For those responsible for employee health at Keck Medicine of USC, everything changed on Friday the 13th.

On that date in March, they tested the first Keck Medicine worker suspected to have COVID-19.

“That’s when everything exploded,” said Earl Strum, MD, medical director of Employee Health at Keck Medicine. “We didn’t have much time to experiment after that.”

The following Monday, results confirmed that the hospital worker had COVID-19. Keck Medicine’s Employee Health team set its plans in motion. White tents where workers could be tested quickly rose on the USC Health Sciences Campus. Nurses and lab technicians donned personal protective equipment and tested dozens of employees who had been in contact with their COVID-positive colleague.

The next day, nearly 200 medical professionals drove through the site to have their throats and noses swabbed. Like their colleagues a day earlier, they proceeded to quarantine to await results that would let them know whether they could safely return to work.

Even though the staff had anticipated the challenges, the days are still long and difficult, said Yolee Casagrande, nurse director at Keck Medicine: ”When it came, it was a tsunami for us.” (Photo/Ricardo Carrasco III)

For weeks, Employee Health Services had been planning for such a contingency. Their diligence is now paying off with quick testing and rigorous prevention efforts that will be critical to limiting the spread of the virus.

“It’s been a scary, scary time,” said Yolee Casagrande, DNP, RN, nurse director at Keck Medicine. “But it’s also been a beautiful thing to witness in terms of collaboration and humanity and caring.”


Pulling together to reduce infection risk

At the testing tents, nurses ask Keck Medicine staff members standard screening questions. If they show symptoms or have had contact with an infected person, they get a swab test and must stay in isolation until results are complete. Through USC’s new Care for the Caregivers program, they have the option to wait out their quarantine period in USC housing at no cost.

Janet Greenwood, right, and Kelley Cardenas look up patient information in medical evaluation tents at Keck Hospital of USC. (USC Photo/Ricardo Carrasco III)

Other nurses operate a 24-hour hotline for employees who have questions. Data analysts conduct contact tracing, helping hospital administrators determine if others might have been exposed to the virus. Lab technicians test samples and report results.

“People are stepping up to the plate,” Casagrande said. “It makes me very proud of my profession, being a nurse, and I’m very proud of our nursing staff and everyone else on our team.”


Demonstrating courage and conviction

Jon Morales, RN, knows he risks his health every day that he screens his fellow employees. He often thinks about a college classmate who also became a nurse.

Volunteers from many disciplines have joined members of Keck Medicine’s employee health division on the screening team, which administers drive-through tests. (Photo/Ricardo Carrasco III)

“He was swabbing someone just like we are, and he contracted COVID-19,” Morales said. “I saw photos of him in the ICU with a tube up his nose and on a ventilator. That was a wakeup call for me.”

Thankfully, his former classmate has shown signs of improvement, and Morales is hopeful he’ll make a full recovery. Though the experience gave Morales a scare, it won’t keep him from doing his job.

“People need to be out there on the front lines, helping patients,” he said. “We’re nurses. This is what we signed up for.”

When not working the frontlines, Strum and Casagrande have been monitoring news reports and warnings that California might still be facing a wave of new COVID-19 cases.

“Right now, we’re making our plans to stay ahead of this curve,” Strum said. “We don’t want to play catch up. We want to be forward thinking and go to where the puck is, not where it was.”


On frontlines, health care workers stand strong

Casagrande and Strum acknowledged that many providers are concerned for their safety, including those on the Employee Health team. But like Morales, many of those caregivers feel a duty to their profession.

Members of the employee health services team include Natasha Walker, Krystal Vega, Joanne Suh, Kelley Cardenas, Janet Greenwood, Marites Yao and Francis Dimacali, from left. (Photo/Ricardo Carrasco III)

Casagrande described the pride she feels for those who continue to put on protective gear and treat patients despite the risk.

“I’ve heard beautiful stories from nurses who have been in quarantine for only a few days and already want to come back,” she said. “They want to help out. They want to be part of taking care of our patients and each other.”

Keck Medicine employees who want more information about being tested due to COVID-19 symptoms or exposure can call (213) 342-7706 or send an email to the Employee Health team.

— Eric Lindberg

This article originally was published on the USC News site. It has been edited for length. To read the original article in full, click here.