How do you plan a mass vaccination clinic? Iowa State students are working on it.

AMES, Iowa — Starting this week, Iowa State University’s COVID-19 vaccination plan ramps up as all adult students qualify and a mass vaccination clinic takes over State Gym’s three basketball courts.

But it’s not as simple as setting up booths and having vaccines ready. That’s where industrial engineering students come in.

Earlier this spring, students in an undergraduate research program led by Sarah Ryan, the Joseph Walkup Professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, started studying what was then an abstract idea: designing a mass vaccination clinic.

“We met with the students in the Emergency Operations Center to go through their ideas and to brief them on our preliminary projections,” ISU Emergency Manager Clayton Oliver said of their discussion earlier this semester.

The students observed Iowa State’s smaller vaccination clinics in late March, and began analyzing data down to the second: how long it takes someone to wait in line, to register, to walk from one station to the next, to get vaccinated, to walk to the observation area. These details filled out the students’ queueing network model.

Then, on April 6, Iowa State announced that a mass vaccination clinic would be held starting April 20. It was no longer an abstract project.

“With any research project, you typically start out with some objectives, then things change along the way and you have to adjust as you go,” Ryan said. “I was worried the students would be frustrated by that, but I was encouraged that they understand this clinic has to adapt to events as they happen.”

It might take five minutes to vaccinate someone – but that can vary. Appointments are scheduled five minutes apart – but some arrive early or late. People will sign in at registration stations – but some will have issues signing in and will need to be helped at another station.

“With a queueing network model, we get a glimpse ahead at issues they might confront so they can make adjustments on the fly,” said Tyler Brenza, junior in industrial engineering.

This kind of accuracy is important as last-minute changes can have ripple effects, Oliver said. They want to avoid wasted vaccine doses, over-scheduling and long wait times.

By the students’ preliminary calculations, the clinic could vaccinate more than 2,000 students per day – an estimate that will likely change depending on the evolving situation.

Colton Richardson, sophomore in industrial engineering, said he enjoyed working on a real-world problem and gaining a better understanding of what it takes to organize a mass vaccination clinic: “I got vaccinated the same day we had done observations. It’s weird how different the patients see it versus how we’re observing it.”

“I’m really glad we got to work with these students,” Oliver said. “I feel like over the past year we’ve been parental in telling the student population to not do a lot of things, and they haven’t had many opportunities to feel like they’re taking constructive action. This was a way for them to contribute directly to the solution.”