K-College student volunteers at COVID-19 testing site: 'Not how I expected senior year to go'

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

While many are hunkered down at home, balancing concern with cabin fever, Kalamazoo College student Maddie Odom is volunteering full-time on the front lines of Detroit’s fight against COVID-19—all while finishing her senior year remotely from her home in Bloomfield Hills. 

Now in her seventh week working at Michigan’s busiest COVID-19 testing site, Maddie took time after a nine-hour day to report on her experience—after sanitizing her hands, putting her clothes in the washer, and taking a shower.

“I was nervous starting out. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but they gave us a lot of personal protection equipment. It wasn’t crazy busy, but we definitely saw a lot of people. Today, we saw more than 1,400 people come through. I was working at a checkpoint identifying clients and confirming they had a prescription for a test.”

When in direct client contact, Maddie is in full protection gear. Today, it was “just” an N95 mask and gloves, as the clients are able to keep their car windows closed while they check-in. 

“Two of us took turns either writing their prescription number on the car or pulling their prescription from a stack of paperwork that could be 1,500 deep.”
Maddie Odom has been a two-sport athlete in soccer and lacrosse.
Maddie, 22, reports six days a week to the Michigan State Fairgrounds, headquarters for the Coronavirus Community Care Network, a coalition of local governments, health services, and private supporters. When launched in late March, the program was expected to test 800 people a day, and complete 14,400 tests through May 8. It has exceeded those numbers by half, testing 22,577 individuals as of May 8. Today, roughly 24 percent are testing positive, down from an April high of 42 percent, though Wayne County continues to be the state’s hotspot, with 17,960 cases reported and 2,082 deaths.

After looking for ways to help when the virus heated up and sent college classes online, Maddie began work on March 30, part of a daily crew of 50 staff and volunteers testing people who have a prescription from a doctor to receive a coronavirus test.

“Right now, we’re also seeing people who work for critical infrastructure--city employees, first responders, police officers, and firefighters.” 

She has been tested twice, and confirms it’s not a comfortable process. She herself has administered tests, among other administrative and customer service duties as needed. On April 20, she was hired as Administrative Special Services Staff by the City of Detroit General Services Department. 

“Many of the city employees were able to go back to their regular jobs, so they hired two of us volunteers.”

Maddie plans to stay as long as she’s needed, after which she hopes to begin a three-year master’s program to become a Physician Assistant. The varsity athlete had just said goodbye to Kalamazoo the previous weekend, having returned to collect her belongings, admitting “it was sad” to leave in such a manner. “It was certainly not how I expected senior year to go.”

Her mother, retired psychologist Jackie Odom, says Maddie was devastated as team captain to have her final lacrosse season cut short by the pandemic. Jackie admits that she and her husband have worries about Maddie balancing school and full-time work, and of course, her health, but see how important the work is to her. 

“Maddie was deeply moved about the problems created by the virus and couldn’t stand by and watch without helping,” says Dr. Odom. 

She went on to say that Maddie learned to help others when she was a Brownie and then a Girl Scout. She became a Red Cross Certified lifeguard at 16, and a Wilderness First Responder at 17. During high school, she worked as a summer camp nurse and lifeguard before being certified as an emergency medical technician at 18, which provided employment during college breaks. She spent her junior year abroad in Perth, Australia, helping a nurse practitioner serve aboriginal communities from a mobile clinic. 

Maddie tells us she’s been struck by the wide variety of patients she’s seen come through for testing. 

“There’s really such a broad spectrum of people COVID-19 is affecting. I’ve seen all ages, all backgrounds. This can affect anyone. And sometimes it’s quite apparent that they're not feeling well. I’ve been gratified to help people know where they stand, to give them the information they need—either the assurance that they are not positive or that they should quarantine and need to isolate.”  

Maddie says that “it’s hard work but it’s rewarding,” and she’s appreciated learning from her coworkers, which include city employees and staff from the mayor’s office. 

“The people I work with have been great. Everyone’s very supportive and collaborative. We work through things, troubleshooting the challenges of serving so many people.”

A number of her coworkers have lost a friend or family member to the virus, adding to the challenge of embracing work no one had ever done before. Off duty, Maddie has little time or appetite for the news or social media – or for people who dismiss the need for protective masks and social distancing.

“This can affect anyone, and I have seen people personally impacted by this. I wouldn’t want anyone to go through it that doesn’t need to. It’s disappointing to see folks who blow it off.”

Once home and cleaned up, Maddie enjoys dinner with her parents, time outdoors with her dog Bennie, or an online Orange TheoryTM workout. Then she gets down to the business of finishing up coursework for her biology degree, which she will receive in June, another building block in her already impressive career in public health. 

Read more articles by Katie Houston.

Katie Houston is a freelance writer and occasional actor whose clients have included the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. 
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