Behind the Mask: Dartmouth’s On-the-Ground Testing Operation

by Brian Zheng | 1/27/21 2:10am

by Angelina Scarlotta / The Dartmouth

Since the College partially reopened in the fall, making the trek to the south end of campus to receive a COVID-19 test has become a regular ritual for the Dartmouth undergraduates living in the Hanover area. The process is quick and simple: Students register for an appointment slot online, check in at the specified time, take a nasal swab test and depart, knowing that within the next day or so, results will appear in their inbox. 

While COVID-19 testing has become an integral part of the on-campus experience, most conversations about testing have revolved around data and institutional mandates, from the 1% positivity rate threshold for reconsidering campus operations to the switch to twice-weekly testing.

However, an equally important, oft-overlooked piece of the equation is the on-the-ground testing apparatus. Who are the people welcoming students and staff into the building? What happens to your test tube once you finish your test? How do results come back so quickly? 

The testing operation at Dartmouth runs through Axiom Medical, a medical consulting firm based out of Texas. To meet the demand of Dartmouth’s testing requirements, Axiom has hired a full-time 15-person team to work at the College, led by Lars Barr, the on-site manager of the Dartmouth operation. Barr, a health care professional with a background as an EMT in a children’s emergency room who is also currently enrolled in an LGBT Health Policy and Practice graduate program at George Washington University, says that they were contacted by Axiom last year. 

“I moved home to Vermont [from New Orleans] last year and was looking for jobs in health care,” Barr said, adding that Axiom reached out through Indeed to offer them an opportunity.

With a nationwide shortage of health care workers, Barr says that their 15-person staff of health safety assistants is split in half between local Upper Valley residents and travelers from states like Texas, California, Georgia and New York. 

One such HSA is Laura Plasencia, who was a film director and animation producer for documentaries, TV shows and media productions both in her former home of Argentina and across the U.S.

“There are a lot of people here that are travelers because it is really hard to find nurses,” Plasencia said, citing the shortage of medically qualified personnel across the country.

Despite their diverse professional and geographic backgrounds, the staff focus on a single goal. Barr, Plasencia and the rest of the team work every day to ensure that the COVID-19 testing operation runs smoothly.

Their responsibilities include registering students, supervising and collecting tests, taking inventory, counting and packaging samples and answering student and staff questions. As the on-site manager, Barr also orders new supplies, attends weekly meetings with the Dartmouth COVID-19 task force and Dick’s House and runs twice-weekly pop-up testing clinics at the Williamson Translational Research Building at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, as well as the Dartmouth Skiway.

“Axiom is really like, ‘OK, if you want to get tested, we’ll do it,’” Barr said. “It could be on a mountain, or it could be in this lovely fieldhouse.”

Although it is the most visible part of the operation, Axiom’s team is only one part of the well-oiled machine that delivers quick, accurate results to Dartmouth students and staff. 

After Barr’s team packages and counts the tests — 1,000 to 2,000 per day in total — a STAT Courier driver takes the completed tests from Hanover to the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, making the trip twice a day. The Broad Institute, which runs 24/7 COVID-19 test processing, uploads the results to a secure portal and delivers them to the emails of all Dartmouth students and staff, usually within 24 hours of taking the test.

This massive operation is no easy feat, but running testing at Dartmouth has inherent advantages when compared to Axiom’s other productions. Barr noted that the demand for testing at the College is far more stable than at Axiom’s other posts, which have included factories and film set woodshops. 

“Having a set schedule here and [having] the same place we can come to is really nice,” Barr said.

The stability of Dartmouth’s operation also allows Axiom to pay the on-the-ground staff full-time wages, along with additional benefits for those working at the College from out of state.

Despite working in a job that didn’t exist a year ago, both Barr and Plasencia said that they enjoyed their work at the College, noting that the teamwork and mutual accountability across the team have been a boon to their working environment.

“We are always rotating and helping each other,” Plasencia said. “If we need people on the registration for a while because we have a lot of students or staff [waiting] ... a coworker immediately jumps to the side and helps.”

Along with the stability and safety in their working environment, the on-the-ground team is also grateful for the Dartmouth community’s compliance with testing protocols.

“Sometimes they have really long lines, [but] people are always really patient,” Plasencia said. “I’ve never had any bad interactions with somebody here.” 

Barr also said that members of the community could talk to anybody working in the testing site, which is located at Thompson Arena as of Monday, about any questions they may have.

“A big part of what we do is answer questions for people, so I do want people to feel like they can come and talk to us anytime,” Barr said. “If they’re in the line, we will sit down and have a chat if they’re having issues with anything.”

The multi-faceted operation has received praise from students and staff, who cite the ease, speed and reliability of getting a test at Dartmouth.

For Daniel Lin ’23, who is on campus for the first time since last winter, the testing experience has exceeded his expectations.

“I came in with pretty low expectations, just given how the country as a whole has handled the virus,” Lin said. “But there were clear lines, there were people walking around telling you where to go. … It’s a very streamlined, organized process.”

Even after the delay in test results this weekend, the testing operation has generally been clear, efficient and effective. The outward simplicity of the operation can overshadow another story: all the hard work and collaboration that goes on behind the scenes.

Correction appended (Jan. 28, 2021): A previous version of this article stated that Axiom reached out to Barr through LinkedIn. The article has been updated to reflect that Axiom contacted Barr through Indeed.