Drexel's Interdisciplinary Battle Against COVID-19

From administering COVID tests to conducting case investigation and contact tracing, the University has relied on a cross-college battalion of faculty, professional staff and students to protect Dragons against the coronavirus, and in turn, protect the surrounding community. Photo by Jeff Fusco.

From administering COVID tests to conducting case investigation and contact tracing, the University has relied on a cross-college battalion of faculty, professional staff and students to protect Dragons against the coronavirus, like these co-op students and volunteers manning the Race Hall testing site. Photo by Jeff Fusco.

Please visit the ‘Drexel’s Response to Coronavirus’ website for the latest public health advisories.

Saznin Chowdhury, a third-year health sciences student in the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University, didn’t leave the house for six months at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her first outing, back in September, was to an orientation meeting for her first and only co-op position: aiding Drexel’s COVID-19 testing efforts, and eventually working on the front lines administering tests to her fellow students on campus.

“I initially took this job because the pandemic is such a confusing time for everybody, and I just wanted to contribute whatever I could,” Chowdhury said. “When I first joined, I was very scared because this is a novel virus and we had not a lot of data and knowledge about it. … I just wanted to help out the Drexel community, and learn to get comfortable with the environment that I was working in.”

The determination to help fellow Dragons stay safe and healthy became a rallying point this year for many other students, as well as faculty and professional staff, from across the University who worked or volunteered with Drexel’s COVID-19 response. And it’s been a home-grown effort, exemplary in the way that those of different disciplines, backgrounds and experience levels have come together as a team to fight back.

At the time of publication, Drexel has administered more than 6,000 COVID-19 tests on campus since Oct. 12 through its home-grown operation. Photo by Jeff Fusco.

“COVID shines a light on everything, every aspect of an organization, every relationship, every aspect of inequities, everything that we do at an institution of higher ed, because COVID can and does affect all of us,” said Marla Gold, MD, vice provost for community health care innovation and director of Drexel’s Return Oversight Committee, which is safeguarding the return to campus during the pandemic. “We've been able to deliver a top-notch response for an institution of higher education. … The way that that's all come together is also illustrative of sort of the gritty, hands-on nature of Drexel — the sort of ‘dream-it, do-it’ ambition.”

Volunteer faculty from the College of Nursing and Health Professions were the first to answer the call in March, coming forward to help with COVID-19 testing through the Student Health Center as well as within planning committees to set up the University’s contact tracing efforts. Two such faculty, Kymberlee Montgomery, DNP, a clinical professor of nursing and senior associate dean of nursing and student affairs, and Kimberly McClellan, EdD, assistance clinical professor, went on to head up the University’s contact tracing and testing efforts, respectively.

Each “arm” of these important COVID-19 response measures ramped up as fall term approached and select students and researchers returned for on-campus classes and activities. Montgomery and McClellan also hired two graduate students to help lead the case investigation and contact tracing teams — each with two undergraduate co-op students reporting to them. They also trained three co-op students (including Chowdhury) to work with McClellan at the student testing site, which was established in a Myers Hall study lounge in late September.

“Both arms represent this wonderful working relationship between faculty and students,” McClellan said. “We have students on both arms from across our entire college, and actually, across the University.”

Janet Cruz, MD, director of Student Health Services, added that she is humbled by the talent and dedication of her interdisciplinary colleagues who’ve joined this effort, as well as proud of the students who’ve stepped up to fulfill pivotal roles in this public health response.

“The pandemic has been a catalyst that has given me the opportunity to rethink how health care is delivered,” she said. “In a few short months, we have built an integrated team comprised of providers from across the University to ensure our students have the access to testing, medical services and academic support throughout this public health crisis.”

Even with a great team, keeping up with the shifting science and the unpredictability of the virus has brought about a term full of change for Drexel’s COVID crusaders.

Mikaela Perez, an MPH student who is overseeing contact tracing under Montgomery, works closely with the case investigation team to reach out and establish true contacts, help monitor symptoms, and aid with quarantine and isolation when needed. She said the job at times is nerve-wracking and chaotic due to constantly changing and time-sensitive measures and mandates that it’s her job to relay to the community.

“But I have a love for people, and a love for public health and medicine, and that’s what really drives me [and my team],” she said. “We just want to see this pandemic under control. We want to see Drexel open up to where we can all go back to taking classes in person and resume normal activities. We know this is a crucial part in getting that under control, and that motivates me every day. When days get hard and days get long, it helps just knowing that this work is making a difference in our campus and in the city.”

A Drexel student receives a COVID-19 test in the week leading up to Thanksgiving. The testing operation at Race Hall administered up to 500 tests per day in the week and the Monday before Thanksgiving, and saw a total of less than 1 percent positive cases. Photo by Jeff Fusco.

