U of Manitoba health sciences students step up to volunteer in fight against COVID-19

Students studying health sciences at the University of Manitoba have stepped up to volunteer during the COVID-19 pandemic and in turn are getting hands-on lessons they’ll be able to use later on in their careers.

Over 200 students in medical, dentistry, pharmacy, other faculties volunteering

University of Manitoba medical student Julian Polimeni didn't think he'd be volunteering on the front-lines of a pandemic when he signed up for medical school. (Julian Polimeni/Submitted)

Being on the front-lines of a pandemic isn't where Julian Polimeni imagined he'd be when he signed up for medical school.

But that's where the first-year med student at the University of Manitoba found himself last Tuesday. He was volunteering at the Grace Hospital's Access Clinic, which is now a testing centre for COVID-19.

He's one of more than 200 students from the U of M who have been volunteering the past week in the fight against the pandemic. The students are from health sciences, dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy and rehabilitation faculties.

"Being part of a global phenomenon is a very unique experience," he said.

"I mean, it's a little anxious or anxiety-provoking because there are people who are coming in who you know have flu-like symptoms, and we don't know whether they have COVID or not," Polimeni, 21, told CBC.

Polimeni said most of the people who showed up at the centre didn't meet the province's criteria to be tested and were told to go home and self-isolate, if they had flu-like symptoms.

For now, only returning international travellers with symptoms of COVID-19, or people with symptoms who've been in contact with those travellers, or people who've been in close contact with someone with a confirmed case, should be tested, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin has said. No one without symptoms needs to be tested.

"I think what's strange to us is just how unique the circumstances [are]. It's not the ability necessarily to work in the hospitals but just to see everyone in a mask and see the anxiety that a lot of people are have coming into these testing sites," Polimeni said.

First-year dentistry student Rita Wang is one of the students volunteering. (Rita Wang/Submitted)

Rita Wang is also volunteering on the front-lines. The first-year dental student was at the Health Sciences Centre last week to screen guests for illness before the hospital implemented suspended regular visitor access.

"I think it was a great opportunity to assist in the efforts to fight this pandemic," she said. 

"It was a lot of great interaction with people. Being a first-year dental student, we haven't had many experiences like interacting with the public just yet. So it was great to interact with the public as a health professional."

Wang said the majority of hospital guests were respectful and she plans to volunteer again in another capacity.

"People are generally very compliant ... which means people are taking this seriously, which is great."

The University of Manitoba said other students are registering health card numbers and doing other duties behind the scenes that will help front-line workers.


​Austin Grabish is a reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg. Since joining CBC in 2016, he's covered several major stories. Some of his career highlights have been documenting the plight of asylum seekers leaving America in the dead of winter for Canada and the 2019 manhunt for two teenage murder suspects. In 2021, he won an RTDNA Canada award for his investigative reporting on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which triggered change. Have a story idea? Email:


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