Medical Campus students mobilize to help health-care workers, community

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As the novel coronavirus has accelerated its spread throughout the Midwest and across the U.S., scores of students on the Washington University Medical Campus have mobilized to support health-care workers and the St. Louis community in the fight against the global pandemic.

Among the projects the students have initiated or joined, they’ve reviewed and summarized emerging academic research on COVID-19 to save care providers valuable time; managed a coronavirus email “hotline”; provided child care for health-care workers; and soon will deliver meals to infected and at-risk community members. Other students have designed and manufactured more than 1,600 face shields for medical workers in need of personal protective equipment.

“The response of our students to the pandemic has been spectacular,” said Eva Aagaard, MD, the School of Medicine’s senior associate dean for education and the Carol B. and Jerome T. Loeb Professor of Medical Education. “Our students are not only highly motivated and highly educated but, importantly, they are compassionate individuals rising to the challenge to support medical workers and our community at large. Their actions fill me with hope and pride.”

The students – whose classes have been shifted online or, in the case of clinical learning, postponed — represent the university’s School of Medicine, Medical Scientist Training Program, Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences, Division of Biostatistics, and the Programs in Occupational Therapy, in Physical Therapy, and in Audiology and Communication Sciences.

Christopher Chermside-Scabbo, a fifth-year MD-PhD candidate, is one of the students who initiated the volunteer effort after a coronavirus town hall led by the School of Medicine’s senior leaders March 12. “COVID-19 has been a call to action for many medical students,” said Chermside-Scabbo, who launched the endeavor with Cyrus Ghaznavi and Bruin Pollard, second- and first-year medical students, respectively. “Besides social distancing and supporting family and friends, we wanted to contribute to the ongoing efforts to control the outbreak.”

Within 24 hours of the effort’s launch, more than 100 students had signed up to volunteer. As of March 30, the number had grown to 250 students, and it increases daily. The students also created a Slack channel — an online, information-sharing chat room of sorts — to share tips and ideas with medical students coordinating similar initiatives at other campuses nationwide. The Slack channel now has more than 700 members.

“Medical workers — many of them our instructors and mentors — have dedicated themselves to the front lines,” Ghaznavi said. “We want to help reduce their stress so they can give their full attention to COVID-19.”

Ghaznavi, for instance, is leading efforts to inform physicians on new research relevant to COVID-19. About 100 medical and graduate students distill findings of newly published studies into daily reports they began distributing March 15.

Another initiative includes providing free child care for health-care workers who lack such arrangements due to shelter-in-place orders in the St. Louis region that have shuttered schools and day-care centers. Around 170 students have volunteered.

Led by Chermside-Scabbo, the child-care initiative involves Washington University students who have partnered with peers from campuses nationwide to form a grassroots online site called Healthcare Workers Childcare Co-op. It provides free student referrals to doctors, nurses and other health-care workers in need of child care. Students and medical workers are encouraged to vet one another.

Haley Sherburne, a first-year medical student interested in pediatrics, volunteered to help coordinate logistics for the child-care initiative. “I’m just beginning my journey as a clinician and cannot actively participate in the treatment of those affected by COVID-19,” said Sherburne, whose child-care experience includes working with terminally ill children, as well as those with cognitive and physical disabilities. “But I can help health-care workers serve the urgent needs of our patients, knowing that their children are safe and cared for by capable and compassionate volunteers.”

Added Nicole Migotsky, a third-year PhD candidate in biomedical engineering who also is coordinating child-care efforts: “It is imperative to assist the health-care workers. Volunteering makes me feel like a productive community member.”

Medical student Sajal Tiwary models one of the face shields he and fellow medical students created for health-care workers on the Medical Campus. (Photo: Avira Som)

In less than a week, eight students developed, designed and mass produced more than 1,600 reusable face shields to help protect health-care workers treating COVID-19 patients. Other student groups also have begun developing personal protective equipment.

“The students jumped right in with enthusiasm, creativity and innovation,” said Victoria J. Fraser, MD, the Adolphus Busch Professor of Medicine and head of the Department of Medicine. “We are incredibly proud of and grateful for their efforts.”

For a low cost, the Department of Medicine funded the effort to make reusable face shields, which are made from plastic sheeting, cushion foam, elastic fabric and weatherproofing seal.

“This is a way we can continue to help patients and providers throughout the crisis,” said Katie Jordan, a third-year medical student. “The people we’re making face shields for are the same people we’ve spent countless hours with on the medical floors during our clerkships. Our responsibility and desire to help patients doesn’t go away just because we’ve been pulled from working on the floors.”

Community is equally important. Within a week or so, students plan to deliver food to people isolated with COVID-19 or at high risk of infection, such as the immunocompromised and elderly. The free, doorstop delivery is through a collaboration with STL Food Angels, an initiative of Sling Health, a nonprofit aimed at addressing health-care needs. Prepared meals or groceries will be delivered without person-to-person contact and by volunteers who have had their temperatures taken and have no symptoms of COVID-19.

In another initiative, nearly 100 students have volunteered to help respond to emails from School of Medicine students and employees with questions about the virus and possible exposure to it. With faculty supervision, the students’ responsibilities include offering advice and resources regarding COVID-19 symptoms, as well as whether to self-quarantine or return to work after travel. By their second day of fielding coronavirus-related emails, the students had emailed 1,000 responses. To date, they have answered more than 1,700 emails.

“Being a medical student during the COVID-19 pandemic has been scary, with all of the extensive changes and cancellations,” said Pollard, who is leading the email project. “Amid the chaos, however, I have felt uplifted watching my classmates rise to the challenge. I have a feeling that years from now, we will look back with pride, knowing we came through when our community depended on us to help get health-care workers onto the front lines.”

Additionally, students have volunteered with the St. Louis County Health Department to help with contact tracing, a public health tool used to help control outbreaks of infectious diseases. The method involves zeroing in on everyone an infected patient has had contact with and then monitoring those contacts for illness. If sick, the contacts are isolated and treated, and asked to provide all of their recent contacts so that the process may continue.

“Our students have been an inspiration,” said Steven J. Lawrence, MD, an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases and a university leader tasked with helping control the outbreak through education, communication and coordination of response activities across the Danforth and Medical School campuses. “This is an unprecedented global event during our modern times, and there is a lot of uncertainty. The students have been a light to all of us on the pandemic front lines.”