Talia DiBonaventura, a third-year health sciences major doing a co-op at the testing site, said a huge change for her team was moving the site from Myers Hall to the Library Learning Terrace in Race Hall in mid-November, which quadrupled their testing capacity before the holiday surges.

“It's crazy to think about how we come in contact with thousands of people and we're able to make a difference, especially [leading up to Thanksgiving] for people who are going home and they have family members who are immunocompromised or elderly,” she said.

Gold explained that moving the testing operation to Race Hall allowed for any student who wanted a test before the holiday to access one, and students took advantage. The teams administered up to 500 tests per day in the week and the Monday before Thanksgiving, and saw a total of less than 1 percent positive cases — much lower than Philadelphia’s average positivity rate, which climbed to over 10 percent in the same timeframe.

Drexel students are able to get results back in 24 to 48 hours, delivered to the HIPPA-protected medical portal in their Drexel Health Tracker app, which was created by the College of Medicine in tandem with their internal test processing operations.

Gold said that once President John Fry gave the green light to build this operation and acquire the necessary machinery, experts from the College of Medicine had the facility up and running in the New College Building on Drexel’s Center City Campus in just four weeks. This facility now processes so-called “surveillance” tests, used to monitor positivity rates in the asymptomatic population, while diagnostic testing of symptomatic patients is processed by Lab Corp.

College of Medicine students, as well as those from the Dornsife School of Public Health and Drexel’s SNAP (Student Nurses Association of Pennsylvania) group, volunteered to fill the need for more test administrators at the Race Street testing site.

Volunteers at Drexel's COVID-19 testing site in Race Hall. Photo by Jeff Fusco.

“The idea that nursing faculty, nursing students, public health students and medical students could come together to take care of their own and the Drexel community is quite thrilling,” Gold said. “It's a powerful story of how we could develop a top-notch testing facility and investigation unit using Drexel know-how during a pandemic, when there are supply chain issues and all sorts of problems, [but we managed to] keep our positivity rates as low as possible.”

Plans to expand and adapt these efforts for winter term remain fluid. McClellan said they’d like to hire at least a dozen more co-op students to prepare for increased need. Gold said shifts on the horizon include the ability to schedule tests within the Drexel Health Tracker app, which is already in beta testing, as well as implementing protocols by which both Drexel students and employees will have the opportunity to get tested regularly.

“The idea really for Drexel is to have almost a mini public health/health professions response such that the campus community has a different outcome than the city as a whole,” Gold said. “We'd love for the whole city to be low, and we start with our own campus community.”

The notion that the attack on the coronavirus starts here, and can make a difference for Drexel’s neighbors and for the city as a whole, is at the heart of this effort and is the driving passion for those leading the fight.

McClellan said that the fact that Drexel students stepped up into these very important mitigation roles showcases not only their bravery, but that “they're not the kind of students that sit back and let life happen.”

“They want to be in the throes of it and not just to learn,” she continued. “They also want to give back, not just to our Drexel community and to keep their fellow students safe, but they want to keep the communities around us safe as well. I think that really speaks to the social and the civic caliber of our students.”

From left to right: Saznin Chowdhury, Talia DiBonaventura and Sarah Okwuoha are the three College of Nursing and Health Professions co-op students hired at the beginning of fall term to work at the student testing site.

Sarah Okwuoha, a fourth-year nursing student doing a co-op at the testing center, said that even being part of the pandemic’s first-line response does not mean the work experience has been overly stressful or emotionally heightened.

“Everyone is very easy to communicate with and just absolutely wonderful people to work with,” she said. “When we come in every day, there's no need for anxiety or anger or anything like that because everybody is comfortable to work with. Everybody is just nice and calm.”

Nina Kulkarni, MPH, a biomedical sciences master’s student leading the case investigation team, calls this a “very rare and beautiful experience,” the beauty being found in the collaborative and selfless efforts of all involved.

“We as a community have done a tremendous job of tackling what is, in some respects, the most difficult global health challenge of our generation,” she said. “As a future physician and public health advocate, I will take the invaluable skills that I have learned with me— in public health promotion and education, to prioritize the protection of our vulnerable population. I have a new sense of urgency and responsibility with our patients because I have seen that effective communication early can truly avert progression to more serious issues in the future.”

Gold called the work of fighting COVID-19 on campus constant, exhausting and exhilarating. As recently as last week, she admits she joked that by the time Drexel’s coronavirus response ran perfectly, it’d be time to set up the system to instead administer a vaccine.

“This is the pandemic of our lifetime…at least I hope so, I hope this is it,” she said. “And I'm proud, that when Drexel takes care of its own, Drexel is contributing to the health of the city of Philadelphia.”