Learning Opportunities: Student-Produced PSAs, Virtual Town Halls Address COVID-19 Vaccine Concerns

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Back in December, when the newly developed COVID-19 vaccines were making news headlines and beginning a phased release to a nation decimated by the pandemic, many were concerned: Would the nascent vaccines, which seemed to have been pushed out at extraordinary speed, prove a more dangerous option than the highly contagious illness itself?

Audrey Gaspard, a mother and grandmother who serves as La Sierra’s assistant director of Student Financial Services, had discussed her apprehensions with her daughter, a healthcare revenue integrity auditor. “After talking to my younger daughter, she told me that I am more likely to die from the virus than from the vaccine,” Gaspard said. The conversation was a turning point and gave Gaspard some peace of mind. She notes, “After listening to the facts my daughter passed along, I did not hesitate to make an appointment” to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Several weeks later, Gaspard relayed her inspirational experience as one of nine campus members and students who appeared in a series of seven public service announcement (PSA) video messages offered in English and Spanish. The PSAs formed the first steps of a university educational campaign designed to answer questions and address misinformation and anxieties related to the vaccines for COVID-19, the extremely contagious and potentially deadly illness that results from the SARS-Cov-2 virus. As of Aug. 16 this year, 619,564 people around the United States had died from COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The PSAs were produced in June by students of La Sierra’s Film and Television Production department in conjunction with several faculty and staff members and the university’s Office of Communication and Integrated Marketing. They were promoted through targeted email, social media, and posters. On Aug. 4, a vaccines informational Q&A virtual town hall event was held on Zoom video conferencing with Spanish-language interpretation available. A panel of four scientists and medical science experts from La Sierra University and Loma Linda University Health discussed the functions of mRNA, which is the foundational technology in Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the efficacy of the vaccines, and the risk of detrimental side effects. A Q&A session addressed many questions, such as the reasons full FDA approval had not yet occurred for the COVID vaccines and how likely it is that a vaccinated individual would spread the virus to an unvaccinated individual.

A video of the town hall event, as well as the vaccine PSA videos, is available at this link: https://lasierra.edu/covid-19/vaccines-answers-insights/.

Nearly 200 people attended the online forum including about 70 student-athletes, coaches and staff from the Athletics department who gathered under pandemic protocol in Troesh Conference Center of the Zapara School of Business. They were provided an opportunity after the town hall to ask questions of one of the panelists.

Since last fall, campus members allowed on campus for essential work or permitted labs, studio classes, or practices have undergone strict, two-step testing with prescribed protocols followed for any who exhibit symptoms or test positive for COVID-19.

Trinity Wyscarver, a libero/outside hitter on the Golden Eagles volleyball team, said she learned during the town hall how the mRNA vaccines prepare the body to protect against COVID-19 and its variants. Wyscarver is a senior psychology and pre-nursing major who plans to attend Loma Linda University. She is also an emergency medical technician in Riverside County and a survivor of COVID-19. She was sick with the illness the first 17 days of January this year, before her age category was allowed to receive the vaccine and prior to entering the healthcare field. “I got every symptom in the book; it was so terrible,” she said. Wyscarver received the two-dose Pfizer vaccine in March, she said, and strongly recommends the treatment to others, including college students.

Wyscarver said she understands the fears that are circulating due to the newness of the vaccine, the lack of full FDA approval, and other issues. “But from what I’ve seen, the facts hold up. Those who are vaccinated are not ending up on the ventilator; those who are vaccinated are not getting the Delta variant as severe,” she said.

Students should understand that “it’s not a cold. It’s not the flu. It’s something very different that the world has not seen. And when you are not prepared for something, you usually don’t do well,” she said. “It’s 100% not worth it to let the fear override the hope.”

Of faith, heritage, and tough decisions
The university has planned additional educational outreach efforts related to the COVID-19 vaccines, including department workshops, a second virtual forum for the campus and the community, as well as a campus town hall to discuss recent significant policy decisions for the upcoming school year. The university also joined the national White House COVID-19 College Vaccination Challenge, which provides access to informational resources and virtual meetings where ideas and best practices are exchanged.

As the pandemic began its deadly march across the nation in late winter 2020, La Sierra University, along with other organizations around the region and state, closed its campus in March in keeping with public health stay-at-home orders.

This year, progress made through the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines has been stymied and reversed in many areas by the emergence of the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19. On July 27, La Sierra University joined hundreds of other colleges and universities around the country in requiring its employees and students to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 prior to the start of the new school year on Sept. 27. As with its vaccination policy for other illnesses, the university also offers applications for medical and religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

“After months of careful consideration and consultation with many experts and colleagues, including surveys of our students and faculty, the La Sierra University Emergency Management Team voted to require vaccines.… This decision is yet another demonstration of our commitment as a Seventh-day Adventist university to care for our neighbors as God cares for us,” said President Joy Fehr and Provost April Summitt in a joint statement to the campus. “The medical mission of our denomination was founded and continues to be grounded in scientific discovery and compassion for humanity. Each year one third of La Sierra’s freshman class intends to gain the necessary knowledge and expertise to make a difference in their world as healthcare professionals. Thus, with this decision we continue to honor our heritage, our faith, and our students.”

Filming lessons
On a Sunday in June before finals week, seven students led by Carrie Specht, film and television production associate professor, hurried in and out of a filming studio in Palmer Hall, setting up cameras, lights, reflectors, microphones, and a staging area. Gregorio Jimenez, Cynthia Tapia Leyva, Brianna Hundley, Adam DesJardins, Laura Cruz, and Aspen Lee were preparing for a day of filming five campus members who were scheduled throughout the day to speak in video PSAs on the COVID vaccines. Two staff members filmed their joint PSA the following day.

Specht said the students will receive credit toward a Service-Learning class developed for the department called “Producing the PSA.” Many of the students were enrolled in her spring quarter virtual storytelling class. “The students were able to utilize many of the skills they’ve learned as majors in the Film and TV program, such as sound recording, cinematography, lighting, editing, and production, which is the actual physical process of organizing a project and running a set,” she said.

Production student and future cinematographer Cruz will be entering her third year at La Sierra. For her, the PSAs represented an opportunity to learn teamwork. “Projects like these are a great opportunity to…[learn] to adapt to different personalities and creative minds to work well together throughout the production process,” she said.

A native of Miami, Florida, Cruz lived in La Sierra’s dorm last year under pandemic health protocol. She said that she worried about becoming sick with COVID-19 herself, mainly because of the threat the illness would pose to those around her and the burden it would place on her family thousands of miles away. She described the impact on her college experience and the realizations brought by the challenges of the pandemic.

“COVID has turned college into a very sad routine. It seemed like a never-ending cycle of go to class, do some homework, eat, sleep, repeat,” she said. “The social aspect is such an important part of the college experience for both mental and spiritual health. I’ve realized how important being part of a Christian community and being able to collaborate with my peers is to me.”
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Darla Martin Tucker is director of public relations for La Sierra University.