UW students volunteer time and expertise to fight COVID-19

Technician Derrick Van Kirk helps students make face shields for hospital workers. (Photo by Dennis Wise)

A little after 10 p.m. on March 19, graduate students Anne Massey and David Coomes received an email that would put them into the mix of Washington’s rapidly evolving response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. It was the night the World Health Organization had declared the spread of the virus a pandemic and the state of Washington had climbed from having the country’s first positive test to having the nation’s first death from COVID-19.

The two students in the School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology volunteer with a team that supports epidemic response. They and roughly 20 other members of the Student Epidemic Action Leaders (SEAL) Team had already been working with Seattle & King County Public Health, the State Department of Health and other agencies in their pandemic response since early February.

Here was a chance for Massey, who leads the SEAL Team, and Coomes to put their emerging expertise to use to help a pop-up testing facility at the Tacoma Dome. They were needed to train health care workers to use special software to register people for testing, explains SEAL Team faculty director Janet Baseman.

The next day, the pair headed for Tacoma. On the way, they studied how the computer program would work for this particular need before setting up in backstage dressing rooms to train nurses and others on the registration program. “It was all very exciting,” Massey says. “We had worked with that software application before, but this was an expedited use of the program. And because we had the relationships with state officials and this tool already created, we were able to quickly respond to the pandemic to deploy skills and be creative.”

Every quarter for the past five years, roughly 20 public health students go through training and then volunteer for assignments when state and local health agencies ask for help in outbreak investigations. But the field assignments now are on a whole new level: helping agencies rapidly respond to the greatest infectious disease threat in at least a generation. “SEAL students are trained to provide surge support to our public health practice partners,” says Baseman. “The fact that their skills can be applied now to a global pandemic as it’s unfolding is pretty amazing.”

Students from across campus have volunteered their time and expertise to a variety of support efforts. In one instance undergraduate and graduate students manned about 70 3-D printers across three campuses to create needed face shields for health care workers at UW Medicine. The shield was designed by a local engineer and tested by experts at Harborview. More than 1,000 shields were made and distributed in the first few weeks of production. In another instance, students and staff used the makerspace in McCarty Hall to sew cloth face masks for custodial staff.

In April, more than 45 nursing students joined the front lines of the fight against the virus in Seattle and King County. Graduating seniors worked at Seattle & King County COVID-19 call centers, using their nursing education to provide callers with information about topics like where to get tested or where to quarantine. Meanwhile, doctor of nursing students are conducting telehealth visits with patients, and licensed graduate nursing students are working with patients in recovery.

“This is an extraordinary partnership for extraordinary times,” says Patty Hayes, Seattle & King County public health director. “We are deeply grateful to the School of Nursing and their students for rising to the occasion for our community’s COVID-19 needs, and so pleased to be able to contribute to their growth in this unique way.”