BEFORE MARCH 2020, the UCLA Arthur Ashe Student Health & Wellness Center was like any other university clinic. On any given day, 20 doctors and nurse practitioners would treat hundreds of Bruins for everything from common colds to twisted ankles to the occasionally more serious medical need. With an overall staff of 100, the center offered a range of services, including acupuncture, optometry, physical therapy, X-rays and women’s health.

But by mid-March, the coronavirus had changed everything and UCLA had gone remote, meaning most students had disappeared from campus. The center quickly responded to the new set of challenges posed by the pandemic. By the end of that month, the Ashe Center was serving three new functions: testing, contact tracing (the process of identifying an infected individual’s close contacts) and running its clinic remotely, seeing a majority of patients through telehealth visits.

“It’s a different place,” says John Bollard, the center’s interim co-executive director. “We’re operating at 20% of our usual capacity. We prided ourselves on being open to all students. Now, we have to help them from a distance.”

Nancy Holt, interim co-executive director and chief of medical services, says, “This ordeal has brought the Ashe group together as a team, because there has been so much to do, and it had to be done quickly. People on our team have given their best to take care of the campus and our students. You see people taking on new jobs in different locations, really pushing their boundaries.”

Dr. Sam Elias M.D. ’96, the interim medical director who leads the contact-tracing efforts, says shifting the center’s mission to focus on COVID-19 on a moment’s notice was trying. “The way we operate has flipped upside down,” he says. “We’ve had to do contact tracing for students, faculty and staff. That’s completely new. Ashe has never been responsible for anything to do with faculty and staff before.”

Alyson Aliano
From left: A UCLA staff member and Jessica Friar at one of UCLA’s mobile testing units, where 6,212 COVID-19 tests have been conducted from November 2020 to January 2021. The BruinBus marks the location for free COVID-19 testing.

From a Regular Organization to a Startup

Until September, Ashe Center employees conducted all testing at the center. Then, as the start of fall quarter loomed, the center added three on-campus testing sites: Covel Commons, Collins Court and a tent at Switzer Plaza. Thanks to a partnership with UCLA Transportation, there’s also a mobile testing unit on a bus.

Although the UCLA campus remains nearly empty as of this writing, roughly 700 students still live in on-campus housing. Campus essential workers and a limited number of approved researchers still have jobs to do on-site. To help keep the campus safe, the Ashe Center conducts weekly — in some cases, twice-weekly — COVID-19 tests for 10,000 students, staff and faculty at no cost, as part of a program of required asymptomatic testing for those on the UCLA campus. Since March 13, 2020, the Ashe Center has administered more than 200,000 COVID-19 viral tests.

The testing push on campus has been a great success: As of mid-January, the center had conducted 18,000 tests in one week, with a record 5,300 tests in one day. This is due, in large part, to the efficiency at the testing sites. From checking in to dropping off the self-testing kit, each test takes between 2.5 and 3.5 minutes.

Jessica Friar, a licensed vocational nurse and clinical assistant at UCLA for the last nine years, works in the mobile testing unit. Her job during the COVID-19 era is nothing like her usual one, which consisted of working with clinicians, doing patient intake, giving shots, collecting specimens or lab testing. “Overnight, my normal job was no more,” she says.

The mobile unit serves those who don’t come to campus and would most likely not be tested otherwise. Since November, Friar has been traveling around Westwood on the mobile testing bus, stopping at any of the six regular locations to conduct testing. “The whole point of the mobile unit is to test people where they are,” she says. “We go to university housing twice a week, so we’re literally coming to their doorstep. They get to come out to the parking lot, sign up on their cellphone and get tested, without having to go all the way to campus.”

Working with Diana Vidales, who is a registered nurse, and Yanira Gomez, the bus driver, Friar and the mobile unit test, on average, more than 100 people per day. That translates to more than 6,200 total tests taken by the unit from November to January.

“I feel like I’m just a regular person going to work. I get on a bus, and we just drive around the city,” Friar says. “But when I take a step back and look at the big picture, it’s like, ‘No. That’s the mobile testing unit for all of UCLA and Ronald Reagan [UCLA Medical Center].’ This is a big deal.”

Alyson Aliano
From left: Armando Clemente leads the COVID-19 testing site at Covel Commons, where 35,059 COVID-19 tests have been conducted from November 2020 to January 2021.

Redeployed and Rededicated

To help places like the Ashe Center, UCLA’s Talent Match program temporarily reassigned UCLA staff who work in departments where workloads had dissipated. When it came time to add staff members to support the Ashe Center’s new mission, “every department on campus wanted to help,” Bollard says. New team members from departments like housing and transportation were willing to jump on board and do entirely new jobs.

Armando Clemente, an administrative analyst with UCLA Transportation, was redeployed to the Ashe Center in October. Like many UCLA employees, Clemente had been working from home before taking part in the Talent Match program.

Clemente currently leads the team of 14 at the Covel Commons COVID-19 testing site, where up to 1,300 tests are administered per day. The team maintains the safest possible environment and ensures that those taking nasal swab self-tests — mostly students, but recently an increasing number of campus staff as well — are correctly signed in, wearing masks properly and exercising precise physical distancing.

“I’m really excited about working with the Ashe Center,” Clemente says. “It has been an honor to participate in this effort. Hopefully, with the help of the whole team, we can get back to normal soon — or at least close to normal.”

Alyson Aliano
From left: The entrance to Switzer Plaza’s COVID-19 testing site, where people self-test. At Switzer Plaza, 29,249 COVID-19 tests have been conducted from November 2020 to January 2021.

On the horizon this year, the Ashe Center is expecting to work closely with UCLA Health on the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines for students, once state and county guidelines expand to include them as an eligible group.

For his part, Clemente’s message to the campus community is simple: “When you get your turn to take the vaccine, go ahead and take the opportunity. We’re fortunate enough to be here at this world-class university, with a world-class health facility, so take advantage of it. Read up on the vaccine if you have any doubts about it.”

Service With Meaning

Bollard says, “This is the best thing I’ve ever been involved with in my 21 years at UCLA. To me and to many of the staff, this is the most meaning we’ve ever felt in our work. We’re keeping the campus safe in a real, literal way.”

He has a theory on what propels the Ashe Center team forward. “Arthur Ashe — the African American tennis champion and humanitarian who died of AIDS — is inspiring in so many ways. What we’re living through is similar to the AIDS crisis, in that there’s an immediate need to respond medically on a global level,” Bollard says. “It’s so meaningful to have the Ashe Center so involved in the campus response to this pandemic.”

The story of the Ashe Center’s work is emblematic of units all across campus that have adapted to the challenges of the pandemic and risen to the occasion, driven by their dedication to serving the UCLA community in the most impactful ways possible.

From top: Nurse Caroline Lee works at Collins Court’s COVID-19 testing site. Bertha Ruis (left) and Nuntaporn Nithimapinum wait to assist patients at Collins Court, where 67,018 COVID-19 tests have been conducted from November 2020 to January 2021.

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s April 2021 issue.