By Katharine Webster
When Lowell Community Health Center
got a state grant to offer free COVID-19 tests to city residents this summer, two UMass Lowell alumni were central to the mobile testing campaign.
graduate Daniel Howell
’16 ’18, a project manager and outreach coordinator at the health center, organized and supervised the mobile testing clinic, part of a statewide testing campaign called “Stop the Spread”
that provided free COVID-19 tests to people with or without symptoms to slow the spread of the virus.
Clinical laboratory sciences
alumna Lindsey Roberts ’14 ’19, the new lab director at Lowell Community Health Center, coordinated with the Broad Institute, an MIT-Harvard research center which is testing the nasal swabs collected by Stop the Spread, to make sure the samples would meet their specifications.
And when they needed more volunteers for Lowell’s Stop the Spread effort, Howell and Roberts knew whom to ask: their former professors in the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences
. The professors sent out an email requesting volunteers, and four students stepped up. So did a professor.
“We got fresh eyes, people who were energized and people who were willing to really help,” Howell says. “They all came with their own set of skills, in public health or nursing
. They were all pretty self-sufficient individuals who could think on their feet and were ready to jump right into it – and that’s what they did. They were super-helpful in every way.”
The mobile clinic offered drive-up or walk-up testing at a different location each week for four weeks, to broaden its reach in the community. The state then renewed the grant so the clinic could continue one day a week for another three weeks.
Senior public health major Max Legault worked with Stop the Spread every weekday for two weeks in August. He’d planned to work as a certified nursing assistant over the summer, but the programs he applied to had either shut down or filled up early because of the pandemic. Instead, he helped to test up to 300 people a day.
“Almost everyone was cross-trained to do everything, so I did set-up and breakdown, registration, sample collection, labeling – whatever they needed,” he says.
Legault, an older student at age 50, says it was gratifying to be part of the campaign.
“I feel very strongly about having done that work. We helped a lot of people,” he says.
Jessica Parker, a junior public health major, jumped at the chance to get involved, too. She volunteered for two weeks: one week at Robinson Middle School in the Centralville neighborhood and one week at the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in The Acre neighborhood. (Other sites included the Life Connections Center and the Lowell Health Department, both downtown.)
Parker says the biggest takeaway for her was the importance of talking to patients, despite the push to test hundreds of people each day.
“I feel like there is a lot of fear of the unknown circulating right now,” she says. “Many people had questions, and we were there to answer as much as we could for them and give them the tools and testing they needed, whether that be for returning to work or school, or simply to ease their mind.”
Nursing student Corrina Jarzynka, now a sophomore, and public health major Vivian Tran, a junior, also volunteered, Howell says.
Nicoloro, who directs the Medical Laboratory Science
Program on campus, arranged ahead of time to go through the testing procedure, first as a patient and then as an observer. She especially wanted to observe the sample collection procedures used by Stop the Spread because she was helping to set up UML’s campus clinic, which is also sending its samples to the Broad Institute for testing.
“First, I went through it as a guinea pig – a patient. I timed and videotaped it,” Nicoloro says. “Then, I looked at where there were bottlenecks and what could be improved and brought those suggestions back to UMass Lowell.”
Howell says his education at UMass Lowell, especially student internships with the Lowell Health Department and Lowell General Hospital involving the opioid epidemic, along with his job for the past two years coordinating services and doing outreach for Lowell Community Health Center’s on-site addiction treatment clinic, prepared him well for the current pandemic.
“When I was working on the opioid epidemic, a lot of that was trying to meet people where they were, so a lot of the focus was on outreach,” he says. “With Stop the Spread, anyone can get tested, but we were also trying to reach the people who may need help the most because they don’t have health insurance or transportation to get to a regular testing center.”
After the initial four-week campaign, the state extended the grant so that Stop the Spread could hold a drive-up clinic once a week for three weeks in a huge parking lot at Cross River Center, on Pawtucket Boulevard.
The deep ties between UMass Lowell and the community were on full display on a recent Wednesday, as the first people to register pulled up to do their nasal swabs.
Trinity EMT Emily Ratte headed for the driver’s side window of a grey sedan while public health grad Taylor Koch ’18, a staff member at Lowell Community Health Center, approached the passenger side.
When asked if he minded being photographed for the UML website, the driver said “I’m UMass Lowell, too!” and offered his name and year of graduation: Jay Linnehan ’77, president and CEO of the Greater Lowell Community Foundation.
Then he and his passenger each took a nasal swab and swirled it around in both nostrils, before placing them into the test tubes that Koch and Ratte offered.