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ACU students take on front-line roles in fighting the pandemic

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Junior nursing student Kate McMillan conducts a nasal swab as part of COVID-19 surveillance testing.

They aren’t history majors, but they may be history makers. 

Whether studying nursing, biology, athletic training, or other similar fields, many Abilene Christian University students took historic steps to mitigate the effects of a pandemic – administering COVID-19 tests, processing specimens in a lab and even vaccinating their peers and the community to protect against the virus. 

The research, practicums and clinicals that accompanied their classwork this year were no longer repetitions of longstanding practices but the application of what they learned to a real-time health crisis with lives in the balance. The significance wasn’t lost on them.

“I can tell my grandkids that I helped with the COVID-19 vaccine,” said Lexi McCown, junior nursing major from Tyler, Texas. “Not only was I gaining valuable experience in providing vaccinations, but I was actually helping get our world back to whatever normalcy we could get to. Being able to sign my name as the person who administered someone’s vaccine on that sheet of paper was so rewarding.”

From the nasal swabs necessary for testing to the processing of the samples and the administration of vaccines, students were on the front lines of protocols and processes to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus and in Abilene.

Nearly 9,000 COVID-19 tests were administered at ACU during the 2020-21 school year. Symptomatic patients were tested at the Medical Clinic, but PCR testing was available for asymptomatic students, faculty, staff and dependents at scheduled clinics throughout the year as part of a research study collaboration with Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC). 

Some participants took advantage of the no-cost testing before traveling or visiting higher-risk relatives. Many simply wanted to contribute to the widespread testing and tracing efforts that helped keep the campus safe and open. 

Junior-level nursing students did much of the nasal swabbing for these PCR tests with supervision from Dr. Marcia Straughn, assistant professor and dean of ACU’s School of Nursing. In Fall 2020, nursing students were able to volunteer to help at the testing clinics, as the need arose. In Spring 2021, however, Straughn integrated the testing more formally as part of their clinical rotations. More than 50 nursing students were involved over the course of the year. 

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A nursing student conducts a nasal swab as part of COVID-19 surveillance testing.

“Because they spend time in hospitals and medical settings, nursing students have a deep understanding of the pandemic and awareness of the impact of COVID,” Straughn said. “So the opportunity to be involved with that is pretty cool – not just standing on the side trying not to get the virus but actually being involved in prevention and mitigations.”

To comply with NCAA guidelines, ACU student-athletes had to be tested for COVID-19 multiple times each week during their season. Students in the Master of Athletic Training program, much like the nursing students, stepped up to help meet the need for testing procedures.

“We did training for them to learn how to swab and how to preserve samples,” said Cory Driskell, associate director of athletics for sports performance. “They were a little nervous at the beginning about sticking the swab so far up the nasal passage, but it was a chance to learn a new skill, and the students are always eager to learn something new in their profession.”

Samples from both the student-athlete testing and the employee and student clinics on campus were transported to the TTUHSC laboratory for analysis as part of a research study conducted by Dr. Emily Bailey, assistant professor in the Department of Public Health in Tech’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Four biology and biochemistry majors from ACU served as interns and helped process the samples, including extraction – purifying RNA from the original sample – as well as the real-time polymerase chain reaction and interpretation of the results.

“I have a passion to go into the medical workforce and help fight COVID in some way, but as an undergraduate, that’s hard to do. When I found this opportunity, it was awesome to be able to contribute in a productive way,” said Aleksander Cook, who graduated in May and plans to attend medical school at Sam Houston State University. “It also really helped me in a lab setting. Anytime you’re in a lab, you have to be precise, but when working on a test that decides whether someone is having to quarantine for two weeks, there’s a lot of precision and care involved.”

The research examined the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 on ACU’s campus from August 2020 through the end of the school year. The four Abilene Christian undergraduate students joined two TTUHSC students from its Master of Public Health program in assisting Bailey in the project.

“These students have learned molecular techniques and skills that they can use for other research or in interpreting scientific data that they may encounter later in their careers,” Bailey said. “Real-time PCR is the gold standard method for the detection of SARS-CoV-2, as it is the most sensitive test currently available, and these students have mastered this skill over the last nine months. They have been very motivated and have worked well together. Our lab processed more than 6,000 samples from ACU, and these students supported the molecular work at each step.”

In the spring semester, as vaccines became available in Abilene, ACU students had yet another opportunity to participate in virus mitigation efforts. Nursing students and athletics training students administered vaccines on campus and in city clinics, with supervision from faculty members.

“The first time volunteering at the city clinic, we only brought five students because we didn’t know what to expect, but we found it to be a great experience,” said Dr. Theresa Naldoza, assistant professor and B.S.N. program director and chair. “It wasn’t just giving vaccines, it was checking medications, talking to patients, answering questions. It was an awesome experience, so we came back and said, ‘Who else wants to go?’ ”

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ACU nursing students at the Abilene Convention Center where they administered the COVID-19 vaccine.

Haleigh Heath, a senior nursing major from Pflugerville, Texas, did. She volunteered first at the City of Abilene clinic to administer the second round of the Moderna vaccine and later with the ACU Medical Clinic to administer the first round of Moderna to Abilene Christian students and faculty. Heath said the experience was more than just a medical procedure.

“The experience was eye opening,” she said. “So many people were affected by COVID, and a lot were excited about getting the vaccine. It was an emotional experience for others because many were getting their vaccine so they could travel and see family members. It really opened my eyes to how everyone handles difficult situations. COVID-19 has impacted everyone differently, and nurses play a big role in not only being there for patients’ physical needs but also their emotional and mental ones.”

Naldoza said patients had questions – such as “How will I feel?” “What side effects should I expect?” and “Can I still go to this event?” – each presenting opportunities for nursing students to educate patients about the vaccines, CDC recommendations and best practices.

“We had a debrief after, and they felt so much more confident in their abilities,” said Pricilla Wyatt, ACU instructor of nursing. “By the end of the day, I was just watching, and they were taking patients on their own. They felt independent and involved in contributing to history, a part of healing this pandemic. It brought me joy as an instructor to see students involved in something they’ll remember the rest of their lives.”

 
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