Take a look inside NAU’s mitigation testing site and the people who keep it running day to day

Guy in PPE gives woman a "thumbs up" for producing a good saliva sample

Eight months ago, the University Union Fieldhouse transformed almost overnight into a COVID-19 testing center, serving people from the NAU and Flagstaff communities every day.

Halfway through the spring semester, the Fieldhouse testing site continues to serve about 450 people a day, and some days as many as 700, offering free testing—a key factor in NAU’s efforts to catch asymptomatic COVID-19 cases and reduce the overall spread of the contagious disease in the community.

“This testing site provides individuals the ability to test at no cost at a convenient location on the NAU campus as often as they desire as well as allows the university to conduct required testing as part of our overall COVID-19 mitigation strategies,” said Christy Farley, vice president of external affairs and partnerships. “This required testing has identified asymptomatic positive individuals, provided required isolation direction, and then allowed for close contact notifications and quarantine measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 at NAU, allowing for in-person classes throughout the 2020-2021 academic year.”

Keeping the testing site running takes dozens of NAU employees who have been reassigned from their normal duties, as well as nursing students who are earning clinical hours working on-site and contracted clinical staff through NAU’s partnership with ASU. The on-site managers are Karen Martinez, medical assistant from Campus Health Services, Aaron Kaminski, assistant manager in Contracts, Purchasing and Risk Management, and Samantha White, events manager from University Events. Each spends a couple of days per week overseeing the daily operation of the testing site and the 10-14 workers who assist guests during the testing process.

“The mission of our days at the site is to provide the NAU and greater Flagstaff community with the best possible guest experience they can have while taking a COVID-19 test,” White said. “From the moment they enter they are greeted with positivity and great service. This customer service is born out of the commitment of our site managers and our staff.”

The site opened in August; following completion of a partnership between NAU, the federal government and Coconino County for NAU to host a surge testing site, with FEMA providing tests. A committee staffed by people throughout campus pulled the site together in less than a week. The current testing site, which offers saliva-based testing through a partnership with ASU, began Sept. 2, with Farley, associate vice president of University Events Krista Allen and associate vice president in Contracts, Purchasing and Risk Management Becky McGaugh playing critical roles in setting up the site and contracts.

As site managers, Martinez, Kaminski and White oversee the workers (they average 13 a day, but have gone as low as nine during winter storms, when travel was difficult) and do staffing, training, IT, clean up spills, do inventory, offer advice on how to produce a sample—”I never thought I would spend days talking people through how to produce saliva,” White joked—and address any other issues that arise. The  staff and volunteers work each of the stations.

Prior to starting, staffers and volunteers do online training for HIPAA and saliva collections in addition to the daily briefings.

“Many of our clinical staff have been with us since we opened our doors and have helped us make the site into what it is today,” White said. “Every morning, the staff receives training on each station as well as the overall site operations. Each station has a lead who is responsible for ensuring more in-depth training, and the site managers walk each station to ensure that everyone is well prepared to open the doors and greet our guests. The leads take great pride in their stations, and that pride shows through.”

Nursing student Savannah Miller has staffed the testing site for months, first earning credit for clinical hours and now as a contracted staff member. She has enjoyed getting to be a part of something that helps people during the pandemic, when people are worried and scared about their health, and also has gotten great experience in health care.

“There are multiple nurses on site as well, and getting to talk to them between guests is awesome,” Miller said. “It also helps getting used to wearing all that protective gear all day long, since I will have to do that for shifts as a nurse sometimes.”

She and the other staffers arrive at 8 a.m., though testing doesn’t begin until 9 a.m. The site supervisor assigns stations, shares how many people are registered and what to expect and any updates about which the workers need to be aware. They dress in full PPE, including gowns, a face shield or safety goggles, KN95 masks and two pairs of gloves. They wipe down their stations in between each guest and go through a lot of hand sanitizer to make sure the testing site remains clean and safe for all of the guests. This includes instructing guests to avoid touching anything in the Fieldhouse and to not put down purses, backpacks and other items they bring in. The entire system is designed so staffers and guests never touch any potentially infected surfaces.

That’s the technical side of it. On the people side, there’s a lot of answering questions, directing people on where to go and helping guests feel comfortable in what for many was an unfamiliar situation.

“A lot of the people that come through the site now have been there at least once, if not many times before, so they are not as scared,” Miller said. “However, we do our best as a team to make them feel as safe as possible and make this process as easy as we can for them.”

Kaminski took on this role as part of the university’s risk management team; mitigation is an important part of NAU’s strategy to make people aware of their status and take care of themselves appropriately.

“Since this disease can be passed asymptomatically, it is important for people to know if they are positive or not to help reduce the spread and protect those around them,” Kaminski said.

He said at the testing site, they work to accommodate guests’ needs as much as possible, including having pictorial instructions and translation services available. They want testing to be as positive an experience as possible for every guest.

“People have come through with injuries and we assist in any way we can. The sports teams are regulars, and we enjoy encouraging their safe participation in sports,” he said. “I remember this elderly couple that came through and their birthdates told me they were in their 90s. We helped them to the closest bay, gave them an extra chair so they could test together and tried to make their experience as easy as possible.”

The three on-site managers also work with the university leaders who have oversight of the testing to ensure they are able to adapt as needed to continue meeting the community’s needs.

“The site has changed a lot since its inception in the fall, but each iteration has served to provide an even better experience for our guests,” White said. “As site managers, our responsibilities cover a wide swath from training and staffing to fixing IT issues that may arise, helping coach a guest on how to provide a saliva sample, ensuring the staff feels empowered to work their stations, providing necessary back-up if stations need extra hands, managing the inventory and doing anything else that arises.”