When COVID-19 struck, Caleb Armendariz leaped at the chance to help others.
The fourth-year biological sciences major, who volunteers in the emergency room of Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, signed up to help administer COVID-19 tests back when those were in demand. Then, about a month ago, he volunteered to help hospital staff when they started administering vaccines.
“It really was a fun opportunity to be part of the whole process,” he said. “Getting the community vaccinated was awesome.”
But two conversations with friends helped him realize that there was work that could be done within the campus community too.
One friend told him they hadn’t gotten a vaccine yet because they’d heard so many stories about how difficult it was to sign up. Another had heard so much misinformation that they weren’t sure if they should even get the shot.
“I started thinking about other students who might not be aware of how easy it is to get vaccinated, or think, ‘I’ll do it later, it’s not important to me,’” Armendariz said. “And how many people, if they just had a couple question answered, would hop on board with the opportunity to get the vaccine?”
Those experiences spurred Armendariz to set up a vaccine awareness campaign on campus: with the help of microbiology and immunology Professor Candace Winstead, he connected with organizations including Campus Health and Wellbeing and the Department of Emergency Management to develop a plan and put it in motion.
Every weekday for the first two weeks of May, he and members of the Cal Poly chapter of the American Medical Students Association sat at a table outside the PAC, ready to answer questions and help get students signed up for shots.
“It's been an awesome experience communicating and spreading factual information,” he said. “I feel like everyone at this point who really wants the vaccine has got it. Now we want to get those people who haven’t been vaccinated, it’s a big priority for public health.”
One of the most heartening things about the experience was seeing how many students have already been fully vaccinated, who have received at least one dose or who already have an appointment scheduled.
“I was surprised how few people said they hadn’t received their vaccine yet. It’s still very exciting, but obviously we can’t stop yet,” Armendariz said. “We want to get those last few people who are kind of holding off right now.”
Winstead said that during the quarter, she’s discussed the importance of communicating science to a broader audience with students in BIO 426: Immunology. She’s invited students to share their own strategies around communicating science to others and shared her own work around issues of vaccine access and hesitancy as part of the San Luis Obispo County Health Commission.
“Not only did Caleb have ideas about how to approach his fellow students, but he also had the energy to put together a sign-up list and he just got out there and signed students up!" Winstead said. “I think it's just fantastic that Caleb and several other students were able to connect our class discussions with real world advocacy in time to make a difference for their community.”
Armendariz emphasized that he was only able to start the awareness campaign through the support of Winstead, the campus community and the staff at Sierra Vista, who helped him move it forward.
“I have a strong interest in healthcare and the wellbeing of my community, and right now my community is SLO, it’s Cal Poly,” Armendariz said. “I myself want everything to go back to the way it was before COVID-19, and the only way we can do that is by getting more people vaccinated.”