UWM students working on front lines of coronavirus battle

Originally appeared June 16, 2020 in UWM Report, in an article featuring both undergraduate and graduate students.

When the coronavirus pandemic struck, it wasn’t just doctors and nurses who leapt into action. It was UWM students, too. Students have been working in public health, nursing, mask-making and other necessary tasks.

Here are a few graduate student stories.

Educating the public


Kayla Bonack

Kayla Bonack, a graduate epidemiology student in the Zilber School of Public Health, was hired as an intern at the North Shore Health Department in January. Within weeks she found herself helping out on the front lines of coronavirus education and communication for the six communities the department serves.

“My role has definitely shifted a lot.”

She’s involved in working on the department’s website, doing a monthly newsletter, staying connected with the state health department for the latest data and helping with daily briefings.

To say it’s challenging is an understatement, she said.

“Every day we get new information about the virus itself as well as the guidelines we should be following for isolation and quarantine. It’s challenging because there are so many unknowns.”

On a personal level, her life has shifted a bit. For one thing, her commute has been simplified. She’s moved out of her downtown residence near Zilber to her parents’ home in Waupun, commuting to the health department’s Brown Deer office several times a week or as needed. She’s also doing her public health coursework from there.

North Shore community members are grateful for the information, sending cards and letters thanking nurses and the staff for their efforts, Bonack said. “We’re trying to offer some help and guidance when people are really scared. It’s cool to see the community express their thanks.”

‘An entirely different type of medicine’


Julianna Doniere

Julianna Doniere is a graduate student in the Zilber School of Public Health. As an emergency room doctor since 1996, she has a front-lines view of what is happening during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s an entirely different type of medicine than I was practicing two months ago,” said Doniere. “This is a whole new virus, and we’ve had to learn a whole new standard of care for it. For every shift I have to educate myself on what’s new, what can I try.”

While the numbers of patients coming into the emergency rooms is down because of fears of contracting the virus, those who do come in with the virus are often “horrifically ill,” she added. She works in the emergency room at several Ascension hospitals, primarily at St. Joseph’s.

At the same time, her neighbors are leaving food on her porch and others are sending gifts and food to the staff. “We all laugh that we’re gaining the COVID-19 (pounds). The support we’re getting from each other and outside the ER is really wonderful.”

Doniere said her Zilber studies, focusing on community and behavioral health promotion, have helped her better understand the public health dimensions of the epidemic. “That’s what UWM has done for me, helped me look at people as not just a disease but the culmination of all the things that brought them to the ER. It’s helped me focus on how to help the person rather than just on how to fix what’s going on right then.”

Working the surge tent


Lisa Gniot

Lisa Gniot worked in the COVID-19 “surge” tent at a metro Milwaukee hospital emergency department. She is a registered nurse who is in the direct entry Master’s in Nursing program in the College of Nursing, and this summer plans to start the Doctorate of Nursing Practice program as an adult-geriatric acute care nurse practitioner.

The surge tent was set up to help the hospital quickly assess the “walking well” patients with respiratory symptoms such as mild cough, sore throat or low-grade fever who could possibly be COVID-19 positive. After the staff assessed the incoming patients, Gniot swabbed all those eligible for testing. As patient numbers dropped, the tent closed, though Gniot still works in the emergency department.

“Balance is a challenging part of ED nursing. The process changes due to COVID-19 have been frustrating at times, due to the many updates to nursing policies and practices in just the past few months. It can be difficult to keep up with the ever-changing environment.”

What she’s learning at the hospital and at UWM have helped her develop her leadership skills and enhanced her ability to advocate for her patients, she said. “I have built so much confidence while building my nursing skills to openly share with leadership quality improvements that may be beneficial for the department.”

Tutoring students online


Imari Woods

Imari Woods, Alexander Breen, Brendan Lenzner and Brian Hartling are master’s degree students in the School of Information Studies who offer walk-in tutoring for undergraduates in the Information Science and Technology program. They moved their tutoring services online to continue to help students who aren’t on campus, using Microsoft Teams and other online platforms.

The biggest challenges for most students are getting used to use most of the tools/materials (video chat, chatting, Microsoft Team, Zoom) they have online to help with learning, Woods said. “Many of the students are not used to online learning and have never had to take an online class. They are mainly used to understanding and learning more face-to-face.”

Working on some projects is different, Lenzner said. “It can be more challenging because you can’t see exactly what’s happening with the code. It’s not the same as sitting down with them an going through it together in person.”


Brendan Lenzner

Breen, who is also a teaching assistant, tries to stay connected with students through phone calls and texts as well as tutoring. “A lot of people are scared, stressed out. You can see the changes in how this this isolation is affecting mental health.”

That’s why he encourages students to reach out whenever and however they can.

“Our SOIS community is strong. As long as we reach out and ask about people’s situations, we can help.”

“These students have stepped up in a very innovative way to help make this transition to online learning a bit easier for our students, “ said Rebecca Hall, communications director for SOIS.

“The most rewarding part is still being able to still serve students and help them with any needed work for school that they have,” Woods said.

Running a self-isolation site


Mai-Sher Jessica Yang

Mai-Sher Jessica Yang is helping take care of people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, but don’t have a safe place to isolate. Yang, who just finished her last semester at the Zilber School of Public Health, was working for the Milwaukee Health Department’s food safety area. When the coronavirus hit, the department put all staff possible to work on responses to the pandemic.

So she transitioned from doing food safety inspections for the Milwaukee Health Department to running a temporary isolation site at a local motel for people with no other place to self-isolate.

The work is challenging because residents are confined to one room and can’t really leave. “That definitely takes a toll on mental well-being.”

But it can also be rewarding, she said.

“A good part of our population is also housing insecure, so we try to help them find homes as well as recover from COVID.”

Yang worked in the medical field for a number of years, and came to Zilber to focus on the preventive side of health care. Her focus is Community & Behavioral Health Promotion.

What she’s learned in public health has helped her in her current work.

“It’s frustrating in the sense that things are always changing, but I’ve learned in my classes that’s the nature of public health. You have to be able to adapt. That’s important in this work because there isn’t a set manual on how to run an isolation site.”