With concealed faces, shielded eyes, and gloved hands, the students squirted a fragrant gel on strangers in downtown Blacksburg.

A year ago, this might have felt like a scene from a science-fiction movie or an offbeat prank, but in 2020, it’s a welcomed act of service.

“We’ve had a great response from the community,” said Fernanda Gutierrez, a second-year graduate student in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s public health program. “When they see we’re giving out hand sanitizer and distributing masks, they’re really happy.”

Gutierrez is one of a handful of Virginia Tech students who routinely spend their Friday evenings giving out personal protective equipment and medical-related information to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic in Blacksburg. Embracing the name “COVID Crushers,” the students run a booth at the intersection of College Avenue and Draper Road from 6 to 9 p.m., where they also model the appropriate safety gear and provide a COVID-19-related trivia contest and prizes.

Person talking to people
Teagan Neveldine and other members of the COVID Crushers group hand out masks, hand sanitizer, and resources in downtown Blacksburg. Photo by Ryan Young for Virginia Tech.

“There’s definitely a good energy here,” said Teagan Neveldine, a fellow graduate student in the public health program. “I think everyone wants to keep Blacksburg thriving and on its feet.”

Neveldine added that trivia questions were all commonly asked questions about the virus and the prizes were gift cards donated from downtown businesses.

Gutierrez and fellow Masters of Public Health student Teace Markwalter coordinate the weekly event at the request of Blacksburg Chief of Police, Anthony Wilson, while another student in the program, Laura Lang, serves as the group’s outreach coordinator.

“It’s just sort of a grass roots effort that they took the ball and ran with and it’s doing such a great service for our community,” Wilson said. “They’re making connections with people that we would probably never be able to reach.”

Wilson said he first connected with the students through a Virginia Tech advisory committee to local and university officials that does regular check-ins to evaluate the area’s efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“They were some of the first students to say, ‘we’re all in.’ They wanted to not just sit still during the pandemic, they wanted to be a part of the response,” he said.

Wilson said the students had not only been a critical part in organizing and running the downtown project, but also in creating pandemic and assistance-related materials for the area’s Spanish-speaking population. He hopes the COVID Crushers efforts soon expand to other downtown locations and even begin holding regular information sessions at apartment complexes.

The creation of the effort coincided with the start of fall classes and other work obligations for the students, but generally warm reception they’ve received people of all ages has made it worthwhile.

“From kids to older adults to freshmen, being able to hit all these different age groups and see that they’re responded well and are really interested, that’s been really cool,” Markwalter said.

The students have also created a COVID-19-themed podcast as another venue of sharing public health information.

Being at the forefront of sharing wellness information is a key part of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s public health program. Throughout the pandemic, the students have worked with Laura Hungerford, head of the Department of Public Health Sciences, and Ron Fricker, the associate dean for faculty affairs and administration, to create community communication resources during the pandemic.

Hungerford said public service efforts, such as contact tracing and public health information sessions, are staples of public health that are used every time there is a disease outbreak. They are simply being scaled to meet the need during the pandemic.

“Our students, faculty, and staff are always out working with the health district and communities. It’s just that we always kind of did it under the radar,” Hungerford said. “We don’t usually think to stop and share our public health stories – but COVID has made everyone interested in how we can work together to stop disease spread.”

The global pandemic has increased many people’s awareness of the important role the students play in educating the public, while also supporting a critical part of the public health students’ education.

“Until you actually do something like contact tracing or showing people how to protect themselves from COVID, it can seem overwhelming,” Hungerford said. “From talking to people on the street, our students really understand, for example, why people don’t wear masks and can ultimately better communicate in ways that might change that behavior.”

The students echoed Hungerford in describing their experience so far on Friday nights.

“We’ve learned so much just by talking to people and seeing what their barriers are,” said Gutierrez. “That’s really helping us better serve the community.”

They credited their coursework within the program for providing them the tools they needed to set up and run the COVID Crushers within a week of Chief Wilson's request.

“This really has showed how important and how useful those things we learn in class are,” Lang said.

Written by Travis Williams