Music makes a difference at Cabot Testing Center

Illustration by Hannah Moore/Northeastern University

Tara Doherty, senior site supervisor at the Cabot Testing Center, has watched tens of thousands of people wind their way through Northeastern’s COVID-19 testing process.

But she’ll never forget the day she turned on the music.

“You could see it right away. All up and down the row there were students just moving,” says Doherty, bopping her head to an imaginary beat as she relived the moment. Luis Fonsi’s Latin-reggaeton hit “Despacito” was likely the first song, she says.

“And then—I’ll never forget it—I had a 70-year-old vendor that was tested and he was coming this way, coming this way, and then he starts, like, dancing,” she says.

When Doherty started at the testing center last August, the focus was simply on getting everyone tested and out the door. Once the process became routine, Doherty said she just felt something was missing.

“All I could hear were the biohazard buckets opening and closing. It would be quiet for a while, and then ‘slam, slam, slam.’ We just needed to add something,” Doherty says.

She pulled aside a co-worker and pointed to a small, suitcase-sized speaker installed on the wall.

“I said to him, ‘Can you go up and see if we can use that thing with Bluetooth?’ So he did. And we turned it on,” says Doherty.

The music has played ever since that November morning, giving the high-traffic testing center a little something extra during an important and necessary COVID-19 safety procedure that can be monotonous at best and somewhat scary at worst.

“People come through here and it’s pretty automatic now, but there’s always a level of anxiety. They’re worried they’ll test positive. We’re hoping the music eases some of that for them,” says Maura Mahoney, director of student services finance and planning. She oversees up to 150 employees a day at the massive testing center.

Doherty was hired to help Northeastern officials rapidly transform the Cabot Physical Education Center into a COVID-19 testing site. The center, along with a groundbreaking lab in Burlington, means the community can be tested for the hyper-contagious virus twice a week in an effort to keep the Boston campus COVID-19 free.

Students and other members of the Northeastern community quickly took notice of the music, giving a shout-out to the eclectic mix on social media.

“Anyone know where to find the testing center playlist,” asked one poster on Northeastern’s subreddit, adding that the music is “low key fire.”

The impact has been even greater on testing center staffers, who work long hours to scan, usher, and instruct participants on proper swabbing.

“I took 25,000 steps inside the center one day. I think that might be a record,” says Vanessa Marquez, a nursing site supervisor who describes the job as “customer service on the run.”

“It’s a lot,” she says of the constant influx of people. “The music really helps. It changes the mood. It cheers people up.”

The songs are normally chosen by nursing site supervisors like Marquez, and both Doherty and Mahoney say they can often identify who is working based on the playlist.

“Oh yeah. Right now, this is Kaitlyn, one of our nursing site supervisors,” says Mahoney during a Friday afternoon on-site interview.

The music has sparked socially-distanced dance lessons among staff during some downtime, with Mahoney offering instruction on the wedding dance staple “The Electric Slide.”

“It brings a little bit of that human connection, something we’ve all been robbed and starved of,” says Marquez. “Sometimes the testing center staff are the only people I get to have face-to-face conversations with.”