TestMe: Slugs rise to the challenge of helping to keep the campus community healthy

Undergraduate students working as diagnostic lab attendants are an essential part of the campus’s COVID-19 response

The students follow rigorous safety protocols, wearing face masks and standing behind sheets of plexiglass, while carefully explaining the steps to test for COVID-19. Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta.

Campus scientists have applied their skills and expertise to the COVID-19 pandemic, earning high praise for their response to the crisis. 

But lately, an on-the-ground team of testing site kiosk attendants is also being recognized for helping to keep the campus safe. 

More than five dozen hardworking Banana Slugs are a key element of UC Santa Cruz’s TestMe asymptomatic testing program, which has administered more than 56,000 COVID-19 tests of students, staff, and faculty since the project’s inception in September of 2020.

“It’s amazing to see all those students on the front line,” said Michael Luttrell, operations and logistics manager for COVID-19 testing on campus. “Without those 62-plus Slugs working as testing site kiosk attendants, there is no way we’d be testing anywhere near as many people as we test each week.”

Testing, testing

TestMe—open to UC Santa Cruz students, staff, and faculty—is designed to focus on the health and well-being of the student workers and campus community. 

The kiosk attendants welcome guests at the door and make sure the test subjects don't have symptoms because testing is only open to asymptomatic students, staff, and faculty. The students check customers in on iPads. And while the subjects do their own nasal swabs, the students are on hand to make sure this is being done correctly. 

The students follow rigorous safety protocols, wearing face masks and standing behind sheets of plexiglass, while carefully explaining the steps to test for COVID-19: swab one nostril for 15 seconds, then the other, and then put the swab in a special solution for another 30 seconds. After a friendly exchange, the student says goodbye to the customer and the next person in line steps up. 

The end result of all that hard work is between 3,500 and 4,000 COVID tests a week. 

Students who live on campus must get COVID tests twice a week, and will continue to take required COVID tests even after vaccination. If they are living off campus but coming on site for work or research, they also must agree to twice-weekly testing. Faculty and staff who are teaching, holding meetings, and other activities on campus may receive up to one test a week on a voluntary basis.

The free testing takes place at three locations on campus. The largest is at the Merrill College Cultural Center, which is open for testing Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m; Porter College’s Hitchcock Lounge, which is open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.; and College Nine’s Namaste Lounge, which is open Monday through Friday at varying times.

When Luttrell announced job openings for kiosk helpers, he wondered if he’d have enough workers to fill the positions. Instead, he received an outpouring of interest, with applications far exceeding the number of available slots. 

“I’ve been overwhelmed by the student enthusiasm in this program as well as their participation,” Luttrell said. “We had 50 applicants just within the first hour, and to date, over 300 students have applied for the positions.”

Aside from their hard work in the testing kiosks, those students influenced the logistics of the TestMe program, Luttrell added. 

“They were an integral part of developing the program and making it what it is today,” he said.

A labor of love, with lasting impacts

Many of the student workers are science communication, biology, and pre-med students interested in experience relating to their fields, and also wanting to help out other students on campus, Lutrell said. 

Nancy Sanchez (Stevenson '21, anthropology), one of the undergraduate kiosk attendants, took the job because of her desire to keep others safe. 

“A part of what drew me to this job was the idea of being able to help maintain some form of structure, a first step in attempting to keep health and safety guidelines up to date and being in a position to be a role model for others during this pandemic,” she said. 

“It’s quite interesting for me to be able to work as a kiosk attendant,” she said. “Every day I bump into familiar faces. That puts me in a unique position to bring extra comfort as they come in to test, especially the Spanish-speaking staff!” (Sanchez is a bilingual English-Spanish speaker.)

She likes contributing to “a little bit of normalcy” to the lives of those who come in to get tested frequently, especially those who live on campus. 

“Only then, with regular testing, will they feel more comfortable doing daily tasks once they know their status—all the while continuing to practice COVID-19 safety precautions,’’ she said.

UC Santa Cruz’s Student Health Outreach & Promotion (SHOP) team also plays a decisive role in the TestMe program. SHOP was charged with recruiting, hiring, and training the student kiosk workers. 

 “Having worked alongside this amazing team of students for over five months now, I am humbled and honored to see what they do on behalf of our community day in and day out,” said SHOP director Meg Kobe. 

 Safety came first during the rigorous SHOP-administered training program, said SHOP senior health educator Ali Hayes.

In our training with our student kiosk workers, we emphasized the importance of taking care of each other and how to build our team agreements around social distancing, reminding each other to wear appropriate face coverings, and utilizing hand sanitizer,” Hayes said. “We made a commitment to each other about all of the safety protocols in place to do this work on our campus.”

The training program has been “a whirlwind in a good sense,” said SHOP health educator Amber Parker. “And the fact is, UCSC wouldn't be open at all if it weren't for our amazing student team. They show up every day not only to provide quick and easy COVID testing, but to create an environment that is warm, welcoming, and celebratory. If you've been tested on campus, you've been recognized by our staff for doing your part. To me, that genuine appreciation part of the testing process is really amazing.”

Effective program

The program is efficient, providing fast results, usually within two or three days.

UC Santa Cruz infectious disease expert Marm Kilpatrick has praised the testing program’s impact. 

“The testing program has been very effective in identifying infected people quickly and providing these people with safe isolation space that has prevented subsequent onward transmission from these cases,” said Kilpatrick, UC Santa Cruz professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

The testing program helped identify a spike in cases in early January, allowing the campus to immediately take measures to prevent its spread. The spike quickly went down, and campus health officials could not find a single case that was transmitted through the campus community. It appeared all the cases were the result of people catching it elsewhere over the holiday break.

To schedule an appointment for an asymptomatic COVID screening test now, visit ucsc.edu/covidtest or call the UC Santa Cruz Student Health Center at (831) 459-2500.

However, campus testing is for people who do not have COVID-19 symptoms. Students who are showing symptoms of COVID-19 should call the Student Health Center for guidance on what to do, and employees with symptoms should call their primary care provider. Anyone with symptoms should not go to an asymptomatic testing site.