Nursing students take part in FIU coronavirus testing center

When Arlenis Barrios received an email asking Florida International University nursing students to volunteer at a COVID-19 testing site near campus, she immediately replied yes.

The call went out because of a healthcare worker shortage. The volunteers would staff the call center and fill supporting roles, while others administered the tests.

The nursing students would complete clinical hours required by their program and get hands-on experience. Barrios, 19, hopes there won’t be another pandemic in her lifetime. But she sees the work as an opportunity to grow as a nurse and demonstrate her dedication to future employers.

Barrios knew she wasn’t yet ready to work in the field, but key personnel at the testing site helped her and the other undergraduates in daily training sessions.

“The feeling of satisfaction that I get when we call a patient to inform them of their negative results for the virus is indescribable,” she said. “This has helped me realize that I chose the right career.”

The site on the Tamiami fairgrounds opened on April 7. Hundreds of cars lined up by appointment until the 300 available tests ran out. The center was a collaboration of several FIU colleges and the Florida Department of Health.

Barrios wasn’t sure she should volunteer because her parents have diabetes and hypertension. They begged her to reconsider, but after some discussion, they agreed that she could go as long as she didn’t bring any possible infected items such as N95 masks and gloves inside the house.

“We are all fearing for our lives every time we step out of our homes,” Barrios said. “We are aware of the potential risks.”

Maria Salazar, 21, does not fear the situation. In fact, the junior plans to be a trauma nurse. She sees working at the testing center as an opportunity to prepare for the future.

Salazar, who volunteered in the lab information booth, knows this decision will be beneficial in the long run.

Her family was supportive of the decision, but has required a routine before she enters her house.

“They leave Lysol, a trash bag, and a towel outside my front door so I can disinfect and get out of my work clothes,” she said.

The hardest part for Salazar has been to use the personal protective equipment for the entire shift, which begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m.

While Salazar and Barrios don’t believe they were ready for the task, FIU nursing clinical professor Arturo Gonzalez is convinced the undergraduates are more than capable and willing to contribute.

Gonzalez, who is the lead faculty on the call-center project, expects to see more students over the next few weeks. He says all will be protected from exposure. In fact, the university doesn’t allow students on the front line.

“We are being protected and we are screened, all of us who are working on the site,” he said.

FIU contacts the patients who tested negative as well as those who are positive, to give them peace of mind. The Florida Department of Health contacts only the ones who tested positive, said Gonzalez.

Ben Ragasa, 19, another nursing student spent two weeks deciding whether he should volunteer, Ragasa said before the pandemic he was supposed to learn new skills on clinical rotations in the hospital.

But those rotations were canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak, so he decided to check out volunteering at the drive-thru testing site.

“As soon as I was given the opportunity to volunteer with my university at an academic drive-thru testing site, I was ecstatic,” he said. “I looked at it as another opportunity to learn hands-on, rather than through a computer screen and through a video call.”

But after discussing his decision with his parents, he decided it would be better not to volunteer.

Ragasa, whose parents and other relatives work in the healthcare system, worried that he would be exposed to the virus as cases surge in Florida. The state, after all, still hasn’t hit its peak.

“Unfortunately, it was the safest thing to do,” he said.

I was born in Caracas, Venezuela but moved to Miami nine years ago. My major is broadcast media, and I hope to be in front of the cameras in the future at sports events presenting or narrating soccer, baseball, or F1 races.