Since its first class graduated in 2013, Match Day at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine has been celebrated pretty much the same way every year. The senior medical students — along with their loved ones and faculty — gather in the lobby of the school where they all simultaneously open letters at noon informing them where they'll spend their residency training.
After a few seconds of silence, applause and cheers erupt from the crowd. Tears are usually shed, too.
"For every medical school in the country it's the biggest day of the year," said Dr. Steven Scheinman, dean of the Scranton, Penn.-based school. "There is four years of anxiety leading up to it and the students worked very hard leading up to this moment."
But this year, Match Day celebrations are being disrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic. All medical schools across the country have canceled their in-person celebrations, which were set to take place Friday, as the nation practices social distancing. Recent guidelines issued on Monday by the White House recommend people to avoid all social gatherings larger than 10 people over the next 15 days.
"All of our schools are not having a group activity," said Dr. Alison Whelan, chief medical education officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, which represents the nation's accredited medical schools.
Many medical schools are responding by replacing their in-person events to virtual gatherings where students can still share their residency placements with each other. The National Resident Matching Program, the organization that oversees the residency process, also announced Thursday that all applicants will receive their Match letters through email at 12 p.m. ET on Match Day. Typically, the program waited until 1 p.m. ET that day to inform students electronically after celebrations had occurred at schools.
Jennifer Mirrielees, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, had been organizing the festivities around her school's Match Day ceremony since early January when she got an email last week from school administrators notifying her that the live event had been canceled.
But disappointment quickly turned into resolve as Mirrielees and other student organizers began working out how to have a virtual version of the ceremony.
"We needed to figure out something that we could do to get our ceremony back," Mirrielees said.
UW will have a livestreamed, virtual ceremony. Mirrielees said the online celebration will try to stay true to the planned "Roaring Twenties" theme. PowerPoint slides will include photos of the complete graduating class of 180 students embedded with 1920s images and references to the "Great Gatsby."
"I think we have a certain resilience of spirit and a kind of stubbornness where we still want this to be the biggest and most amazing day," Mirrielees said. "There's a lot of enthusiasm."
Instead of the in-person event, Geisinger officials have created a YouTube video with names and photos of graduating students that will be posted 15 minutes before the email from the National Resident Matching Program goes out. The video is made every year but has typically been presented at the in-person event. Students create their own slide for the video with their name, chosen specialty and photos and memories they want to share.
Amelia Mackarey, a fourth-year medical student at Geisinger, said while it was initially disappointing to have the in-person Match event canceled, she and her classmates understand it's necessary.
"It's comforting to see all of these people who are going to be physicians in a couple of months really want to put patients first," she said.
After they are informed of their matches, the students can post videos and photos to the school's Flickr account with their reactions. Geisinger's graduating class has 104 students.
Mackarey said she plans to video record her reaction and post it on Flickr along with her classmates. She hopes to Match into a pediatric residency program.
"I think the email unveil is still going to be thrilling even though it's not the big lobby ceremony," she said.
Scheinman said students have been told not to gather together on Match Day to have their own in-person celebrations and if videos or photos are posted to Flickr showing gatherings, "that will be unfortunate."
"We have reminded them that they are trained to be healthcare professionals and they need to observe all the caution that everyone needs to observe," he said.
Mackarey said she's been at home with her family, and they will be with her when the Match emails go live. Geisinger — along with many other medical schools — has transitioned to virtual classes.
Rush Medical College in Chicago also canceled its Match in-person event and is going virtual, said Jay Behel, associate dean of medical student affairs. The live web event will include remarks from the dean and a countdown to the Match email release.
Following that, web meetings have been set up with the various specialty groups to celebrate their matches in smaller groups.
"It's much more low-key and less celebratory than we would like but we are making the most of it and hoping the students are pleased with their matches," Behel said.
The excitement that usually surrounds Match Day is somewhat measured this year. For many medical graduates, their first real experience practicing medicine will be helping to mitigate the impact of a pandemic that has infected more than 10,000 people and killed 154 in the U.S. as of Thursday.
Mirrielees, who is training to be an emergency medicine physician, said she is looking forward to getting involved.
"I think most of us who go into emergency medicine are very excited that we will be able to serve immediately and help to meet those needs that we see ramping up for the foreseeable future," Mirrielees said.