Touro University California medical students Michael Gloudeman (right) and Isabella Hamilton have successfully implemented an efficient COVID-19 screening procedure at Mare Island Dry Dock. Their system has worked so well that the city of Vallejo has taken notice. (Photos courtesy of Gloudeman and Hamilton)

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As the Bay Area grapples with the pandemic, essential workers from every industry continue to show up to work, often without rigorous safeguards to protect them from viral transmission. 

That is the case at Mare Island Dry Dock, LLC (MIDD), where dozens of workers mill about the 18-acre site, the noise of buzzing tools, sparking metal, and massive machinery drowning out the sounds of the Mare Island Strait. On any given day, ships from around the world — cruise ships, U.S. military ships, commercial freighters — will dock at the facility for repairs, forcing dock employees to work in confined spaces and increasing their risk of exposure to a virus that has touched every part of the globe.

But as other industries struggle to contain outbreaks, MIDD has reported zero cases of virus transmission as of late August.

This unexpected success is a credit to a rotating group of about eight medical and pharmacy students from Touro University California. Every day since mid-July, student volunteers gather at dock in full personal protective equipment at 6 a.m., checking the temperatures of each and every person who shows up in order to prevent potentially symptomatic individuals from becoming unwitting vectors of the disease.

For volunteer leads Michael Gloudeman and Isabella Hamilton, the reason to help is simple.

“It’s keeping people employed. That’s important to me,” said Gloudeman, a PharmD candidate. “You can’t sit behind a laptop and weld.”

“We aren’t required to do community service, but it’s something we all do,” added Hamilton, who’s studying osteopathy. “I really wanted to get out and serve other people. It’s the reason why I want to do medicine.”

Student volunteers assisting with the project are seen here in full PPE gear in order to screen essential workers docking at MIDD.

Entering their second year at Touro, Gloudeman and Hamilton were among the first students to sign up for the Touro Student Services Core, a COVID-19 emergency response initiative designed to connect students with community service opportunities. After being assigned to MIDD, the pair quickly established procedures to screen workers, including a self-report questionnaire and an on-site temperature check, and educate them on the importance of screening.

“A lot of what we were doing was building the process and getting people comfortable with it,” said Hamilton. “We’re trying to explain that it helps keep them safe, and it helps keep other people safe. It’s just normalizing the behavior.”

The students’ biggest test came on August 16, when the USS Emory S. Land — a U.S. Navy submarine tender carrying 300 sailors and 150 civilian workers — landed at the dry dock for repairs after a deployment to Guam. 

Despite having to process roughly four times as many people than normal and dealing with a technical difficulty that prevented workers from taking the questionnaire at first, the students managed to ramp up screening with very few hiccups — catching the attention of local officials.

“The Vallejo City Council is very interested in it. They’ve come out and gone through the screening,” said Gloudeman. “The Navy could be interested in it. It could be a model for other industries.”

Whatever the case, the screenings will continue for the duration of the ship’s stay through January—meaning plenty more early mornings for the student volunteers. 

Gloudeman and Hamilton don’t mind, though.

“Every year of medical school, you’re facing a different challenge,” said Hamilton. “I didn’t expect to be doing this, but it’s been … very fulfilling for me.”

“You just got to keep going,” said Gloudeman. Then he added with a laugh: “Turns out you don’t need as much sleep as you think.”