Unsung heroes power the UO’s COVID-19 monitoring initiative

Monitoring initiative's frontline workers

Behind the scenes of the UO’s COVID-19 Monitoring and Assessment Program is a small army of dedicated people working to keep the university community safe.

They are project coordinators, purchasing agents, lab technicians and lab supervisors, community liaisons and on-the-ground testing facilitators, all helping fulfill the program’s goals of developing and expanding the university’s testing capacity for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The program leverages the research strengths of the UO, including experts in genomics, data science, prevention science and other areas.

“These are unsung heroes who are working long hours, donning (personal protective equipment), going to testing sites or running samples in the lab to selflessly contribute to this vitally important effort to ensure the health and safety of our communities and help us stay ahead of the spread,” said Leslie Leve, a co-science lead for the program, a professor in the Prevention Science Institute and associate vice president for research.

Jaimyn Emery, a research assistant in the Prevention Science Institute, serves as an assessment coordinator, providing logistical support to on-the-ground teams and serving alongside Hannah Tavalire, the program’s scientific coordinator.

“Being able to provide less expensive and more widely available testing just feels overall like a helpful and useful thing for our community and our world,” Emery said.

Since the monitoring initiative launched in spring, the team has been working alongside multiple state agencies, including Lane County Public Health, to assist with pop-up COVID-19 testing events in the community, with plans to make testing available to many more individuals and communities later this fall.

UO President Michael Schill praised the tireless work of the monitoring team in supporting Lane County public health officials and in developing and validating the new COVID-19 testing methods.

“This is an opportunity for the UO to repurpose our research capacities, to meet this critical moment and help the university and local and state communities get back to business,” Schill said. “These investments we’ve made in safeguarding the health of Oregon communities would not be possible without the selfless sacrifices being made by the hard-working members of our MAP team.”

The program has been working with medical clinics and Lane Country to collect nasal and saliva samples to help advance laboratory protocols approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and validate saliva for use by the UO as a biological sample.

“Developing both optimal collection techniques and laboratory testing protocols are each a lot of work and even harder to do together,” said co-science lead Bill Cresko, a professor of biology and executive director of UO’s Data Science Initiative. “The MAP members make an incredible relay team.”

Led by Doug Turnbull, director of the Genomics and Cell Characterization Core Facility, and Susie Bassham, a senior research associate, the laboratory team put its normal work on hold to help build an entirely new testing facility in recently renovated space in Pacific Hall. They started by borrowing scientific equipment from faculty members across campus to get testing launched last spring. Over this summer they have installed advanced robotics and testing equipment.

They also have been working with a team of UO researchers and other research universities to implement FDA-approved technology for measuring DNA with nasal swabs used for testing students in residence halls. The team is now putting the finishing touches on protocols that use saliva and next-generation sequencing technologies that, combined with previous advances, will significantly increase testing capacity.

Tavalire, the scientific coordinator, oversees sample collection teams of graduate students and research assistants. In addition to supporting testing efforts by helping county health officials during half-day testing events, field workers are contributing to the science goal of validating innovative self-testing methods for use at the UO.

“It’s worth recognizing the great risk that these grad student are taking to be there in the field interacting with the public when they could just as easily be at home Zooming,” Tavalire said. 

Tavalire pointed to other contributions quietly being made by the program’s purchasing department, the UO’s legal team and the university’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety working to ensure student workers have adequate personal protective equipment at a time when medical supplies are limited.

Irin Mannan, a graduate teaching fellow and third-year doctoral student in the College of Education’s prevention science program, said any risks she and her team face are worth taking.

“I’m a 30-something healthy young female who’s not in a high-risk medical category,” said Mannan, who has helped staff testing events in Lane and Marion counties. “At the end of the day, I feel I’m doing a service in the community.”

Beyond the on-the-ground heroes of the initiative, Tavalire points to numerous other monitoring team members who were integral to the program’s launch:
·      Greg Shabram — Monitoring program co-lead with Leve and Cresko, and UO Chief Procurement Officer. 
·      Gretchen Drew, Anna Shamble – Project managers overseeing the program development and implementation.
·      Jake Searcy, Emily Beck — Data modeling and systems implementation.
·      Brendan Lindsey – Data management.
·      Derek Wormdahl – Information Services liaison.
·      Ariana White — Lab supervisor overseeing regulatory compliance.
·      Jeff Bishop, Byron Hetrick and Maggie Weitzman — Researchers tackling critical molecular innovations to get the lab up and running.
·      Stephanie Bowers, and Christie Dotson — Administrative support team.
·      Julia Cohalan, Shari Powell— Budget management and purchasing.

One aspect of making the tests more widely available has been the monitoring program’s focus on equity and cultural tailoring. With leadership from Elizabeth Budd, Evergreen Assistant Professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services, the team is applying lessons learned from interviews with more than 20 key community stakeholders to promote culturally relevant approaches into testing.

“There are staff who are bicultural, bilingual and really knowledgeable about person-to-person interactions and providing a supportive care environment,” said Camille Cioffi, the team’s community liaison.

Cioffi also credits the UO’s Research Compliance Services for its responsiveness to the monitoring initiative’s needs. The unit, which is charged with protecting the rights of people participating in UO research, has quickly responded to requests for review and approval of COVID-19 research protocols.

A research associate in the Prevention Science Institute, Cioffi helps the team by building and maintaining partnerships with health authorities and other community organizations. She said the hardest part of her daily juggling act is giving up time that she would be spending with her 1 ½-year-old daughter.

Tavalire too, works long hours. In addition to keeping her teams well supplied, a significant portion of her job involves filling out paperwork to ensure compliance with research safety standards and other protocols.

The team anticipates that these approaches, which will allow the lab to process thousands rather than hundreds of samples per day, will be available in late fall, depending on how quickly approvals are received. The team recently held a pilot run of a testing event with UO employees to further validate the testing equipment and sample collection protocols.

By Lewis Taylor, University Communications