Ohio State University: Students organize COVID-19 pop-up testing sites

The 15 minutes it took one Columbus family to get tested for COVID-19 meant the difference between taking their unknowingly infected 7-year-old son to a birthday party, as planned, or going straight back home to set up a telehealth appointment with his pediatrician.

Breaking chains of infection like the one that could have unfolded at the party is the primary purpose of COVID-19 testing sites run by Ohio State University public health students, who have been operating the pop-ups since July around central Ohio.

Master of Public Health students Amanda Bleichrodt, Daria Faulkner and Sophia Padgett, who used the experience as part of their MPH practicum over the summer, are leading the initiative.

With the support of the college, Columbus Public Health and the Ohio National Guard, the team has regularly set up testing sites at publicly accessible places such as libraries, parks and community centers. Piggybacking on events like the Far East Recreation Center’s community giveaway in August has helped the team reach even more people.

“The main goal is to bring testing opportunity into the community, which is especially relevant as the Delta variant spreads and we hear about more and more breakthrough cases,” Faulkner said, adding that the team is working to provide testing to hard-to-reach populations such as those who speak English as a second language and people who are homeless.

On Aug. 28, the team offered testing at a men’s shelter run by Southeast Healthcare’s Friends of the Homeless program in east Columbus, and they’ll be visiting two additional shelters this month.

“Pandemic aside, health care is unfortunately not the top priority when someone is going through a homeless crisis — they’re looking to survive day-to-day,” said Antonio Caffey, director of homeless services for Friends of the Homeless Columbus. “COVID-19 has created huge challenges for our shelter.”

Caffey said the shelter has operated at reduced capacity for over a year, and that he and his staff do what they can to educate residents about COVID vaccination and testing, including referrals and bus passes to health centers. The Ohio State team bringing the testing directly to the shelter made it easier for residents to access services, he said.

“Going to the shelter was the most rewarding day I’ve had in years,” Faulkner said. “We had good participation, and the residents were very responsive and appreciative. … You just feel like you did something right.”

For MPH epidemiology student Sophia Padgett, the greatest value of the project has been the opportunity to implement her knowledge of public health outside of the classroom.

“It’s a lot harder putting it into practice than having the idea, and that’s something we’ve learned over these past few months,” Padgett said. “It’s been a continuous learning experience.”

The students are also gathering data for a new algorithm that could eventually predict locations with high numbers of undiagnosed COVID-19 cases. The data-driven approach began as a project out of Yale University to track HIV hot spots and involves partners from Ohio State’s Colleges of Engineering and Public Health and the university’s Battelle Center for Science, Engineering and Public Policy.

Ohio National Guard Medic Troy Fowler, who administered COVID tests for the College of Public Health team on Aug. 25, praised the project’s ability to immediately identify those who might be feeling COVID-19 symptoms but who haven’t yet had the opportunity to seek a test elsewhere.

Added Padgett, “It’s so important to meet people where they are.”

Other contributors to this project include Ohio State public health students Maria Krantz and Lauren Putz; engineering students Aaron Cochran, Dante Della Vella, Dane Morey and Net Zhang; Battelle Center staff member Sam Malloy; and engineering faculty member Mike Rayo; David Kline, Wake Forest School of Medicine; and Gregg Gonsalves, Yale University School of Public Health.