In honor of National Athletic Training Month, meet Angi Steffen, who’s making an uncommon difference in on-campus COVID-19 testing.
When you think of an athletic trainer in her natural environment, you might picture her surrounded by rolls of athletic tape, used to wrap ankles and wrists to protect athletes from the rigors of competition. These days, you may just as readily find Angi Steffen (’07) surrounded by plastic test tubes—used to help protect athletes from the spread of COVID-19.
That’s because Steffen—CUW’s director of sports medicine and head athletic trainer—has been putting much of her considerable talents and energy toward a cutting-edge testing program for CUW’s student-athletes and other active, high-risk students.
While most college athletic programs have to wait 48 hours or more for COVID-19 test results, the Falcons get their results the same day, thanks to the university’s in-house experts within the School of Pharmacy who have donated their time this year to weekly process tests on site.
“That’s really hard for athletics, to test a team and then not have results for 48 hours,” Steffen explained. “You can’t load a bus and take off for a competition without test results. For us to be able to do PCR testing on-site and have same-day results, we’re beyond blessed.”
Blue and Gold Standard
PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing is considered the “gold standard” in asymptomatic COVID-19 detection. The PCR test helps identify carriers before they even get sick, which makes a significant difference in preventing the spread of the virus. The downside, compared to an “antigen test,” is that it typically takes longer to get results. That is, of course, unless you have your own testing lab and qualified testers.
At first, the idea of doing on-site testing seemed far-fetched—or perhaps just out of reach. But it quickly became a question of, “Well, why not?”
“I can still remember our meeting with Dr. [Bob] Burlage up in Pharmacy, talking about how to institute a testing program,” Steffen recalled. “He said, ‘Gosh, I could order a bunch of supplies and we could just do this stuff in our lab.’ Everybody kind of giggled, but then it was like, ‘Wait, are you serious?’ And we never looked back!”
Dr. Burlage and Dr. Justin Speck, along with the team of pharmacy students they supervise, are the real heroes, Steffen says. Dr. Ernest Stremski, professor of pharmacy science and medical director, has also been instrumental, as have Dr. Steven Taylor, vice president of student life, and Renee Gosselin, health services manager at the Student Health Center are also invaluable. The crew at the Health Center have been “the boots on the ground with the day-to-day management,” she added.
In retrospect, it sounds like an easy decision and a logical way to proceed. But there’s a lot more to making the process work than first appears. It takes a lot of extra hours and a true team effort to get more than 700 Falcon-athletes, musicians, nursing students, and theatre students tested each week. (Like student-athletes, students in these programs are at higher-risk of exposure than most.)
Everything is compounded, of course, by so many sports moving to spring competition. With the majority of fall competitive seasons shifted to spring play, the Falcons are heading into the busiest athletic season Concordia has ever seen.
Steffen is on the front lines of the testing effort as she prepares, labels, and distributes the hundreds of test tubes needed every day. A saliva sample is easy to take, so students can do it themselves. But someone also has to collect, keep track of, and deliver the samples for testing. Steffen and her team have been going above and beyond to get everything done, in addition to all their regular work.
“My staff has been incredible, just working long hours and sometimes a week or two or three without a day off,” Steffen said. “Everyone’s tired, but every day we have a smile on our face and we’re happy to be here. But more than anything we’re happy that our student-athletes are competing.”
Living the Dream
In the end, it’s all a labor of love for the hard-working trainer. A self-described Concordia “lifer,” Steffen has been a part of CUW since she came to the Mequon campus to study athletic training, graduating in 2007. The opportunity to serve her alma mater professionally while also “getting paid to watch sports” seems almost too good to be true. The extra work the pandemic has brought on is a small price to pay for continuing to live the dream.
“It seems like I don’t sleep anymore—but don’t put that in the story!” she said with a laugh. “I would do it all again ten times out of ten to provide these opportunities for our Falcon athletes. Everything we do in our department is for our student-athletes.”
And the appreciation goes in other directions. It takes a lot of patience and understanding from athletes, coaches, and administrators in the athletic department to make it all work.
“The amount of cooperation, respect, and gratitude that I and my staff have received from coaches and student-athletes has been incredible,” Steffen said. “Just to know that they are appreciative, it makes everything worth it.”
CUW Athletic Director Dr. Rob Barnhill counts himself among her biggest fans. “I am grateful every day to come to work and have a partner like Angi Steffen,” he said.
“From the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown we knew that testing protocols and administration were going to be among the largest obstacles in our return-to-play strategies,” Barnhill added. “Angi and our athletic training staff, along with the student health center and our pharmacy faculty, have been absolute rock stars.
“Without their commitment and professionalism, we would not be playing sports.”
To learn more about pursuing a career in athletic training at Concordia University Wisconsin, a Master of Science in Athletic Training degree at Concordia University Wisconsin, visit the program page at cuw.edu. To learn more about National Athletic Training Month, contact the National Athletic Trainers Association.
— This story is written by Mike Zimmerman, corporate communications manager for Concordia University Wisconsin. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 262-243-4380.
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