Safeguarding San Gabriel Valley Through COVID-19 Antibody Testing for Tzu Chi Volunteers

National Headquarters  | November 10, 2020
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Tzu Chi USA offers COVID-19 antibody testing for free on August 23rd via a drive-through method. Photo by Mandy Lo.

Written by Jennifer Chien
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

On July 26th, 2020, volunteers from Tzu Chi USA’s National Headquarters carried out their first free COVID-19 antibody testing event for 100 people in the community, helping to assess the virus’s spread — especially through asymptomatic transmission. To ensure the health of Tzu Chi volunteers and protect the safety of locals, five Tzu Chi volunteers from the National Headquarters in San Dimas, California, purchased antibody test kits specifically for the event. 

Together with professional medical volunteers from Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA), a second COVID-19 antibody testing event that took place on August 23rd, 2020, benefited a total of 165 Tzu Chi members.

Love and Care for Our Tzu Chi Family

The day before the event, Jackson Chen, the CEO of Tzu Chi USA, and Han Huang, Tzu Chi USA’s Executive Vice President, led colleagues to set up the event site. Photo by Jennifer Chien.
Tzu Chi USA CEO Jackson Chen, reminds the medical professionals to take careful precautions during testing. Photo by Mandy Lo.

At this testing event especially held for our Tzu Chi family, the main participants are Tzu Chi volunteers and members. First of all, we’re grateful to the generous donors for covering the costs for these test kits and we also thank the TIMA professional volunteers for their service. The entire project was carried out by Tzu Chi volunteers and funded by Tzu Chi volunteers, making this a warm and meaningful event.

Jackson Chen, CEO of Tzu Chi USA

Tzu Chi USA CEO, Jackson Chen, remarked that the pandemic in the United States showed no signs of ceasing, and reminded everyone that case rates have risen once again. In the past few months, Tzu Chi has held up to two grocery distributions each week across Southern California to support those suffering from food insecurity due to the crisis. Therefore, to care for the health of our Tzu Chi volunteers and ensure the health of the community, it was necessary to organize this testing event for volunteers. The original plan was to provide 150 tests, but the number of people registered exceeded 160. 

Dr. Shirley Chen, the Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Medical Development Department, said that after Tzu Chi’s first COVID-19 antibody testing event held on July 26th, the testing operation procedures were improved so the participants can drive in and park by the tent. There’s no need to get out of their vehicle; they just need to stretch out their hand to get the test completed, minimizing the risk of infection to testers.

Dr. Shirley Chen, the Director of the Medical Development Department for Tzu Chi USA, is also in charge of the COVID-19 antibody testing project. Photo by Mandy Lo.

Following Through With Volunteers

Dr. Stephen Denq conducts a briefing in the morning with volunteers before testing begins. Photo by Mandy Lo.
Han Huang, the Executive Vice President of Tzu Chi USA, takes on the role of a patient for the nurse to practice the initial testing. Photo by Mandy Lo.

This also marks the first COVID-19 antibody testing event carried out entirely by Tzu Chi volunteers. Four physicians and nine nurses from TIMA, as well as the Tzu Chi volunteers responsible for registration and directing traffic, were all on-site at 7 AM. The team of physicians — Dr. Stephen Denq, Dr. Victor Cheng, and Dr. Peter Chen — went over the procedure for collecting the blood samples with the nurses, and demonstrated the safe disposal of used medical equipment to ensure testing is performed in a safe, professional manner that meets medical guidelines.

Volunteers who signed up for the testing arrived one after another starting at 8 AM. Following guided traffic lines, they stopped their vehicles in front of one of four tents to get tested in an orderly fashion. After the blood samples were retrieved, they could drive to a waiting area behind the tent. In approximately ten minutes, they received their test results from a doctor via a phone call on-site.

Since Tzu Chi USA’s National Headquarters had prior experience with such testing events, this second event was completed effectively and efficiently. With the pre-arranged appointments in a consistent order for examinations, 165 tests were completed by 10:30 in the morning. At the previous event, 100 tests had been completed by noontime, and volunteers were pleased to have improved.

Individuals don’t need to get out of their vehicle; just stretch out a finger for the nurse to collect a blood sample for the testing kit. Photo by Mandy Lo.
The blood sample is immediately placed onto the test cartridge and the results appear in about ten minutes. Photo by Mandy Lo.

Maintaining Healthy Prevention Measures

Dr. Peter Chen explained that this event was carried out using a test kit approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), and has an accuracy rate of 95%. It mainly tests the blood for IgM and IgG antibodies from the novel coronavirus. IgM antibodies are the first type of antibodies produced by the human body in the early stage of a COVID-19 infection. After an initial period of infection, the IgM antibodies will eventually diminish, and instead, the body will produce IgG antibodies. If these are not detected by the COVID-19 antibody testing kit, it’s considered negative.

