "College students are a hard population-they were up there in risk for H1N1, so it was extremely important that (they) knew what was going on," Zaun said. "To try to get them to care about flu was a big process."

The nursing students worked eight hours a week each and got two credits; Health Policy and Administration senior Ann Miller worked 12 hours a week and received three credits. Haffner got an extra 36 hours of help each week; the students got academic credit and real-life experience responding to a pandemic.

For Miller, the internship was a life-changing experience. "Through the internship and doing a lot of patient education, I decided that nursing was where I should be," Miller said. "It was the most beneficial experience of my college career." She is applying to accelerated nursing programs and aspires to be a nurse practitioner.

"I think I did more research for that internship than I did work for my classes, making sure I understood the ins and outs of influenza and the ins and outs of vaccinations," Miller said. "I got more out of it than I could have dreamed. A complete career choice came out of it."

"It was also rewarding to work with a staff that really wanted you there. The health services at Penn State thanked the students constantly. That was rewarding, to know we were needed and wanted."

Haffner described the infection control internships as a "win-win" situation. "I got the additional help that we desperately needed, and they got additional education," she said. "It is absolutely wonderful."

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