Cone Health Team Reflects on 2 Years of COVID-19 Testing
The health system offered its first public COVID-19 tests on March 14, 2020. One team reflects on all that has changed since then.
(From left to right: David Thompson, Travis Poole, Tammy King and Luwam Debru)
Greensboro – Driver after driver pulled forward cautiously, not sure of what would come from their visit. It was March 14, 2020, the first day of Cone Health’s public drive-thru COVID-19 testing clinics.
“That first day, everyone was terrified,” said David Thompson, Cone Health’s assistant director of infectious disease. “Patients were coming through thinking they were going to die. Staff were worried about taking something home to their families. The anxiety level was through the roof.”
Staff tested just 70 people in a 10x10 tent on that first day. Since then, Cone Health has administered more than 400,000 COVID-19 tests and 200,000 vaccines at dozens of locations across the Piedmont Triad.
“If you would have told any of us three years ago that we would be here and gone through what we have, we wouldn’t have believed you,” said Travis Poole, clinical project manager. “We had no idea, but I’m so glad that we were in the position to provide for the community.”
Cone Health’s public testing operation began with a small team from Cone Health’s Regional Center for Infectious Disease. Thompson worked alongside Poole, Steve Marshall, clinical nurse manager; Tammy King, RN; and Luwam Debru, clinical research assistant; to get the initial clinic off the ground. From there, the rapid spread of COVID-19 required an expanded operation that saw 250 team members a day working to test the community.
King, a 21-year infectious disease veteran, administered Cone Health’s first public COVID-19 test. She admits the moment was exciting but also frightening because she – like the rest of the community – wasn’t truly sure of what was to come. She’s been especially surprised by how long this pandemic has gone on.
“It’s been very difficult,” she said. “Every time we’ve noticed the numbers going down and felt like we could take a break, it’s also felt like the calm before a storm because you start hearing about new variants. Every time things started up again, it was honestly traumatic.”
Knowing the community was relying on them proved to be a heavy burden for the team, King says. The start of the pandemic required some staff members to often work 90 hours a week, sacrificing time with family and devoting all they had to slowing the spread of the coronavirus. That sacrifice was surprisingly made more difficult with the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We saw the urgency, we knew what the hospital looked like, we knew what staff felt like and everyone was exhausted,” Poole said. “We were out there doing whatever we could do to protect people, and people weren’t getting vaccinated.”
Despite those frustrations, the team showed up to work each day, working in the hot summers and freezing winters to provide a vital service to the community. “We were going to do our best and just keep doing it,” King said. “We didn’t have a choice.”
Two years later, Cone Health is scaling back its testing operations with the closure of the testing clinic at North Carolina A&T State University on March 11. The organization will transition to COVID-19 testing at fixed community sites and pharmacies and for new employees.
And while the team continues to remains on guard in the event of any future surges, they are proud of the work they’ve done to guide the community through this historic pandemic.
“It felt meaningful that we were able to give everyone peace of mind,” Thompson said. “Grandparents were in tears because they could finally see their grandchildren, kids were able to go back to school. We were able to provide hope to people in a time when it didn’t feel like there was any hope.”