Nursing students gain clinical experience at COVID testing sites

April 21, 2021
closeup of a masked woman in a booth putting her arms through gloves attached to holes in the wall while a woman inside the booth with her points what to do and a woman outside the booth in personal protective equipment watches
College of Nursing student Cassidy White, right, gets help from Patient Care Tech Caran Raeford, left, and Rossetta Buaxton, CNA, middle, on how to administer a COVID-19 test to a patient. Photos by Sarah Pack

At a time when all of their classes remain virtual, students at the College of Nursing at the Medical University of South Carolina have been out in the field, collecting samples at MUSC Health’s COVID-19 specimen collection sites.

It’s an example of the close relationship that the college and the hospital system have been fostering under the leadership of Dean Linda Weglicki, Ph.D., and chief nursing officer Patti Hart, DNP.

And while the students got to master nasopharyngeal swabbing – a skill they don’t usually learn – it was the skill of communicating with and educating patients that truly came into play.

Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing students Sarah Moore and Jonah Burrell participated in the clinical experience in November as part of their Population Health class.

“It was, for me, an opportunity to really get involved with the community and make a difference,” Burrell said. “Knowing that Population Health was really focused on the community and getting out in the community to provide the nursing care that we were studying about and actually getting that hands-on experience with COVID testing within our own community – I think that was really special for me.”

Moore agreed.

“I was a little nervous about it, but then it was really cool to be a part of it and to say that, as nursing students, we were able to be a part of this global pandemic testing. I thought it was overall a really great experience,” she said.

The clinical experience was organized in a matter of weeks, thanks to Chris Hairfield, R.N., who oversees a program at MUSC Health for new nurses and places nursing students in rotations in the hospital, and Sharon Kozachik, Ph.D., interim associate dean for academics in the college. They created a task force last July to figure out how to get clinical experiences for students while such rotations were being severely curtailed.

Hairfield himself had worked at the West Ashley specimen collection site for a few months, and it occurred to him – why couldn’t the students help there? Not only would they get experience, but they would provide more sets of helping hands at a time when the site was busy with people seeking tests.

closeup of a masked man in a booth with see through wall putting his arms through gloves attached to holes in the booth and holding a swab  
College of Nursing student Adam Weaver administers a COVID-19 test to a patient at the newly opened North Charleston specimen collection and vaccination site.

The students would have to learn the proper sequence of steps to put on and take off extensive personal protective equipment, as well as the skill of nasopharyngeal swabbing, but the site could be a great fit because the nurses and techs there already worked in pairs. A duo would approach each car, with one person holding the collection bag and the other doing the swabbing.

The students first practiced swabbing with their instructor. Then, paired up with an experienced nurse, they would have the chance to observe at close hand how the nurse did the swab and then perform swabs themselves under supervision.

“We are grateful to the health care system for all they have done in facilitating our students having really excellent clinical nursing experiences,” Kozachik said. “I view this as an opportunity for us to give back to the health care system.”

Clinical instructor Kim Poulakis, R.N., who accompanied students to the site, said it was inspiring for her and the students to see how MUSC had pulled together and organized the West Ashley drive through specimen collection site.

“Just seeing the innovative ideas, and the flexibility and adaptability of health care, was profound for all of us,” she said.

Although some students were nervous about being around potential COVID patients, it turned into a positive experience for all involved, she said.

Some of the more difficult cases involved doing the testing on children, including a child with disabilities, and those cases tested the students’ communication skills. The site was also doing some saliva testing, but people couldn’t do the saliva test if they had eaten or drunk anything within the previous half-hour, even if they had a doctor’s order for a saliva test; those situations also stretched the students’ communication skills.

The West Ashley site recently closed, and students are now at a collection site in North Charleston that utilizes individual testing huts.

Moore and Burrell have moved on to other rotations, but they each said they brought their newfound swabbing skills into the hospital to help perform the tests on newly admitted patients.

“I ended up becoming the COVID ‘swabber' of the floor whenever I worked because I was like – as much as I can, if it’s hands-on experience I will do it,” Moore said.

Both students have accepted positions at MUSC Health to begin after they graduate this spring. Moore will work in a digestive disease unit in Ashley River Tower while Burrell will work on an inpatient floor at the Institute of Psychiatry. He will also begin the Doctorate of Nursing Practice program in fall 2022 to become a nurse practitioner.