More than 100 Mennonite College of Nursing students got some hands-on experience in public health this week, as they surveyed McLean County residents about whether they were getting the flu vaccine.

The students split up between eight local grocery stores and two churches over three days, asking residents whether they’ve been vaccinated this year, plan to be, or will be skipping it entirely. They’re helping out the McLean County Health Department, which wants to know how much of the population is vaccinated.

Mennonite College of Nursing (MCN) students and faculty will analyze the data, looking for trends and changes compared with a similar community survey in 2011, and report back to the health department.

“It was an enlightening experience. I saw things from a new perspective,” said Rich Ellis, a Ph.D. nursing student at Illinois State, who helped monitor the surveys and is part of the data-analysis team.

The project is led by MCN faculty members Kim Astroth, Carla Pohl, Mary Cranston, and Cindy Kerber. Shay Simmons from the health department came to MCN for help, in part because of the manpower needed for the survey.

Elise Pfaffman and Jodi Foreman at a table

Mennonite College of Nursing students Elise Pfaffman and Jodi Foreman at their survey site in McLean County.

Around 80 MCN undergraduate students and nearly 30 graduate students helped administer the surveys from October 25-27, as well as a couple students from the Department of Health Sciences. Data from more than 900 paper surveys will be combined with more than 600 online surveys delivered to residents through several local employers.

A rise or decline in vaccination rate in 2013 versus 2011 can help guide the county’s health department on, say, whether to bolster community education efforts, Astroth said.

“We were trying to get a focused community sample in a limited amount of time,” Astroth said.

Plus, MCN’s role in the research gives students an opportunity to be on the front lines of a real community health issue, she said. Since now is a good time to get vaccinated, the MCN teams also had informational brochures on hand and could point residents to where the vaccine was available.

“This project was a good example of living our mission,” Astroth said. “It gave students some more hands-on experience, making things a little more real for them, rather than just reading about it.”

Ellis, who is in his first semester of his Ph.D. program, helped coordinate and monitor the survey sites. The public’s interest in germs and illness was hammered home, Ellis said, as he watched customer after customer use wet wipes to clean their shopping cart before entering the grocery stores.

“There are a lot of myths that need to be dispelled,” said Ellis, whose academic advisor is Astroth. “There are a lot of folks who don’t understand how serious the flu has the potential of being, especially if they are older, or are a small child, or if their immune system is not strong.”

More and more flu vaccines are being delivered by large pharmacies and other businesses, so the health department isn’t doing as many itself, said Walt Howe, director of the McLean County Health Department.

“Because of that, it’s hard for us to measure (how many people are vaccinated), since we’re no longer doing the vaccinations on a large scale,” Howe said. “The more individuals that are vaccinated, we’re reducing the probability of the spread of preventable diseases. It is our role as a public health department to ensure vaccination takes place.”

Ryan Denham can be reached at


Students boost public health with flu vaccine surveys