When COVID-19 struck close to home, UF jumped into action on many fronts to lend a hand.
By the end of March 2020, the need for widespread testing to prevent transmission became obvious. UF Health’s Screen, Test & Protect efforts moved beyond main campus, reaching people at The Villages® and in Duval County, as well as UF/IFAS staff and students in South and Central Florida. Faculty and students across UF Health volunteered to provide manpower for countless testing events and launched UF’s chapter of the COVID-19 Student Service Corps to pitch in with initiatives focused on public health, personal protective equipment distribution, gratitude projects and more.
When a need emerged for epidemiologists to assist health departments across the state with contact tracing, doctoral students in the department of epidemiology answered the call. When front-line workers pulled overtime shifts at the hospital, medical and physician assistant students offered up child care services. When vaccines became available, nursing students stepped up to help administer them, gaining experience in the process.
“I’m so glad I volunteered because I feel so productive and like I’m doing something for my community as well as putting in my little grain of sand to fight COVID-19,” said Ashley Velasquez, a senior in the College of Nursing who has been volunteering at the UF Health Springhill vaccination location.
As early as May, many units across the university began hosting town hall events to address concerns and answer thousands of questions from students, parents, faculty, county and state leadership and others. Dr. Michael Lauzardo with the UF Health Screen, Test and Protect initiative participated in more than 70 of these events, answering hundreds of questions in English and Spanish. Dr. Lauzardo and the UF Health ST & P initiative also partnered with local churches, business and organizations to provide science-based vaccine education to underserved communities.
"As a physician who has worked in public health his whole career, I could not imagine holding back in any way in a global emergency like this. I want to give everything possible to the effort to protect our community and contribute to the effort to forge a path back to normal. It has been and remains a privilege to serve in this way and I am so looking forward to beating back this virus no matter what it takes. I know my colleagues feel the same way and their dedication serves to motivate me further,” said Dr. Lauzardo, an associate professor with the division of infectious diseases and global medicine.
Below ground, another issue was brewing. Spring is harvest time for many major commodities in Florida, and with schools and businesses closed, the market for fruits and vegetables dried up overnight. Extension agents with UF/IFAS doubled down on efforts to connect farmers and the public in various communities, creating a field-to-consumer pipeline to alleviate some of the farmers’ losses and help combat hunger by giving Florida residents safe access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Agriculture fuels the Sunshine State’s economy, and the pandemic proved an unfamiliar foe not just for crops but also for the people who keep production running. Thousands of farmworkers coming into Florida to help with harvest for the state’s second-largest industry now needed COVID-19 education and testing, a task complicated by their rural locations and language barriers.
UF/IFAS Extension partnered with state and county agencies to connect these workers with free COVID-19 testing and safety information. Extension agents led the grassroots effort by distributing masks, training more than 800 growers and farmworkers in English and Spanish, and translating COVID-19 materials into Spanish and Haitian Creole.
“Farmworkers play a key role in Florida’s food production system and are listed as essential employees, which means they may have to work despite the added risks to their health,” said Kim Morgan, an associate professor of food and resource economics at the Southwest Florida Research & Education Center. “So it is our goal to protect them.”
“As a physician who has worked in public health his whole career, I could not imagine holding back in any way in a global emergency like this. I want to give everything possible to the effort to protect our community and contribute to the effort to forge a path back to normal. It has been and remains a privilege to serve in this way and I am so looking forward to beating back this virus no matter what it takes. I know my colleagues feel the same way and their dedication serves to motivate me further.”
At every turn throughout the pandemic, faculty, staff and students have showed up in full force to fight the effects of COVID-19 not just on campus but also in their community and across the state, bringing to life a phrase long recited by every Gator fan around the world: “In all kinds of weather, we’ll all stick together.” Gators never give up.