Teamwork and a little magic make testing center a reality

Heather Paris and Jenni Winter inside the testing center at Johnny's

Heather Paris (left), Jenni Winter and Jessica Shannon (not pictured) were a driving force behind the creation of the COVID-19 testing center inside Johnny’s at Hilton Coliseum. Photo by Christopher Gannon

By Melea Reicks Licht, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

It all came together like magic. Hilton Magic.

In one week’s time, a team from across campus more than doubled the capacity for COVID-19 testing at Iowa State University by setting up a testing site in Johnny's lounge on the east side of Hilton Coliseum.

Jessica Shannon, assistant director of nursing and patient services at Thielen Student Health Center, helped lead the charge to transform the donor lounge into the campus’ primary testing site opening on Sept. 8, 2020.

“We were seeing 200 staff and students a day in the two mobile testing stations we had set up behind our building,” Shannon said. “We quickly ramped up to 400 a day and realized we had exceeded our capabilities.”

Thielen staff reached out to Environmental Health and Safety to identify a space to expand.  

Johnny’s checked every box necessary to provide a comfortable and safe environment for clients. It was easy to clean, climate-controlled, had separate entrances and exits, offered room for physical distancing and the ability to set up privacy panels. The lounge had already proven useful for testing by the Athletic Department for student athletes and staff, so they knew it had potential.

Answering a call to serve

Member of the public health team collects sample at the testing center in Johnny's

A sample is collected at the Johnny's testing center inside Hilton Coliseum. Photo by Christopher Gannon

In a matter of days, Clayton Oliver and the Emergency Operation Center team helped Thielen develop a plan to set up eight testing stations and six check-in stations greatly expanding the university’s capacity to serve clients. 

That’s when Heather Paris, associate vice president for finance, and Craig Hamerlinck, senior human resources partner, stepped in to create and implement a staffing plan to power the extended service.

“My heart is in healthcare,” said Paris, a former hospital CFO and CEO. “I love the work I’m doing here at ISU, but I’m still very passionate about healthcare… We had just completed a staff retreat in which we created a purpose statement and values for finance delivery. And now we were asking folks to live those values. I believe we were called to serve the university in this way.”

Paris shared day-to-day management responsibilities with Jenni Winter, finance manager, in addition to their regular finance delivery work. Staffers from Information Technology, Human Resources and Thielen helped create a scheduling plan, training and a workflow process.

Appointment scheduling, line management and registration were handled primarily by reassigned members of the finance service delivery team. Volunteers from a number of campus units provided staffing after normal business hours and weekends.

Sample collection was performed by trained medical professionals on staff at Thielen or supplied via health care staffing agencies. Tests were processed by the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab.

Taking on a new role

Thanks to diligent preparation and training, seven employees transitioned from finance delivery to the front lines of the university’s COVID-19 response.

Diane Jepsen, procurement and expense specialist, was among those approached with reassignments to serve at Johnny’s. 

“I went from working at my kitchen table to working one of the registration tables at Johnny’s. I greeted people and got them registered into the system,” Jepsen said. “It took some thought to agree to serve, but after I did a walk-through of the space and saw all the safety protocols in place, I felt safe.”   

Jepsen worked at Johnny’s every day during the fall semester. She and her reassigned colleagues returned to their regular work in finance delivery after Johnny’s closed for the semester on November 23, 2020.

“The strength of our service delivery system worked just as it was meant to,” said Paris. “The team approach keeps things moving if staff need to be absent from the system for illness or personal reasons, or in this case to support community health. Our team structure allowed us to step forward and provide this essential support. The model is working.”

In total, Iowa State’s public health team and Veterinary Diagnostic Lab performed 24,523 COVID-19 tests for students, faculty and staff during the fall semester (Aug. 17 – Nov. 25) resulting in 22,277 negative tests and 2,246 positive tests. Data shows no one contracted COVID-19 as a result of working at Johnny’s this fall.

Semester totals reflect the university’s targeted testing strategy, which identifies and isolates positive cases and quarantines close contacts to minimize the spread of infection.

COVID-19 testing resumed Jan. 11, with a focus on spreading the workload more evenly across the university. Printing Services employees will take over the bulk of the staffing responsibilities at the testing site this spring with support from other targeted departments.

Shannon says Johnny’s is well positioned to expand as conditions warrant. Staff can add two additional testing stations in a matter of minutes if needed.

As the focus begins to shift to vaccination planning, Shannon says Johnny’s testing site serves as a model of success of what’s possible when Cyclones work together.

“We sent an SOS for assistance and had such an awesome response to our call for help from so many areas on campus,” Shannon says. “We were able to partner together and make something amazing happen that’s still standing and going strong.” 

Read the series

Learn more about ISU’s pandemic response in a collection of stories highlighting some of the hard work, dedication and collaboration across campus.