There is an art to the nasal swab. 

For some people, having a COVID-19 test is a smooth process. For others, it is not.

Katherine Vaughn, a swabber, has learned how to work with everyone, even the latter. 

“You remain calm, you work them through breathing exercises and get them to focus on  something they enjoy,” said Vaughn, who has seen some people pass out during the test. “You always have to be aware of where they are mentally and emotionally when it comes to testing.”

As people learn to swab, they also develop their own spiel to explain the process, Vaughn said.

“The common one we say is it feels like jumping into chlorinated water,” she said. “It helps people gauge what to expect.”

In about eight months, the swabbing process has become old hat for Vaughn, a 2020 Virginia Tech graduate and a supervisor with ARCpoint Labs, a national third-party provider of diagnostic testing services. Since the fall, the company has been running a massive COVID-19 surveillance, prevalence, and voluntary testing operation at Lane Stadium.

There a team of Virginia Tech students, both undergraduates and graduates, as well as alumni and other staff, perform about 800 tests a day for people. The tests are for students who are randomly selected, employees who receive regular testing as part of their jobs, athletes, and other members of the university community who volunteer to be tested.

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The day begins about 6 a.m. for Vaughn, who graduated from Virginia Tech with bachelor’s degrees in both chemistry and biochemistry and hopes to enter medical school next year. She arrives at Lane Stadium, picks up a bag of testing kits, and heads to Cassell Coliseum, where she performs nasal swab COVID-19 tests for Virginia Tech athletes. Depending on the sport and whether athletes are competing, they may be tested one to three times a week.

The athletes’ tests are sent to a third-party lab, and the results are handled by Virginia Tech Athletics.

Meanwhile, the Lane Stadium site opens at 9 a.m. for testing by appointment. People enter by Gate 1 on the south end of the stadium and climb several flights of stairs to the testing suite. There they get in line to check in for their appointment and wait for a test. Swabbers sit behind individual curtains, taking patients one by one.

Used testing swabs go into separate tubes and are taken to a nearby reconciliation room, where Virginia Tech graduate students check that the information taped to each tube matches the person’s medical identification.

Kari Furrow, a graduate student who is studying public administration, works in the reconciliation room. 

“It makes me appreciate when I go to the doctor,” she said of her job. “It makes me appreciate the behind-the-scenes work.”

Twice a day, at noon and 5 p.m., Furrow and another Virginia Tech graduate student, Kirsten Kohl, take turns driving a biohazard bag filled with the day’s  test samples from Lane Stadium to Schiffert Health Center. From there, an employee from the university’s Fleet Services drives the tests daily to the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke, where tests are processed.

People receive results in two to three days. They find out negative test results via the VT Notify system or with a personal phone call if a test is positive.

Sophie DeSimone, a third-year student at Virginia Tech, helps check-in a student at the university’s COVID testing site at Lane Stadium. Photo by Ray Meese.
Sophie DeSimone, a third-year student at Virginia Tech, helps check in a student at the university’s COVID testing site at Lane Stadium. Photo by Ray Meese for Virginia Tech.

The entire operation has been a key to Virginia Tech’s campus remaining open in the past year during the pandemic. It supplements the COVID-19 testing that is done at Schiffert Health Center on campus, which handles cases in which people are showing symptoms of the coronavirus or have been exposed to someone with it.

“Without this operation, two things could happen,” said Chris Wise, assistant vice president for health and wellness with the Division of Student Affairs at Virginia Tech. “One, the demand on Schiffert Health Center could have exceeded our ability to provide health care for our student population. And the possibility of our entire local health care system could have been compromised. Two, keeping our students safe in our on-campus congregate housing facilities was important to providing an on-campus experience for our students, particularly our new class of 2024 students who had just been accepted and were excited to join the Virginia Tech community.”

As of March 26, approximately 49,543 tests had been performed at ARCpoint’s Lane Stadium site since the fall.

Darren Liu, a junior at Virginia Tech, began working at the site last fall. He wants to be a pharmacist, and landing a job with ARCpoint was the perfect way for him to gain experience, he said. Liu primarily works afternoon shifts and checks in people for their appointments. He’s also trained as a swabber.

“I wanted to help out,” said Lui, a biochemistry major. “As a future health care worker, I wanted to do something.”

— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone