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Published April 14, 2020
As the COVID-19 pandemic began to appear in Wyoming, medical staffs at clinics and hospitals were already preparing to care for those who would become ill -- and to help communities slow the spread of the novel coronavirus by providing health safety instructions.
The Educational Health Center of Wyoming (EHCW), which includes two University of Wyoming family medicine residency clinics in Casper and Cheyenne and the Albany Community Health Clinic, also began efforts to care for the increased number of patients. This gave UW College of Health Sciences students the opportunity to volunteer where needed.
Students from the college volunteered to provide patient screenings and other services to assist health care providers with the increased inflow of patients seeking treatment and/or testing for COVID-19. College of Health Sciences students also are filling other volunteer roles in their communities.
Conner Morton, from Casper, is a second-year student in the WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) Medical Education Program who volunteered at the UW Family Medicine Program in Casper.
“In short, we are screening patients at the entrance to the UW Family Medicine Clinic in an effort to keep all symptomatic patients out of the clinic,” Morton says. “We take the temperature of everyone entering the clinic, including faculty, and have them answer a quick survey about symptoms and travel history. If someone shows positive symptoms -- fever, cough and shortness of breath -- we either set them up for a telehealth appointment or direct them to the testing center.”
Marcus Couldridge, also from Casper and a classmate of Morton, was informed by a family member the Casper clinic needed help.
“My mother is a physician at the clinic, and she stated they need help running the screening desk,” Couldridge says. “A couple different physicians, Dr. (Tabitha) Thrasher and Dr. Robitaille, ran us through the questioning procedure on the first day, and then we had a direct line to the attending physicians if we had any concerns about patients coming in.”
Dr. Beth Robitaille, a physician and chief medical officer with the EHCW, says the students’ work has been appreciated.
“Their help was extremely valuable during this time while our existing staff members and providers focused on phone triage, conversion to virtual care (telehealth and phone encounters), the care of hospitalized patients and the education of our resident physicians,” she says.
Telehealth is an expanding medical technology that allows a patient to visit with a physician remotely using audio/video equipment. Not only can this virtual doctor visit help reduce travel challenges but, in the event of a pandemic such as COVID-19, telehealth also can prevent the spread of illness from patient to provider.
Medical Students Help the Elderly
Ryan Winchell, also a second-year medical student and native of Santa Cruz, Calif., reached out to find ways to volunteer and help after COVID-19 canceled many clinical training activities.
“When our clinical rotations were canceled, I emailed Dr. Yvette Haeberle, WWAMI clinical curriculum director, asking her what I could do to help,” Winchell says. “She thought we may be able to help individuals in the community who either shouldn't or can't go into public places. I spoke with one of the nursing staff at Family Physicians of Laramie, and we talked about identifying people who probably could use help. I made contact with other WWAMI students I knew were still in Laramie, and the group of us came up with our time availability and things we were comfortable doing.”
Though never meeting those they were helping, these students ran errands such as grocery shopping and picking up prescriptions.
“Some of the people we've been helping are in their 70s and 80s, and they say they've never seen anything like this before,” Winchell says. “They're happy that people are willing to help them with things like getting groceries and prescriptions. The elderly are at much greater risk of suffering severe illness or death from COVID-19, so keeping them safe and inside their homes is important to us.
“It's tough for us because, as medical students, we have the natural desire to want to help in medical and clinical settings right now,” he adds. “But, at this point, that's not the best utilization plan for us, so we will continue helping however we can.”
Nursing Students Step Up
UW Fay W. Whitney School of Nursing students Neil Anderson and Alexandra “Lexie” Nicole Smith found time to volunteer at the Albany Community Health Clinic (ACHC).
“We mostly helped screen people at the door for C-19 symptoms and exposure before allowing them into the clinic,” says Anderson, from Portland, Ore., a sophomore in the Basic BSN program.
The nursing students also have helped disinfect surfaces and clinic equipment.
Smith, a Basic BSN senior, is from North Pole, Alaska. “I do believe it is important to note the absolutely fantastic attitudes of all those in the clinic during these hard times,” Smith says.
“Due to social distancing and the overall fear many people have, people can often be off-putting in interactions, but this clinic took me in with open arms and a warm heart. That was a great feeling to have,” Smith says. “The Albany clinic also has done a great job at creating an environment and a place of care that has, and I believe will continue, to provide positive, quality, patient-centered care.”
J’Laine Proctor, mental health provider with the ACHC, says the students have been very helpful.
“During this difficult time in our community, having the students volunteer at our clinic was like a breath of fresh air,” Proctor says. “Their eagerness to help out and participate in caring for our vulnerable population of patients was palpable and contagious. I look forward to having them as colleagues once they graduate.”
Xena Allen, from Sacramento, Calif., is a sophomore in the Fay W. Whitney School of Nursing’s Basic BSN program and was already working as a certified nursing assistant and an emergency room technician at Ivinson Memorial Hospital.
“Though I have not volunteered, I increased my hours at Ivinson Memorial Hospital from approximately 20 hours a week to around 60 to 80 hours a week,” Allen says. “I am currently working in almost every unit in the hospital to help out in this time. We are experiencing the (personal protective equipment) shortage, as with every other hospital, and we are doing what we can with what we have. I'm also officially picking up at least 40 hours a week now to help out.”
Social Work Students Offer Support
During any time of crisis, emotional and social support is a critical part of community health.
Haley Jones, of Houston, Texas, is a senior in the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program, with plans to graduate in May. Part of her learning plan includes serving as an intern at Needs Inc., a food pantry and clothing closet in Cheyenne.
“These are uncertain times, but food shouldn’t be uncertain,” Jones says. “There are different ways to help out. Donating food, volunteering or donating money are ways we can help our community. Running an errand or supporting someone at risk is a good way, too. You can be there for someone physically and mentally.”
Jones credits her senior classmates and faculty members for being caring, supportive and wanting students to succeed.
Students with the UW Associated Students of Social Work (ASSW) are sponsoring Supportive Talk and Resources (STAR), which provides social contact for community members who feel alone or just need someone to talk to.
Jessica Gutierrez, from Loveland, Colo.; Tate Hodson, from Curtis, Neb.; Brittany Anderson, from Lingle; and Jezebel Rubis, from Riverton, are members of a group of students associated with ASSW. Each student interacts with community members by phone, text, email or video call.
“With the state of our world currently, this time has become difficult for many people,” Rubis says. “With this in mind, we are letting members of the community know that they are not alone in their struggles and, thanks to technology, we can be together while still maintaining social distancing.”
“Now, through this supportive service,” Hodson says, “we are reaching out to provide conversation and support anyway we can to the Laramie community.”
Kym Codallos, assistant lecturer with the UW Division of Social Work, serves as a contact referral to connect students with interested individuals. The service is free and for people of all ages.
“It is not counseling or therapy -- it is simply a supportive service that we are offering to all in a manner that meets the individual's needs and to help people not feel so alone,” Codallos says.
For more information on STAR, email email@example.com or call (307) 766-5490.