Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

From behind the plexiglass, student workers are an essential part of Cornell's surveillance testing plan and are regularly administering COVID-19 tests to Cornell students and faculty.

September 24, 2020

To Keep Campus Open, Student Staffers Work on the Front Lines of Cornell’s COVID-19 Testing Program

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Every week, Cornell collects over 30,000 nasal swabs from Cornell students, faculty and staff as part of its COVID-19 surveillance program. Critical to this effort are the student employees that make up a large number of testers.

Lindsey Williams ’22, a student “collection staffer” —  the workers behind the clear screen — shared her experiences on the front lines of Cornell’s COVID-19 response.

Initially, Williams was concerned that the role might jeopardize her health, though the University reassured her that safety was its top concern. On the job, collection staff were provided with an abundance of personal protective equipment, including masks, face shields and hand sanitizer.

“When I was interviewing, the management I talked to compared it to working at a restaurant,” Williams said. “If you were a waiter, you would have people in front of you eating and talking, all while not wearing masks. So honestly, this feels safer than that.”

Once she was hired in early August, Williams had to complete a training session before she could start work as a collection staffer. The training session touched upon PPE use, medical ethics and the proper way to guide and collect nasal swabs.

As collection staffers, Williams and her colleagues have a number of responsibilities. In addition to guiding the swab process and collecting samples, student workers greet the thousands of students, verify their information and direct them to a testing station.

Student collection staffers serve a crucial role as part of a much broader, intricate testing system. Behind the tens of thousands of tests administered each week are workers who transport the tubes from testing sites to the laboratory and workers in the laboratory who generate the results.

As the semester has progressed, the testing process has become more efficient: Waiting times for tests have diminished, alleviating the frantic stress that once plagued many collection staffers.

“Especially in the beginning, it was overwhelming when the lines would get really long,” Williams said. “I felt a lot of pressure to go really fast to get through the line, but now I feel like we have it under control.”

But a challenge that lingers for collection workers is adapting to the constant changes made to the testing and collection procedures.

“One thing that I have found from being on the back end of it is that things are constantly changing — the way we do registration, the way we have people hand us the swab,” Williams said. “It’s not only confusing on our end, but confusing for the people who come in and get tested. But that is something that is bound to happen as you try to make [testing] better and faster.”

Williams has been pleased with the Cornell community’s commitment to the surveillance testing protocol, and she felt fortunate to play an active role in this massive undertaking to keep campus open.

“I like knowing that I am doing something active and important to keep Cornell and the Ithaca community safe.” WIlliams said.

Tamara Kamis ’22 contributed to reporting.