Nursing, Public Health Students Drive UMass COVID-19 Testing Center to Success

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As the University of Massachusetts Amherst readies itself for the spring semester, operations at its COVID-19 testing center and early COVID-19 vaccination continue to succeed due in large part to the nearly 90 student workers who play a significant role in daily operation. These student workers perform tasks ranging from test collection to contact tracing to administering vaccines.

During the fall semester, the Public Health Promotion Center (PHPC) performed 12-13,000 tests per week for more than 160,000 tests of UMass students, faculty and staff. This spring, the testing center will expand to do between 22,000 and 25,000 tests a week as more students will be living on campus and community testing continues. In addition, nursing students will assist this winter and spring with COVID-19 vaccination clinics on campus. The students who staff the testing center; predominantly nursing and public health majors, are getting real-world experience on how to respond to a pandemic.

“Our student workers are the heart, soul, muscle, hands and feet of the testing center,” said Ann Becker, co-director of the PHPC and public health director for the university. “Without them, it would be very difficult to stand up this testing center and operate it on a daily basis. In addition to the real-world experience they are getting, the students are also performing an invaluable public service.”

Currently, the PHPC has 50 undergraduate nursing students who help register people coming in for testing and observe people taking the test to ensure sample collection is done properly. Ten recently-graduated nursing students from the UMass Accelerated Bachelors of Nursing Program in Springfield also operate at the PHPC as monitors and supervisors of the testing process and also assist with students who have been placed in isolation or quarantine.

“Nursing students, as many clinical or healthcare professions students, both need and want the real-world experience to feel prepared for what they will encounter in their professional role,” said Allison Vorderstrasse, dean of the UMass Amherst College of Nursing. “Spending clinical time in the testing center was key to our students’ experiences this year in many ways. It demonstrated the importance of public health nursing, a clinical specialty area that often receives little attention until we are in the midst of a public health crisis like this pandemic,” said Vorderstrasse.

Eighteen public health students – three graduate students and 25 undergraduates – perform contact tracing, wellness calls for students who are asymptomatic but tested positive and answer questions from students and the community on testing. UMass student emergency medical service (EMS) techs also work at the testing center to help with the flow of people coming for tests. Student EMS workers also don personal protective equipment to transport infected students to quarantine and isolation housing.

“We support and encourage our students whenever possible to get a ‘boots on the ground’ experience. This pandemic provides our students with an excellent opportunity to be part of a critical public health function—that of surveillance monitoring,” said Anna Maria Siega-Riz, dean of the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences. “Contact tracing allows them to understand and demonstrate, using evidence-based science, the importance of communication, following standard protocols, work as a team, and maintain patient confidentiality for the purpose of obtaining actionable information about COVID’s transmission in our community. The experience is truly meaningful since they are part of a statewide response to better plan for future outbreaks that will protect the health of our Commonwealth.”

With the PHPC open expanded hours in the spring, the center will be doing additional hiring of students, especially those in the health sciences, though any student may apply.