Biomedical Engineering Student Spends Summer Volunteering as Covid-19 Tester

July 16, 2020

Kyra Halbert-Elliott has been working at a mobile site for months

Kyra Halbert-Elliott, BME student, working at Covid-19 mobile site

Biomedical engineering student, Kyra Halbert-Elliott, working at mobile Covid-19 testing site.

A few days a week, Kyra Halbert-Elliott, a rising third-year biomedical engineering major, suits up in full personal protective equipment (PPE) and goes to work in a converted mobile dentist bus. She volunteers as a Covid-19 tester for Harris County Public Health and the Houston Medical Reserve Corps.

“As a pre-med student, I knew I wanted to support my community in a clinical manner,” Halbert-Elliott said. “I found the medical reserve corps through a volunteer website that I used in high school and immediately applied.”

She started at one of the stationary testing sites in early April, but soon moved over to Mobile Unit 3 once the county launched mobile testing sites. The sites are designed to reach people who might not have the means to drive to the larger, stationary ones. Despite being new, Harris’s team manages to process upwards of 200 tests a day, a number that continues to grow.

The Mobile Unit 3 team’s day starts at 6:30 a.m. every day except Thursday and Sunday. Once there, they spend about an hour setting up their tents, equipment, and signs. The team, made up of county employees and volunteers, then splits into smaller groups of two or three people. They are assigned to one of four areas: registration, quality control, traffic control, and hot zone, where patients are swabbed from their cars. The teams work at that station for about an hour and a half before spending the same amount of time preparing test kits and barcodes on the mobile bus, where they can also find temporary relief from the Texas heat. Around 4 p.m., they break everything down and debrief.

Fluent in Spanish and able to collect samples, Halbert-Elliott often works in registration or the hot zone. In fact, she’s done everything except swab patients, which can only be done by trained healthcare professionals.

Despite taking online classes and conducting virtual research for Georgia Tech’s Cardiovascular Fluid Mechanics Lab, Halbert-Elliott still decided that it was important for her to get to work helping with free, accessible testing for the county where her family lives.

“Testing is a first step in being able to contact trace and prevent further spread of the coronavirus,” she said. “Many people in Houston are waiting too long to go into the hospital because they are afraid of becoming infected. Getting tested can help encourage people to get treated for their symptoms before it’s too late.” She added, “Expanded testing also allows public health experts to see a broader picture of what is happening in their area and make well-informed policies.”

Those in the Houston area who are interested in volunteering at a local testing center can reach out to Angelina Fontenot, the Houston Medical Reserve Corps coordinator. Search for Medical Reserve Corps locations throughout the rest of the country — including metro Atlanta and Georgia — here.