Columbia University students pitch in with health care efforts during coronavirus pandemic

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When the coronavirus crisis escalated in March, an early concern was the tremendous demand it would place on health care workers.

Doctors and nurses joined the frontlines, while schools pulled medical students from rotations in hospitals to protect their safety.

But those students were needed and they knew it.  At New York's Columbia University, students have stepped up to do what they can in the epicenter of the pandemic -- from checking discharged patients' vital signs remotely to manning a public hotline.

Medical students David Edelman and Sarah Soo-Hoo, along with a handful of faculty members from Columbia’s health science schools, created the COVID-19 Student Service Corps (CSSC), which launched March 18.

The program is made up of a diverse group of students and licensed health professionals who volunteer to support a health care system that has been bombarded by a deadly contagion.

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Within 24 hours, CSSC had nearly 300 volunteers sign-up to join the organization.

“We started to draft together the idea of building a task force to bring students together from all of the clinics and take this anxious energy that people had about being taken away from patient care and put it to good use," said Edelman, one of two CSSC's student co-chairs.

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(Top) Faculty Co-Chair Stephanie Grilo, and Student Co-chairs David Edelman and Sarah Soo-Hoo (Bottom) Faculty Co-Chairs Marina Catallozzi, Urmi Desai, Jonathan Amiel

(Top) Faculty Co-Chair Stephanie Grilo, and Student Co-chairs David Edelman and Sarah Soo-Hoo (Bottom) Faculty Co-Chairs Marina Catallozzi, Urmi Desai, Jonathan Amiel

Today, the program has over 1,600 student volunteers from a range of Columbia schools, specializing in degrees related to health or medical care.

One of the CSSC's larger projects is to staff New York Presbyterian’s community informational phone hotlines, which provides the public with up-to date COVID-19 information.

The group is also running Remote Patient Monitoring, in which students remotely check in with and monitor the vital signs of suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients who are staying at home.

If the symptoms escalate, an attending physician intervenes to make the call whether a patient should go to the hospital or receive at-home help.

Matt Green, a first-year master’s epidemiology student at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, volunteers in the Workforce Health and Saftey Hotline in between classes and during his free time on weekends. Employees working in different branches of NewYork-Presbyterian can reach out to this hotline with questions relating to monitoring their own COVID-19 symptoms such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

Through this hotline, volunteers can provide information about leave benefits, housing or childcare options, different measures to take if they have symptoms, and even clear employees who are symptom free after a period of time so they can return to work.

Green also helps with another initiative that helps patients with non-COVID-19 prepare for virtual doctor visits.

“My perspective changed on how much is involved in the health care system since I started volunteering in the CSSC," Green said. "It goes way beyond the doctors and nurses and patients. If certain departments aren’t functioning properly, then the health care system is going to be overloaded.”

Dr. Marina Catallozzi, one of CSSC’s faculty leaders and an associate professor of pediatrics, said her work for the CSSC has helped to keep her on the task at hand.

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“At the beginning of the pandemic, the thing that was getting me through and giving me joy was how quickly hundreds of students responded to a survey we put out asking them what skills they can provide,” she said.

“Things are shifting on an hour-to-hour basis. Our students and faculty are remarkably agile -- silver linings are important to see during this difficult time."

When dozens of health care workers were transferred to hospitals with adult COVID-19 patients, Edelman says a team of faculty and students from CSSC created a redeployment guide within 48 hours. The guide provides health care workers from different clinical backgrounds basic information that helped familiarize them with aspects of treating people with the virus.

When the COVID-19 Hotline started, also known as the Community Hotline, callers had a wait time of approximately 45 minutes. With the help of more student volunteers, the wait time is less than a two minutes today.

For patients hospitalized long-term due to non-related coronavirus illnesses, CSSC implemented companionship programs to check in and build an emotional-support system for these in isolation. Friendly Call to Seniors, a separate initiative from the program part of the Companionship Project, launched last week which connects students with seniors in the community over the phone.

Christian Treat, a medical student at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said it was “jarring” when he was abruptly removed from the hospital when the pandemic struck.

"We want to be able to help out with patient care in any way we can,” he said.

A child life specialist (Christy Dowd) conducts a virtual visit with patient, Mya, and her parents, Kristal and Mike, from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. Photo shared with family's permission.

A child life specialist (Christy Dowd) conducts a virtual visit with patient, Mya, and her parents, Kristal and Mike, from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. Photo shared with family's permission.

Treat and others found a way to help with newborns and their mothers.

Because people are at high risk for contracting coronavirus or spreading it when they enter a hospital, women who had given birth in hospitals were discharged sooner than usual.

In order to help ease the fears of women as they enter motherhood during the pandemic, students like Treat are remotely checking in on the new mothers postpartum, assisting with lactation complications, providing information for social work and other resources, scheduling telemedicine appointments and reporting symptoms like fever or bleeding to a supervising clinician.

They also assist families who need to leave their child at the hospital. If a baby is born premature or with critical conditions, the newborn must be admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.  Since visitor policies have changed due to COVID-19, NYP only allows for one parent to visit.

“When I was in the NICU, before any kind of hospital policy change due to coronavirus, an average mom would travel up to 40 minutes to see their baby who can be hooked up to wires, in an incubator or small crib," Treat said. "Now visitor restrictions added another burden, especially if family wants to visit."

Medical Students who choose to help the NICU during the pandemic can remotely connect the newborn with loved ones with whatever technology device is accessible to the family: whether it’s setting up a video chat with family members to see the newborn or share a voice recording of the baby’s voice or a sweet message from the mom or dad.

“Even if you're just a voice on the phone helping out a patient or connecting a family on a joint video to see their newborn baby, it’s really rewarding that I can still help,” he said.