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Standing by for a surge

If COVID-19 testing on the Palouse reaches surge capacity, it’s on three 2020 Coug graduates to step up and help meet the demand.

Inside the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory on the WSU Pullman Campus, those three new Coug alumnae – Victoria Fitzpatrick, Sylena Harper, and Hannah Wilson – are busy providing laboratory results that could save lives.

Since COVID-19 testing on the WSU campus began last July, the three have been working in shifts to process tests from throughout the Palouse and eastern Washington.

In fact, if your test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus was processed by WSU through its WADDL-One Health Laboratory, it was surely processed by them.

“We’re not doing research, but we’re helping, and it’s nice to be a part of something that’s bigger than me,” Harper said. Harper received degrees in chemistry and biochemistry from Washington State University in May. Like Fitzpatrick and Wilson, her job at WADDL as a Microbiologist is her first out of college, and as an essential frontline worker.

Harper admits, the work can be grueling, and it takes an emotional toll at times.

“I think about people getting these results and lives being changed for better or worse,” Harper said. “Depending on how many people are positive or negative, it can really get to you. We just have to remember that we will get through this if we handle it as safely as possible.”

The team uses real-time polymerase chain reaction, or RT-PCR, to process a COVID-19 test.

“We take a sample out of the viral of transport media and strip it of everything other than DNA and RNA, so all that mucus is taken out so we can amplify it and determine if the virus’ RNA can be detected,” said Wilson, who received a degree in genetics and cell biology in May.

In general, Wilson said, as WADDL is an overflow testing site, the work ebbs and flows, but the team has seen their share of late nights and early mornings. To date, the lab has tested over 55,000 COVID-19 samples.

“When doing high throughput work, efficiency is key, we can survive without one of us, but we work better together,” Wilson said.

Wilson moved back to Pullman in June after graduating and moving home near Bend, Ore.

Fitzpatrick also moved back to Pullman from her hometown outside Seattle.

“As a recent graduate, the job market wasn’t great and we were told to expect not to work for a little bit,” she said. “It was a sad time, but this job was a way for me to contribute at a time that was really hard on people.”

In addition to Fitzpatrick’s first time working in a lab setting, the team said the job helped build troubleshooting, critical thinking, team-building and hands-on lab skills.

“The whole process we do every day is nothing like I’ve ever done before,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re in dark times; there’s not a lot you can do about it. I’m just happy us three can be there to help in some way.”

WSU cougar logo. Several colleges, programs starting spring semester early

Not all WSU programs are observing the revised Jan. 19 start date for the Spring 2021 semester.

Students at WSU Health Sciences and some students in the Carson College of Business and the College of Veterinary Medicine all will start earlier for various reasons, such as clinical contracts and commitments.

Students in the College of Nursing and College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences will begin the semester on Jan. 11. That applies to students on any campus, so even though WSU Vancouver is observing the delayed start date, for example, nursing students there will begin instruction on Jan. 11.

Medical students in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine returned to class on Jan. 4. Students in the college’s Nutrition and Exercise Physiology and Speech and Hearing Sciences programs will return on Jan. 11.

Students in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program also will begin on Jan. 11, while other undergraduate and graduate students in the college will delay their start until Jan. 19.

Finally, the Master of Business Administration program at the Carson College of Business will begin on Jan. 11.

Dr. Katie Kuehl holds a cat while wearing protective gear. WSU students, faculty on the frontlines extending support across the state

From hospitals and healthcare facilities to people’s homes and communities, Cougs are making a difference across the state of Washington during this pivotal time.

Dr. Katie Kuehl, a veterinarian and clinical assistant professor, is advancing collaborative research to better understand the One Health implications of COVID-19.

Flexibility has been essential, for her and everyone else working to keep communities safe.

“My motto this year has been pivot, pivot, pivot,” Kuehl said.

Kuehl is far from the only Coug who has had to be adaptable over the last year.

Veronica Mauri, a nursing student in Spokane, is among those pitching in at an area hospitals. In the midst of a turbulent year, her biggest takeaway is that life will have many opportunities to learn and grow.

“I have my whole life to do this job,” she said. “If I don’t get the answer to every question, the experience or skills I’m hoping for right away, it doesn’t mean I won’t be a good nurse.”

Mauri and Kuehl are just two of the multitude of university students, faculty and staff helping to keep campuses and communities safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Campus employees also are being lauded throughout the WSU system for their work to keep buildings clean so that vital research and student support services can continue.

