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This student is putting in overtime administering COVID-19 vaccines

Brandon Mrnak, who studies pharmaceutical sciences, dispenses vaccines at a local Walgreens in Roxbury. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

With a full-time roster of classes at Northeastern, long hours of lab work, and regular chorus rehearsals preparing to perform for this spring’s coronation exercises, it’s hard to imagine that fourth-year pharmacology major Brandon Mrnak has the time to administer COVID-19 vaccines.

Brandon Mrnak, who studies pharmaceutical sciences, dispenses vaccines at a local Walgreens in Roxbury. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Mrnak, who received his immunization certification while volunteering at his hometown VA Medical Center in Baltimore, said he felt he needed to help dispense the life-saving vaccinations.

He has worked up to six days a week at a Walgreens in Roxbury providing the highly coveted shots since the chain pharmacy has made them available.

“I’ve started to really depend on the matcha latte they have at Dunkin Donuts,” says Mrnak, who said he wanted to join the fight against the virus by providing COVID-19 immunizations. “I knew I had the experience, and I just really felt I needed to help.”

Massachusetts officials recently expanded eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccines to residents 65 years of age and older, as well as people with two or more health conditions such as asthma or cancer.

The federal government sent vaccination doses directly to drug stores like Walgreens on Feb. 11. More than 21,000 shots were distributed to stores across the Bay State, and vaccinations are available only with an appointment.

Pharmacies and other vaccine administrators in the Commonwealth have been scrambling to immunize residents quickly as new, vaccine-resistant COVID-19 strains emerge.

“I thought more people would be nervous to get the vaccine because it’s new and the side effects are somewhat unknown,” says Mrnak, who is able to immunize up to 80 people a day.

“Actually it’s a very safe process. I’ve been telling people that although it’s new, it’s up to 95 percent effective, and that reassures people.”

One of the biggest sources of confusion, says Mrnak, has been timing a second shot of the vaccine that’s required to complete the immunization. The Pfizer vaccine requires a second shot within three weeks of the first, while the Moderna vaccine must be followed up within a month.

Meanwhile, Mrnak attends classes and works for Hideaki Yano, an assistant professor in pharmaceutical sciences, on an entirely different subject. Yano is studying dopamine receptors with the hopes of finding drugs that could slow the onset of Parkinson’s disease, and Mrnak hopes to continue that kind of research once the pandemic threat subsides.

“He’s the type of person who’s very motivated and inquisitive. He keeps us up to date on how many people he’s vaccinated at the lab,” says Yano. “It’s a juggling act, though. He’s had to balance work that really benefits everyone while keeping up with his classes and lab work.”

The rewards of helping local residents far outweighs any scheduling issues, says Mrnak.

“A lot of people are motivated to get the vaccine so they can see their family,” he says. “A woman came in with her mom and I was able to walk them through the process in Spanish, so that was nice.”

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