In over ten years in the Army National Guard and five years with Homeland Health Specialists — a Minnesota-based provider of essential wellness and vaccination services — St. Catherine University alum Tracy Howard MSNEL’16 has never experienced anything like the last few months. As the director of clinical operations for Homeland Health Specialists, Howard has been working 14 hours a day, seven days a week for over four months, and her team of over 130 nurses has administered over 200,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses since December 29. “We are currently averaging 30,000 doses a week, which we expect will increase as vaccines become more widely available,” Howard says.
Before COVID-19, the majority of Howard’s job consisted of coordinating on-site healthcare services — blood pressure tests, wellness clinics, and flu vaccines are just a few examples — for private and public organizations. “I work with the companies and local government agencies to assess their needs and then organize staff training and site set-up, review and approve supply orders, and create protocols and systems so our efforts are safe and efficient,” she says. An average flu season can be busy — she coordinates over 2,000 flu vaccination clinics throughout Minnesota — but COVID-19 vaccinations have been an entirely different beast. “During the flu season, we have about 90 nurses and supporting staff members providing services. Since the COVID-19 vaccines became available, we have over 160 staff members and we are constantly looking to hire more personnel,” Howard says.
Ever since Homeland Health Specialists began offering COVID-19 vaccination services, Howard’s days are filled with trying to keep her sites running smoothly while keeping her staff safe and healthy. “This vaccination effort requires cooperation and communication between a lot of government agencies and private companies,” Howard says. She works with the federal government, state government, public organizations, and private companies to set up vaccination sites and coordinate vaccine supply delivery and distribution. The worldwide vaccination efforts are moving very quickly and changes happen fast, so Howard is constantly reviewing and revising vaccination protocols so that her nurses administer the shots accurately and safely according to the country’s and state’s evolving guidelines. “We offer all three FDA-approved vaccines at our locations. Each one has different, very specific rules that we need to follow,” she says. Howard’s company also needs to report all vaccinations so the government knows how much of the population is vaccinated, which is a time-consuming, yet necessary measure to track if the state is approaching herd immunity. “We have a lot of moving parts, and they all need to be handled precisely to keep moving forward,” Howard says.
With her staff working 10- to 14-hour days, she is also concerned with their well-being. “Especially in these extremely high-pressure environments, nurse and staff burnout is very real,” she says. Howard ensures that her staff works on a rotating schedule so they have days off to recuperate. She has also created make-shift breakrooms at each vaccination site, where staff can rest and get a drink or snack during their shift. “Since I am constantly running between sites, I keep a suggestion box in each site’s breakroom so our staff can tell us what is working and what is not. They need to be able to share how we can make these sites more comfortable work environments,” she says. Overall, her staff has reported feeling happy and fulfilled with the work they are doing. “Our nurses and supporting staff are incredibly grateful to be a part of a global effort to make humanity safer from this virus. The patients they see are appreciative and many of their stories are incredibly moving. It makes us proud of what we do,” Howard says.
Howard is dedicated to making her patients’ experiences as positive as possible. “At our Mall of America vaccination site, a patient has never waited longer than 35 minutes to be vaccinated, which is impressive at this scale,” she says. Their sites are like well-oiled machines, with designated areas for check-in, vaccination, and recovery that all operate precisely in order to keep patients moving through their vaccination experience quickly, safely, and efficiently. They also have an opaque screen between the waiting line and the vaccination area to decrease patient anxiety. “During the flu season, the risk of someone passing out or getting anxious is quite low, but this pandemic has put us all in very different circumstances. People are very anxious and decreasing their stress about receiving a vaccine will help their experience and our efforts,” Howard says.
Starting in April, Howard and Homeland Health Specialists began training the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) staff for the FEMA vaccination site at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in St. Paul. The site will be operational for eight weeks, and during that time the federal government expects to administer over 168,000 doses to marginalized and underserved populations. FEMA has over 40 language translators on site and is conducting extensive outreach into these communities. Additionally, the Twin Cities' Metro Transit will provide free buses to and from the fairgrounds. “The goal of the FEMA site is to decrease the barriers that many are facing to getting their vaccinations,” Howard says. “It’s exciting to be a part of one of only three FEMA COVID-19 vaccination sites in the county.”
Howard’s professional and academic journey
Howard’s background has prepared her for this extraordinary public health effort. Before she attended St. Kate’s for her Master’s in Nursing: Entry Level (MSNEL) degree, Howard was a mental health practitioner and case manager and volunteered as an emergency medical technician (EMT). She also serves as an officer in the Army National Guard’s Adjutant General Corps — similar to a human resource department. In that role, she is “responsible for providing personnel support that affects soldiers’ overall welfare and well-being, while assisting commanders by accounting for and keeping soldiers combat-ready,” as stated on the U.S. Army’s website. Howard explains, “Being an adjutant general officer is a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week job when I am deployed. I’m responsible for these soldiers’ well-being, so they can serve their country.” These experiences piqued her interest in the medical field and patient wellness. “I wanted to serve patients directly, and have the medical knowledge to do so,” she says.
Utilizing her Army educational benefits to go back to school, Howard started to research nursing programs. She knew that she wanted to get her master’s degree, since she already had a bachelor’s degree in communications and business. “St. Kate’s MSNEL program was the best of both worlds: I could get my master’s degree and become a registered nurse without going back and getting another bachelor’s degree,” she says.
When Howard started her education at St. Kate’s, she was struck by the community she and her fellow students created. “We were from all different walks of life — personally and professionally — but our cohort worked and learned from one another. We formed this supportive, tight-knit group that still communicates to this day,” she says. Howard felt a deep connection with St. Kate’s mission and values and experienced those ideas through her program’s curriculum. “We were taught to connect and build relationships with our patients so we could learn about the whole person — not just their symptoms or illness,” she recalls. “As healthcare professionals, it is our job to serve and help others without distinction. St. Kate’s holds that belief in the highest regard, which was evident in my education.”