Campus News

To be better together

A national award recognizing the success of the Carolina COVID-19 Student Services Corps confirms the critical mission served by the Office of Interprofessional Education and Practice.

Woman wearing a mask seated at a desk holds a Ziplock baggie containing Covid testing supplies.
Carla Flores, a volunteer with the Carolina COVID-19 Student Services Corps, assembles collection kits at the UNC-CH COVID Surveillance Laboratory. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

On Jan. 10, 2021, the night before three Carolina Together Testing Program sites were set to open across campus, first-year pre-nursing student Emmalyn Fleming remembers wrestling with a spreadsheet, hoping it would reveal what would happen the next day.

Fleming was texting with Meg Zomorodi, assistant provost for Interprofessional Education and Practice, who had assembled the group of volunteers known as the Carolina COVID-19 Student Services Corps. It was the first cold, dark winter of the pandemic, following the difficult fall 2020 semester but before the arrival of the first COVID-19 vaccines. The success of Carolina’s spring 2021 semester depended on this new testing program.

In turn, the testing program depended on Zomorodi’s volunteers, an astounding 300 of them who had already signed up to help.

“We could not figure out all the students that were going to be there at what time,” Fleming, one of those volunteers, recalled recently. “It was stressful but in an exciting way because I was involved in something.”

Meg Zomorodi

Meg Zomorodi

The Carolina COVID-19 Student Services Corps was the biggest challenge yet for the still young Office of Interprofessional Education and Practice. The office, created in 2018 by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin, formalized and strengthened years of grassroots efforts to improve communication and collaboration among Carolina’s health care professions schools — the schools of nursing, medicine, dentistry, public health, social work, pharmacy and the department of allied health — in order to improve outcomes for patients. At other universities, interprofessional education and practice is limited to health care provider education. But at Carolina, the OIPEP also includes representatives from Kenan-Flagler Business School, Health Sciences, University Libraries and the School of Education. There’s a broad understanding across the University that health is more than health care.

“Each school put skin in the game and named directors who work within their schools to make the systemwide changes,” Zomorodi said. “The mission of our office is to be better together. We believe that if we truly work together, we can have better health outcomes as a result.”

Zomorodi and OIPEP had already spent 2020 working to untangle another pandemic-caused knot. Med students and other health professions students have required clinical and practicum hours that they must complete to graduate, but the pandemic had closed all clinical settings. Students still needed these hours to graduate on time.

To address that issue, back in March 2020, Zomorodi had called a meeting in an effort aimed at helping health professions students keep open their opportunities for required hours.

As the pandemic dragged on, the effort to provide students with required hours expanded to include undergraduates on pre-health professions tracks, who are often in search of volunteer hours or shadowing opportunities to bolster their resumes.

And there was arguably a third challenge. Everyone was stuck at home. Many people wanted to get out. To do something. To help.

A male student wearing a Covid mask stands behind a table set up for Covid testing while a man in a mask stands on the other side of the table.

Sophomore Manav Patel, an operations leader with the Carolina CSSC, wipes down a testing station at the Student Union on March 19, 2021. Patel performs a number of duties, including checking people in at the testing center, directing traffic, making sure that each of the stations are well-supplied and transporting completed tests back to the lab. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

That’s what motivated Amirsaman Zahabioun, now a junior biology major on a pre-med track, to join Carolina CSSC. “As a service-oriented person, I thought that finding an opportunity that allows me to spend much more time outside of my dorm, outside of my house, would allow me to interact with more individuals, socialize a little bit after many months of isolation and studying remotely,” he said.

Pierre Querette, then a first-year dental student from Florida, was new to Chapel Hill but not new to volunteering. All through high school and his undergraduate years, he had volunteered. It helped him amid his intense studies, he said. “I always loved volunteering, in maintaining my regular school life,” he said. “It just helps me to balance life.”

Lettie Hughes, now a senior biology major from Asheville, had been a regular presence at UNC Hospitals, playing with pediatric patients in the pediatric playroom, but COVID-19 had shut that down. Already a certified nursing assistant, Hughes plans to become a physician assistant.

“When I learned about the services corps, it was an opportunity to gain some experience and strengthen my resume,” she said. “But also, what could I do, as a student, to help us return to normal college life and get students back in the classroom? I thought this was a good opportunity to help and do my part as well as gain that health care experience.”

Together, these students staffed the three testing sites, moving their fellow students in and out quickly. They did all the crucial tasks to keep themselves, each other and students needing tests all safe, and protect the samples on the way to the lab.

They fully owned the effort to staff the testing sites, filling needed roles with willing volunteers. This included everything from scanning bar codes, to explaining patiently — over and over — that a swab should be rotated three times inside the nose, to loading coolers and wiping down tables.

It started off imperfectly. That initial spreadsheet — hand-filled from emails and SignUp Genius — needed to be upgraded. So they built a custom database from scratch in two weeks.

Their hard work paid off. The testing program allowed the University to keep track of and control asymptomatic cases through follow-up contact tracing and quarantine and isolation. By the end of September 2021, volunteers had helped the Carolina Together Testing Program team conduct more than 215,000 tests, and it became clear that the collaboration was keeping Carolina safe and allowing the on-campus experience to continue. Since then, COVID-19 positivity rates on campus have remained lower than 0.5%, week in and week out.

A woman wearing a Covid mask and rrubber gloves sits at a desk assembling Covid testing kits.

Elayne Wang, a second year dental student in the School of Dentistry, prepares COVID-19 test packs on April 2, 2021. “I love being able to help the community, especially during this time in a pandemic where everything is so different,” said Wang, “It’s great to be able to make a difference.” (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The work also gave needed purpose and a bit of normalcy to the corps members. Fleming said coming to campus to volunteer made her feel like she was in college — something she and others had missed. “That gave me an excuse to be here and do something for campus that helped,” she said. “I think that starting CSSC kind of gave a lot of students a path.”

Recently, the UNC OIPEP was one of five winners of the 2021 George E. Thibault, MD Nexus Award, given by the National Center for Interprofessional Practice and Education. The award “celebrates exemplary interprofessional collaboration in the United States and recognizes those who are thinking and acting differently where practice and education connect in health systems.”

The real reward can’t be measured, even though there are plenty of impressive statistics: The initial 300 students who volunteered eventually grew to 1,500. Together they put in more than 27,000 hours and contributed to 180,000 vaccine doses through their partnership with UNC Health. Three thousand vaccines were administered (under supervision) by health professions students at Campus Health alone. “It’s really been a massive public health effort, what these students have done,” Zomorodi said. “It’s been amazing to see.”

Learn about Carolina COVID-19 Student Services Corps volunteer Manas Tiwari at UNC.edu.