Dr. Peter Chen explained that if IgM antibodies appear in the test result, it means that the patient has just been exposed to the virus, and the virus may still be in the body. The doctor will advise the patient to take a swab for coronavirus testing. If there are people with IgG antibodies in their bodies, it doesn’t mean that they will be immune to the virus, and mutations of the virus are not unfathomable. Indeed, everyone should continue to uphold preventative measures.

Dr. Peter Chen (right) answers a question from a nurse. Photo by Mandy Lo.
Dr. Victor Cheng calls one of the volunteers with their test results. Photo by Mandy Lo.

Dr. Victor Cheng said this second testing event was all carried out by Tzu Chi volunteers themselves. As this project was undertaken by members of TIMA for the first time, multiple video conferences were conducted prior to the event day to ensure everything would run as smoothly as possible. Even with mindful preparation, they still encountered some small challenges on the day of the event. Volunteers promptly responded to correct any issues that arose — for example, adjusting the traffic flow when the vehicles were in a longer line than expected. Dr. Victor Cheng believes that although some potential improvements could be made for future events, all the volunteers have gained vital experience through this project.

Reducing Infection Rates in the San Gabriel Valley

Stephanie Tang, a registered nurse working at a Kaiser Permanente Medical facility, and her daughter Virginia Tang, who’s also a registered nurse, took the opportunity to join Tzu Chi’s testing event on their day off. Stephanie believes that it’s a very meaningful event to be a part of. She’s thankful to be able to help the community understand the effectiveness of preventive actions that reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

Vehicles follow the line to be tested in an orderly manner. Photo by Jennifer Chien.
Two registered nurses, Stephanie Tang (right) and her daughter Virginia Tang (left), volunteer their time at the testing event. Photo by Jennifer Chien.

Virginia Tang works in the hospital on weekdays and is assigned to help COVID-19 patients. She feels the stress of the pandemic on a daily basis, but when she heard that her mother was going to volunteer at a Tzu Chi event, she readily volunteered to join as well despite her busy work schedule. She believes that if more residents get properly tested, they can be better prepared, and help reduce the infection rate in the community.

Many patients suffering from the coronavirus regretted not taking preventive measures after they were hospitalized. Therefore, reducing the spread of the disease and reducing community cross-transmission is the most important preventive action. Only by reducing the number of people getting infected can the hospitalization rate be truly reduced.

Virginia Tang, Registered Nurse

Theresa Huang, a nurse at UCLA Medical Center, had also helped at a Tzu Chi food distribution event under the scorching sun on the day before the COVID-19 antibody testing event. She said she came to help because she recognizes the importance of this testing, as many Tzu Chi volunteers regularly worry if they may be asymptomatically infected. Fortunately, all the volunteers tested negative, and everyone released a sigh of relief. Volunteers will continue carrying out their duties with the utmost care.

Nurse Theresa Huang (second left) provides information about testing procedures to another nurse. Photo by Mandy Lo.

Protect Yourself and Others

Many Tzu Chi volunteers who came for testing that day were volunteers who often participated in distribution events during the pandemic. Everyone was worried that if they were asymptomatically infected, they might spread the virus without knowing, and affect the health of others. Therefore, the volunteers came to this event for the benefit of their health and the health of the community they serve.

Volunteer Sharon Chu, who often participated in food distribution events, and her mother Chengi Su, came together for testing. Chengi works at the Jing Si bookstore on the Tzu Chi Walnut Campus, and learned that someone came down with a high fever after visiting the store a while back, so Chengi and the volunteers in the store that day were very worried. They began to self-quarantine as a precaution to avoid the possibility that they, too, could spread the virus. The opportunity to get tested came as a tremendous relief. Thankfully, they were both confirmed negative, and also learned more about proper preventive measures at the event.

Entrust love to discipline oneself and care for others.

Jing Si Aphorism by Dharma Master Cheng Yen
Sharon Chu (left) and her mother Chengi Su are Tzu Chi volunteers who often help at food distribution events in the community. Photo by Jennifer Chien.
(From left) Ni Meng, Fiona Wang, and Sylvia Shi are staff members from the National Headquarters’ Administration Department, and also came for the COVID-19 antibody test. Photo by Jennifer Chien.

All staff members from the National Headquarters’ Administration Department participated as well, and the test results were all negative once again. Fiona Wang, an administrative staff member, shared that because the administrative staff is often in contact with volunteers visiting at the office, all her colleagues were tested.

This testing event was held successfully thanks to the love, care, and dedication of Tzu Chi volunteers. Volunteers carry a great responsibility to the people and communities they serve, and will continue to take preventative measures, like wearing face coverings, washing hands frequently, and maintaining social distance. In this time of uncertainty, volunteers strive to be a source of stability, and ensure that those who struggle know their Tzu Chi family is here for them.

Volunteers from the registration team are responsible for checking the temperature of the participants. Photo by Mandy Lo.
Medical volunteers hold a feedback meeting at the end of the event to discuss how events can be even more effective in the future. Photo by Mandy Lo.

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