By Veronica Craker, Class of 2020
NNU students returning to campus this past fall found a slightly altered experience—at least visually. Although changes were necessary to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, NNU has been able to serve its students in person unlike so many other colleges and universities across the country who were unable to keep the doors open to their physical campuses.
In order to keep the campus open and COVID-19 infections manageable, students, staff and faculty committed to putting “Community First” as they wear face coverings, practice physically distancing whenever possible, and are encouraged to participate in weekly COVID-19 saliva screening. This innovative saliva screening and the dedicated individuals who helped bring it to NNU is a key reason the university can provide its unique campus experience when so many other schools cannot.
The saliva-based surveillance protocol, developed by researchers at Yale University, can be used to screen for the presence of COVID-19. But the screening likely wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the help from two NNU alums—Ryan and Emily (Ogle) Wirick (’12).
The Class of 2012
In early August, Ryan and Emily were driving from North Idaho to Hood River, Oregon, when they received a call from longtime friend and mentor, Dr. Jennifer Chase. Dr. Chase, NNU biology professor, had been their professor when they were students at NNU. The Wiricks graduated from NNU in 2012 before going to graduate school at the University of Utah together. Emily has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Master of Science in Human Genetics. Ryan obtained his Bachelor of Science in Human Biology and a Master of Business Administration. The two had kept in touch with Dr. Chase so it wasn’t out of the ordinary for her to reach out to them. But her call was more than simply checking in this time. Dr. Chase—after a conversation with friend and colleague from the NNU Communication Department, Dr. Donna Allen—had been developing a plan to bring saliva screening to NNU as part of its COVID-19 health protocols.
“When I reached out to the Wiricks for a little advice, they immediately researched the options, made suggestions and volunteered to meet with us,” Dr. Chase said. “When they came alongside to help with their considerable experience and insight, we sensed God’s providence and felt confident that we could tackle [it].”
Emily’s experience working with a diagnostic company in Utah meant she understood how to use tools needed to conduct the COVID-19 saliva screening.
“My first job after Utah was with a company where I developed tools like this,” Emily said. “At the time, COVID-19 didn’t exist. But the biggest project I did at the company was designing a gastrointestinal bug test that was then sold to clinical labs at hospitals, so this was very much right up my alley for what I’ve done in my career.”
The Student Becomes the Teacher
Three weeks after Dr. Chase reached out to the Wiricks, Emily traveled to the Boise Valley to give hands-on training to NNU students. It is undergraduate students who actually perform the tests for the entire campus.
“Undergraduate science students rarely get to do service with their skills—it has to wait until after medical school or grad school,” Dr. Chase said. “The students are so enthusiastic about the fact that they can make a contribution to the health of the NNU community.”
In an email to the NNU campus community, Dr. Brad Kurtz-Shaw, vice president for academic affairs and chair of the 2020-21 COVID Planning Team, said leadership understood the university would not be immune to the impacts of the global pandemic.
“Currently, we are pleased with the ways the health and safety plans and protocols we have in place are working to help ensure impacted community members are getting the support they need while simultaneously mitigating the spread of the virus on campus,” he said. “We will continue to work together to do all we can to put community first as we navigate the challenges that COVID brings our way.”
For the asymptomatic surveillance screening, all on-campus community members have been divided into pools and are able to collect and submit their own saliva sample. The samples are then proactively screened as a group to help preserve privacy. In the case that a positive test results for a pool, NNU Health Services staff follow-up with those individuals for additional screening and/or diagnostic testing.
While Emily led the hands-on work, her husband Ryan worked with Dr. Bryon Hemphill, NNU director of health services, to determine the feasibility of NNU conducting its own surveillance screening on-site. Ryan often works with regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Drug Administration, so he was able to help NNU navigate that space.
“There’s not a lot that’s specific to universities that explicitly permits testing, so we had to review the FDA emergency protocols together and make sure what NNU was wanting to do was within the regulatory framework that had been provided,” Ryan said.
Weekly saliva screening will continue as students return to campus for the start of the spring semester—a fact that wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the efforts of our NNU community working together to ensure the health and safety of everyone on campus.