September 17, 2020

It’s Weird But It Works

UMass Amherst nursing and public health students help with COVID-19 testing and contact tracing

“I want to flatten the curve and get life back to how it used to be,” says Babatunde Olatinwo ’21, a UMass Amherst nursing student. Olatinwo and other nursing and public health sciences students are providing essential support to UMass Amherst’s COVID-19 testing and contact tracing efforts—using their time and skills to keep the university and the nation safe amid the pandemic.

Despite the pressure on his schedule—he’s both member of the Air Force and a student in the Springfield-based UMass Amherst accelerated nursing programOlatinwo has volunteered at the COVID-19 testing center at the Mullins Center periodically since it opened in early August. He has directed traffic, registered students, and showed them how to take their own nasal swabs. “As a fellow student, I’m not seen as a formidable authority figure, and I can make students comfortable in what could be a stressful situation,” Olatinwo says. “Mostly they want to know how deeply to swab and when they will get their test results.” (Swab until you meet resistance and results are sent to you in 24-36 hours.) 


Students are essential to the massive operation at the Public Health Promotion Center at the Mullins Center, which is prepared to administer 2,000 tests per day, says Ann Becker, codirector of the UMass Amherst Public Health Promotion CenterFlu shots will also be administered at the Mullins Center. Students are a huge portion of our staff, and they are amazing—we couldn’t do this without them,” she says. Plus, “The peer-to-peer model, with students relating to other students and reinforcing the importance of our efforts has been proven to be very effective.” 


UMass Amherst was well prepared to deploy students in this effort. In 2005, the university established a medical reserve corps for public health emergency preparedness and adopted the corps into the nursing curriculum. In 2010, the corps helped administer H1N1 vaccines to many thousands of students, campus workers, and Amherst residents. In 2017, the corps ran a highly successful meningitis vaccination program. Testing and contact tracing programs draw on the campus’s broad strengthswith full commitment from many areas, including nursing, public health, epidemiology, environmental health and safety, the office of emergency management, and information technology. 


While 20 to 30 “Minute Nurses” a day help out on the floor of the Mullins Center from Monday through Friday, scores of students from the School of Public Health and Health Sciences are doing their part to fight COVID-19 upstairs in the Massachusetts Room and remotely. 


Isabella Caruso ’20, a master’s candidate in community health education, leads a team of 10 public health sciences contact tracers. Her team is one of five UMass Amherst contact tracing teams. “Fortunately, our case numbers have been very low, so the contact tracers have been able to use their time to answer emails students have sent to the testing center and to call those who are noncompliant with testing,” she says. 


If the students do have to contact people who have tested positive or been exposed to COVID-19, they will be able to draw on their knowledge of epidemiology and best practices in public health communication, as well as their empathy skills. Caruso sometimes relates that both her grandmothers were sick with COVID-19. “No worries, they’re fine now,” she says.

Although it’s a difficult time for all—volunteers, faculty, staff, students studying remotely, and on-campus students who must be tested twice weekly—Olatinwo sees the blue sky behind the pandemic’s dark clouds. He says: “When I work at the testing center, I see amazing, positive human interaction. I see the Chancellor, professors, athletes, students, and volunteers coming together to fight this. I see UMass Amherst building strength as a community.”