by Travis Williams
WITH FACES CONCEALED, EYES shielded, and hands gloved, the students squirted a fragrant gel on strangers passing by in downtown Blacksburg.
A year ago, this act might have resembled a scene from a science-fiction movie or felt like an offbeat prank, but in 2020, the sanitizing is a welcomed act of service.
“We’ve had a great response from the community,” said Fernanda Gutierrez, a second-year graduate student in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s public health program. “When they see we’re giving out hand sanitizer and distributing masks, they’re really happy.”
Gutierrez is one of a handful of Virginia Tech students who routinely spend their Friday evenings distributing personal protective equipment and related medical information to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Embracing the name “COVID Crushers,” the students run a booth at the intersection of College Avenue and Draper Road, where they also model wearing the recommended safety gear and host a COVID-19-related trivia contest complete with prizes.
Gutierrez and fellow Master of Public Health student Teace Markwalter coordinate the weekly event, which was initiated by a request from Blacksburg Chief of Police, Anthony Wilson. Another student in the program, Laura Lang, serves as the group’s outreach coordinator.
“It’s just sort of a grassroots effort that they took the ball and ran with, and it’s doing such a great service for our community,” Wilson said. “They’re making connections with people that we would probably never be able to reach.”
Sharing wellness information and public service are key components of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s public health program, according to Laura Hungerford, head of the Department of Public Health Sciences.
“Our students, faculty, and staff are always out working with the health district and communities. It’s just that we always kind of did it under the radar,” Hungerford said. “We don’t usually think to stop and share our public health stories, but COVID has made everyone interested in how we can work together to stop disease spread.”
The global pandemic has increased awareness of the important role the students play in educating the public.
“Until you actually do something like contact tracing or showing people how to protect themselves from COVID, it can seem overwhelming,” Hungerford said. “From talking to people on the street, our students really understand, for example, why people don’t wear masks and can ultimately better communicate in ways that might change that behavior.”