While all UW-CTRI employees are now back working in their offices in person, some colleagues have been doing so throughout much of the pandemic, even before vaccines were available.
“I want to say on behalf of the Center and our patients, a heartfelt thank you to all of our staff who worked in the office earlier than others so our research could continue,” said UW-CTRI Director Dr. Michael Fiore. “In particular, I want to thank our health counselors, tobacco care managers and administrative members who were seeing patients in person and handling other tasks so our patients could reduce or quit smoking.”
Senior Clinical Research Manager Holly Prince said the research team’s work after the initial lockdown was impressive. “Meds continued to be mailed, checks printed, letters created and sent, urine cotinine tested, along with screening calls, health counselor visits and calls. These activities were done both from home and in the office. Most of them were done from the office.”
Here is a picture of the productivity of these colleagues under adverse conditions for three studies—Options, BREATHE 2, and the Withdraw from Tobacco Study:
What It Was Like
As both COVID and smoking continued to harm Americans, UW-CTRI staff rose to the occasion to help study participants. But it involved uncertainty.
“I didn’t feel 100 percent safe working without being fully vaccinated before starting to see participants,” said one colleague.
Another coworker said, “My experience working in the office during this time was fear of the following: Workplace safety, participant’s understanding of COVID, and mental stress.”
Health counselors said most patients wore masks and were respectful of safety precautions, but some didn’t wear masks properly, and a few even bragged about going out to bars and restaurants during the pandemic, as well as other risky behaviors.
“That was a bit scary at first because it was quite a while before the vaccines were available,” said one health counselor. “We made several adaptations to our protocols to make it as safe as possible. For instance, we had them blow their CO breath tests outdoors, and had the PowerPoints recorded to reduce in-person contact time. We also wore masks and face shields for our study visits. However, it still felt risky being in confined spaces with people for prolonged periods, especially those who bragged about all the risky endeavors and just couldn’t seem to keep their masks in place during study visits. Smokers tend to cough regularly, so being in an enclosed space for hours with risk-taking people who don’t wear their masks correctly and are coughing felt very stressful sometimes. This was especially true when the cases topped 8,000 per day in Wisconsin.”
“Thankfully,” the health counselor continued, “because we were working in-person with participants, we were some of the first to receive the vaccine on campus once it did become available and that has provided a lot of stress relief.”
“Some of the changes we’ve made for COVID precautions have worked well and I’m hopeful we’ll get to keep them in place long-term,” said another colleague, “such as recorded Informed Consent PowerPoint presentations. I can tell by the questions they ask afterwards that participants pay attention equally as well as when we give these presentations live. It also relieves me of any self-doubt that I inadvertently missed passing along vital information while giving the presentation, since all presentations are standardized.”
“The pandemic has affected EVERYBODY in many ways,” said another health counselor. “Everyone is affected in some way by the change that the pandemic has brought on.”
Another said, “I didn’t see a big difference. I have been working with really nice people. There wasn’t much of a change.”
Empathy and Gratitude
Fiore, who also worked in the office during the pandemic, recognizes these challenges and empathizes with those who encountered them.
“Our staff who worked in the office and saw patients during this pandemic are courageous, brave, and generous,” he said. “We see that it was difficult. We thank you, and our patients thank you. We’re very glad everyone came through it okay. We’ll learn from it and continue to improve how we conduct our research in the future, especially under adverse circumstances.”