Mercer pharmacy students on front lines of Covid-19 testing

Taylor Reaves took an internship with Walgreens this summer knowing that her work would likely be on the front lines of COVID-19 testing.

As a rising third-year pharmacy student at Mercer University, she saw the chance to work at Walgreens’ only Georgia testing site as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“It’s more of a privilege to be there,” Reaves said. “We signed a duty when we got white coated to serve our community and serve our patients, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Reaves is working with fellow Mercerian Savannah Cunningham, who is also a third-year in the Doctor of Pharmacy program. Cunningham has worked with Walgreens for the past five years and saw this internship as an important service.

“A lot of pharmacists and people who are working in a pharmacy are immunocompromised, and they wouldn’t be able to work in a site like this,” Cunningham said. “We feel like if we’re healthy, then we should definitely be able to be out there and help serve our communities like this.”

At the drive-thru testing site in Alpharetta, patients usually swab themselves. But workers can don personal protective equipment and help those who aren’t able to do their own nasal swab.

Taylor Reaves in the drive thru lines where she alternates coaching patients on how to do a nasal swab and working in the lab. (Photo provided)

“You can see the fear in their eyes when they’re coming through the drive thru,” Reaves said. “And that’s what we’re trying to eliminate is that fear. We’re here to help. We’re here to test you to see if you’re positive or negative and to go from there.” 

The testing is free for those 18 and up and only requires some form of identification. The program can handle up to 160 patients per day.

The two Mercer students have alternated between tasks — either coaching people through the self testing or processing test specimens for results. The lab is using a rapid testing method that allows them to notify patients of results in 24-48 hours.

“It becomes very real when you’re sitting with (the virus) right in front of your face,” Reaves said. “Whether you have, you know, that face shield, your N95 mask, you’re all garbed up, you still have a disease that has kind of stopped the whole entire country right now and the world.

They are still seeing a steady stream of positive tests. Cunningham said she has noticed a lot of the patients who test positive don’t look sick.

“A lot of times they’re really young, they’re my age — they’re in their early 20s,” she said. “It’s not necessarily the at-risk population that we’re thinking of. (These younger patients) feel totally fine, they look totally fine, but they have a positive test.”

As front-line workers in testing, both reminded people to wash their hands and be smart about social distancing and gathering in groups.

“It does scare us a little bit to think about going back into a restaurant again, or, you know, going to a birthday party, going to sit in class even if it’s like a little,” Cunningham said. “I feel a little apprehensive after seeing actually the numbers of people that are coming through that still are testing positive every day.”

Savannah Cunningham in the lab where she is spending part of her internship running tests for Covid-19. (Photo provided)

Both credit Mercer’s pharmacy program for equipping them with the skills they need to handle this internship and experience.

“We feel super prepared to be able to be in this patient care role,” Cunningham said. “It’s definitely not something that a typical pharmacy intern would be doing at this point. But Mercer has given us a lot of hands-on experience.”

Reaves echoed that sentiment.

Mercer has given us so many opportunities to learn how to be a great pharmacist whether in a clinical or community setting,” she said in an email. “They have instilled the importance of helping and serving our community to the best of our ability, even in such hazardous and unknown situations. I have felt more at ease working the COVID-19 testing site due to the knowledge and safety Mercer’s College of Pharmacy has provided and taught me.”