College of Pharmacy ‘prescribed’ award for COVID-19, public health response

Pictured: Avadesian Hall, home of the College of Pharmacy. PHOTO CREDIT: Aidan Cahill | Web Editor

Providence Business News names the University of Rhode Island’s College of Pharmacy recipient of top “Health Care Educator” in its first Health Care Heroes award program.

The award was given to honor the college’s response to COVID-19 and for making positive changes in Rhode Island health care.

Among the nine categories, Providence Business News gave the College of Pharmacy the honor of top “Health Care Educator.”

Paul Larrat, dean of the College of Pharmacy, said he’s passionate about URI’s pharmacy programs because he was a student here in the 1970’s, a faculty member after that and now the dean, where he serves as administration of the entire college.

In regard to how COVID-19 impacted the college, Larrat said that students in their final year were impacted the most because the last year of the curriculum is all experiential, meaning that students are working in the field in hospitals and industries such as CVS.

“When COVID hit, which was three years ago, we all had to do a pivot because we had to think about students in their final year,” Larrat said. “Many of them were kicked out of their hospital sites because everything shut down, so we had to come up with alternative ways to get them their hours and their credits and their education, so there was a big pivot there.”

Samantha Mentz, a student in the Bachelor of Science in Pharmaceutical Science (BSPS) program, said that studying pharmacy remotely over COVID-19 was difficult, but the support, understanding and accommodations from professors were valuable.

Larrat echoed Mentz and said that the move from in-person to online was difficult for educators as well, since they had to transition to remote instruction out of nowhere.

“And like other professors, there’s also the pivot as you try to create a hybrid course,” Larrat said. “No one knew how to do that and we all kind of learned on the job and we were successful at getting our students through, but it was a big change.”

Mentz hopes to work in the branch of pharmaceutical production, which is one aspect of URI’s program that stood out to her compared to other institutions, especially compared to how URI’s program was operating during COVID-19.

“I enjoy learning something new procedurally,” Mentz said. “It’s a challenge that I want to pursue, and science is always evolving in a way that I am always learning.”

Larrat said that one thing professors did during this time was complete remote “rounds,” or when a group of medical teams visit patients to review their status and share observations or ask questions.

“Our students would be in a classroom over here [at URI] and we would participate remotely in the rounds and there’d be a doctor kind of calling on all these people to give their input,” Larrat said. “So a lot of it had to do with trying to create these remote access points to get back into the facilities. And we’re an accredited program, so they pretty much stayed strict that you have to have your 1500 hours of different experiential options for students.”

Larrat also said that the college’s hand in public health during the epidemic was noteworthy during COVID-19.

“I think where we really excelled was to get actively involved in the public health emergency,” Larrat said. “I was saying to students, what better time to learn about public health in the middle of an epidemic?”

He said that the involvement in public health was especially influential because students and staff in the college were part of many different areas of public health.

“So what we did with the students is we made sure that they were all immunization trained and we made sure that all were volunteering at the community sites,” Larrat said. “You know, when the CVS’ of the world had the immunizations they were doing, we had other students that were volunteering at the Department of Health contact tracing. So we tried to get them into as many of the opportunities that were really unique at the time and actually in our faculty too.”

Larrat said that COVID-19 gave students new opportunities to be on the frontlines, which is something that is relatively new in the industry.

“I graduated back in the 80s and we didn’t touch patients back then,” Larrat said. “We didn’t immunize, so I was seeing my students coming out there immunized… so I became trained and volunteered just like they did.”

Larrat thinks that the diversity of what the college was doing during COVID-19 resulted in the award.

“We had folks creating the Rhody blue sanitizer when it was in short supply,” Larrat said. “And Dr. Angela Slitt, she came up with a new COVID test that can be easily used in Kenya or in places that might not have the infrastructure that we have.”

Mentz said that she’s always wanted to be involved in pharmacy because of how medication can improve people’s quality of life and shed light on understudied conditions and diseases.

“I think the benefit of URI’s specific College of Pharmacy is the access to lab mentorships,” Mentz said.

She said the new requirements for BSPS students to complete an independent study where they can get first-hand experience working in pharmaceutical areas, which has helped set her up for success in her future career.

Larrat said that COVID-19 also gave students an opportunity to excel at patient-level responsibilities.

“There was good patient care,” Larrat said. “I think all of that was at the patient level, by the students and by the faculty, as it should be. I think they made a difference in a lot of individual lives.”

During COVID-19, Larrat mentioned that a lot of health care professionals were burnt out and left their positions.

“So there really is a shortage out there now and for our students, I think it’s a good thing for them,” Larrat said. “They get pulled into doing things that they normally don’t because other people aren’t doing it… So I think they’ve been dragged into a larger scope of [health care.]”

Larrat emphasized that the college’s successes wouldn’t be possible without the people involved.

“Our faculty, you know, they didn’t have to do this, a lot of this volunteering and they didn’t have to take the steps that they did, but they all did and a lot of it was without pay under the uncertainty of the disease,” Larrat said. “So I’m just really proud of the students and the faculty that stepped up and as I’ve told them, it’s kind of like their finest hour, they stepped up and they did it.”