Embedded: Student pharmacist on the frontlines of COVID-19 testing in Yakima

In early June, Yakima county experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases, becoming a West Coast hot spot. According to the Yakima Herald, the reproductive number for the virus in early June stood at 2.0. In other words, for every person that is infected, that individual would infect another two people. By comparison, that number for eastern Washington stood at 1.20 for the same period.

Doctor of Pharmacy students from the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences quickly stepped up to help with mitigation efforts. Working alongside the Yakima Health District and the US National Guard, WSU student pharmacists volunteered to help direct people in improvised testing centers set up in various parking lots. The college sat down with third-year pharmacy student, Brian Wu, from Lakewood, Washington, to hear about his experience volunteering at the test site.

What made you want to volunteer?

I wanted to volunteer because I want to play a part in helping my community and in this public health crisis. Yakima is my home and it is seeing the worst of the pandemic on the West Coast. Since I have some free time, I’m happy to help Yakima get through this situation.

Can you describe the people who were going in to get tested?

Brian Wu (right), third-year student pharmacist, volunteering with a Yakima Health District worker at a Yakima COVID-19 testing center. Earlier this year, Yakima County was deemed a hot spot with one of the highest coronavirus cases per capita on the West Coast.

There were many people of all ages and ethnicities. The population of Yakima is primarily white and Latino. Although I do not speak Spanish, I was fortunate to work with Cathy, a bilingual Health District employee. We saw people from older adults to young parents with small children. I saw many people driving with friends or family members. There were entire families coming to get tested. Just today I saw a woman who was discharged from the hospital for COVID-19 with an oxygen cannula driving her son to get tested. There were even several patients who were visibly very sick and feverish who I was surprised were able to drive to the site on their own.

Is there any advice you can give to future pharmacy students about getting into this profession during this pandemic?

I would tell pharmacy students that the profession of pharmacy is concerned with a lot more than just drugs. As health care professionals, we have the ability and responsibility to serve our communities and improve public health. I expect that pharmacists and interns will play a vital role in providing coronavirus immunizations when the time comes.

Is there any advice you can give the general public on how to stay safe during this pandemic?

I can’t give better advice than we have been receiving from health care workers and public health officials for the past few months. Wash your hands often, wear a face covering, limit your contact with those outside of your household, and maintain a 6-foot distance from those around you.

Can you describe the testing center?

I worked my third 4-hour volunteer shift this month at Eisenhower High School in Yakima. Yakima Health District was looking for volunteers to help screen patients coming for COVID-19 testing at various sites throughout Yakima county. Volunteers helped representatives from the Health District direct traffic, screen patients for symptoms, and provide information about health and hygiene. I previously worked at a site in the Valley Mall parking lot in Union Gap.

Who arranged the testing site and who are the people working there?

The testing site was being operated by the US National Guard in coordination with the Yakima Health District and the Yakima County Emergency Operations Center. Volunteers assisted representatives from Yakima Health District. I understand that volunteers were students in health care programs throughout the Yakima area. I had the pleasure of working with an osteopathic doctor student from PNWU and a master’s student from Central Washington University who was working in a fellowship program with the Health District.

Was there anything from your day in volunteering that stood out to you the most?

I was struck by the wide range of opinions and emotions among people coming to get tested. There were people who were very kind and thanked me for helping. I had people exasperated about their friends and family who weren’t taking masking and social distancing seriously. I had a person angry about what he considered infringements on his personal liberties and accused me of perpetuating government disinformation. People are reacting to the pandemic differently and opinions are divided. I think that health care workers have a critical role in helping others understand that this is not a political issue—it is a public health issue.

How did you feel when you went to volunteer?

I can’t pretend I wasn’t a little worried about getting sick, but I don’t think that I’m endangering myself more than I otherwise am by working in a pharmacy. The Health District provides volunteers with gloves and N-95 masks and we talk to patients at a distance from outside their cars. I have limited my contact with other people outside of work and home in case I do become sick.

Do you plan to volunteer again?

Yes! This is my third time volunteering. The mobile testing sites are planned to continue through July and I will help whenever I am free until that time.