Carolina COVID Service Corps keeps campus healthy

The COVID-19 pandemic that arrived in 2020 not only brought a virus that gravely threatened the health and well-being of citizens across the state – it triggered a near-immediate shift in how human services such as health care and education could be delivered.

The airborne nature of transmission, the high rate of contagion and the poor outcomes for many COVID patients put the nation on lockdown. At Carolina that spring, students and faculty in health affairs fields at UNC-Chapel Hill adapted swiftly and ably with a chain-reaction of support. Students had time on their hands when their clinical rotations were cancelled, and they were determined to help as they watched front-line workers go into overdrive. They coordinated childcare for hospital employees working around the clock and searched for other ways to serve. Emails flew, meals came together, masks were made, shifts filled.

Many turned to Meg Zomorodi, PhD, RN, CNL, FAAN, a professor at UNC’s School of Nursing and Carolina’s Assistant Provost for Interprofessional Education and Practice (IPEP) who has long used her skills as a nurse and an administrator to optimize resources in the name of better health outcomes for those in the University’s orbit. She fielded the frequent questions:

How can I help?

How can I get help?

The result was the Carolina COVID Service Corps (CCSC) – an initiative organized and managed by the IPEP office and the UNC School of Medicine to help the campus community meet the growing needs of North Carolina while strategically offering educational opportunities for the health-affairs students during the COVID pandemic.

Health care in the time of COVID-19 had come with a learning curve – new technology, new procedures, and a lot of unknowns. Carolina students immediately stepped up to learn, implement and test telehealth technology for health care practitioners, serve as scribes, help schedule appointments, man hotlines for health agencies flooded with questions, and connect with patients in rural areas.

“A number of units, like the School of Medicine, were creating their own opportunities for not only outreach to the state, but also for service learning and clinical skills learning for their students. Our office decided to seize this moment and bring everyone together, creating something more centrally located with a firm structure and support that really gives us all the opportunity to think about how we serve communities from a systems level perspective that can make lasting change,” says Zomorodi.

As the pandemic wore on through last summer, and collective knowledge of how to stay safe from the virus grew, students eventually went back into clinical activities. Zomorodi was set to shut down the Corps because the needs had shifted.

“That’s when the Provost said – we need you to bring that back, and we need you to bring it back on a larger level. Carolina now needed this specifically for volunteers to keep our campus healthy and happy during Spring 2021 when we opened campus up again. And, in order to do that, we need an army of volunteers.”

During the summer of 2020, many students were discouraged from doing certain activities because of PPE shortage, and now that masks are both prevalent and proven to prevent the transmission of the virus, Zomorodi says, “we need to kind of reverse that a little bit and say, we can participate in activities, if we do them safely, and we can be engaged as a community.”

CCSC recruited volunteers from all over campus to help with Carolina’s expanded COVID initiatives. Volunteers work on various projects in the Carolina and Chapel Hill communities, in everything from social media campaigns, health and safety education and promotion, COVID-testing support, vaccination administration, and contact tracing.

“We took that model from the summer where we were helping community partners, and now we’re engaging our students to make UNC the big community partner. Something we’ve added is a component for many of our undergraduate pre-health students who will be applying to professional schools, but still might not be able to get in-person volunteer and shadowing opportunities they need in the hospital.”

Student volunteers earn a certificate if they complete 75 hours of volunteer time with the Corps, and they also have the opportunity for professional shadowing opportunities via Zoom.

I love learning and applying my skills as a nurse to be able to serve. That’s what nurses do. Nurses can be a very active voice in meeting needs, and people look to us during times like these. We should really maximize that, and it shouldn’t go away when a crisis is over.

More than 1400 students signed up to volunteer in the Corps, and since January the Corps has volunteered over 25,000 hours of service to the UNC community. “It’s been amazing to see the students forming their own community, serving as mentors and a support system to each other. Students even created an opportunity for Freshman to go on a campus tour. For those who had previously only been on campus for a few weeks, this was a chance to see the Carolina that so many of us know and love.”

Zomorodi always knew the Corps was bigger than the pandemic, she says. Early on, she was aware it would have a ripple effect to not only the communities Carolina serves, but also to positively impact the students themselves. For her, the pandemic and resulting mobilization around health promotion has been the kind of learning opportunity she’s come to expect as a nurse and as nursing faculty. And she is excited to see the corps work continue in to the future.

“I’m very glad to be at the table,” she says.

“The nursing school taught me as an undergrad that I should always keep learning, and that’s enabled me to embrace this extra responsibility, this growth, during this time. I love learning and applying my skills as a nurse to be able to serve. That’s what nurses do. Nurses can be a very active voice in meeting needs, and people look to us during times like these. We should really maximize that, and it shouldn’t go away when a crisis is over.”