The university thanks all members of its community for their resilience and tenacity during 2020, and looks forward to the progress that will continue to be made in the year to come.

Cancellation brings an opportunity

In a normal year, Dr. Katie Kuehl leads a clinical rotation for veterinary students at the Seattle Humane Society. As COVID-19 became a grave concern, the rotation was shut down.

“I had to figure out something to do with myself,” Kuehl said.

She chose to get involved with a collaborative study between WSU and the University of Washington, going into the homes of people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and screening their pets for the disease.

Closeup of Dr. Katie Kuehl
Dr. Katie Kuehl

So far, Kuehl and her fellow veterinarians have visited more than 50 homes, sampling cats and dogs. The researchers are also interested in testing hamsters and ferrets, as they have the receptors that make them susceptible to the virus that causes COVID-19.

Kuehl was initially concerned about how people would react to seeing two people getting into full-body protective suits in their neighborhoods.

“On one of our first visits, a person walking their dog walked by us wide eyed and said to us, “I don’t know what your doing but thank you so much for doing it,”” she recalled. “At that point, I realized, okay, we’re doing the right thing and that people are with us.”

Each animal they test has their nose, back of the throat and rectum swabbed and a blood sample collected as part of the screenings. Project leaders have a goal of sampling from 100 homes before seeking to publish their findings. The researchers are not using the same kinds of sampling supplies used to conduct human screenings.

Pet owners who are concerned about transmitting the disease to their pets should treat them like any other member of their household, Kuehl said.

“We’d recommend frequent hand washing, avoid face to face contact with animals, and not sleeping in the same bed as your animal if you are experiencing symptoms.”

In addition to collecting test samples from pets, Kuehl is volunteering with agencies in the Seattle area to provide pet care to individuals who are experiencing homelessness. She asks everyone interested in helping their communities to donate to local food banks, where the needs are often critical.

Patients key to maintaining passion

Veronica Mauri has seen first-hand the physical and emotional toll these past nine months have taken on healthcare workers. As often as her studies allow, she works in the float pool at Multicare Health System’s Deaconess Hospital in Spokane.

Some days she is a safety companion for patients. Other shifts she’s taking vitals as a nursing assistant.

Nursing student Veronica Mauri in PPE
Veronica Mauri, a nursing student in Spokane, works as a float nurse at Multicare Health System’s Deaconess Hospital in Spokane.

On several occasions, she’s spent her 12-hour shift on the hospital’s COVID-19 floor, donning elaborate personal protective equipment as she assists patients often battling the disease without their loved ones there in-person to comfort them.

The pandemic has exposed already known challenges within healthcare, such as patient to staff ratios and lagging compensation. These issues coupled with long, emotionally draining days can leave Mauri and her coworkers feeling downtrodden.

Those feelings are cast aside when Mauri steps into a patient’s room. It’s in these settings where she often finds herself reminded of why she wants to be a nurse.

“Just when you start to feel burned out, a patient comes along to remind you why you stay,” Mauri said.

She recently had a patient whose first language wasn’t English. Working with a translator, Mauri and a nurse were able to determine what food the patient liked to eat. The patient told them they were the first to take the time to communicate with him in that way and was exceptionally grateful to them.

“Connecting in a special way with a patient like that helps you remember why you do this,” she said.

Mauri started at Deaconess in February of 2019 shortly after arriving in Spokane for nursing school.  She saw it as an opportunity to get some first-hand experience as well as a way to get involved in a new community.

“I was looking for an avenue to meet people, and it ended up turning into a lot more than that,” Mauri said. “I’ve learned how to walk into a room with a stranger, communicate with them and provide intimate care, which is something nursing students have to get used to.”

The differences were immediately evident when Mauri arrived for her first shift in March after spending Spring Break away from Spokane. While wearing masks for 12 hours straight seemed daunting at first, now she doesn’t even notice it.

Seeing spikes in cases and people failing to abide by public health guidelines can be demoralizing. Appreciative social media posts are encouraging, but ultimately, the best thing people can do to help healthcare workers is to wear masks, remain physically distant from others and follow all other state and local health guidelines.

“Following the regulations is not a political issue, it is a public health issue, and the best way for people to show appreciation for healthcare workers is to be part of the solution that ensures that we don’t have to do this all year next year.”

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Raelynn Farnsworth
Associate Dean
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Jennifer Gerardi
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