COVID Scent Cards, Stack of Scent Cards

A stack of coronavirus scent cards sits on a table in the Pegula Ice Arena at Penn State's University Park, Pa. campus on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. The cards are given out at each testing site to individuals when they register at the front table.

For the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, getting randomly selected to participate in Penn State’s coronavirus asymptomatic surveillance program or going to the Pegula Ice Arena for walk-up testing was common for many students.

At every testing location, students swiped their ID cards, confirmed their phone number and address, and received a coronavirus scent card.

Similar to perfume inserts in magazines, the scent cards had a plastic seal with different scents to check smell loss along with a QR code that confirmed the scent.

John Hayes, professor of food science and director of the Sensory Evaluation Center, said the idea behind the scent cards started when smell loss was considered “the most specific predictor of COVID-19.”

“We have all been places where they bring out a temperature gun, [but] the problem is that fever is not specific. It could be food poisoning, the flu, strep and a lot of different things,” Hayes said. “Normally, when you get a cold, you have smell loss, but that’s a conductive smell loss where you are really clogged up. With COVID-19, it was different because that smell loss was often accompanied without being congested.”

Hayes said he knew there were companies that made perfume inserts for magazines and proposed to the university that scent cards could be made as an “awareness campaign.”

Hayes worked with Tinamarie Illar, assistant director of marketing strategy for the College of Agricultural Sciences, and others to come up with slogans like “Stop. Smell. Be well” and “Your nose knows.”

Illar helped develop the direction of messaging and tone of the awareness campaign.

The College of Agricultural Sciences’ marketing team wanted to make it a “simple” and “positive” message as well as something that “empowers” people and “makes them feel like they could have a little control and self-awareness,” Illar said.

“It is a campaign that is useful for everybody. It’s not whether you are a student, member of faculty, a visitor or a family member,” Illar said. “The campaign was meant to positively impact the lives of everyone in our community and even beyond.”

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So far, more than 200,000 scent cards have been distributed, with the first ones being in November 2020 at the Bryce Jordan Center, according to Illar.

Illar also said the team worked with university pandemic officers, student affairs and other entities to get the cards distributed.

“Certainly this isn’t the only thing anyone should do when it comes to COVID, but it is one tool in their arsenal, one symptom for them to be monitoring,” Illar said. “We just wanted this to be one more tool that an individual could use to monitor their health and help prevent the spread of the illness.”

Hayes also said he worked with a company to produce the scent cards and ordered a couple hundred thousand of them to be distributed to Residence Life and testing centers at University Park and other commonwealth campuses.

Working alongside John Hayes was Alyssa Bakke, a staff sensory scientist who helped select scents for the cards.

Bakke said a daily smell check is “incredibly valuable” as long as the coronavirus is still around.

“The biggest thing was choosing scents that would be recognizable to everyone. You can lose your sense of smell, and people oftentimes don’t realize it if you aren't paying attention,” Bakke said. “We wanted people to be able to smell it and find out if they lost their sense of smell.”

While working on the project, Bakke said what the team was learning was changing “so frequently.”

Reflecting back on the project, Hayes said it’s interesting how the relevance of the coronavirus scent cards changed over the course of the pandemic.

“When we started this last summer, we had no idea that the testing center would ramp up and be so successful, and I had no idea that the vaccination effort would break records in terms of how quickly the vaccines were deployed,” Hayes said. “So, the idea that now — here we are, a year later — and they are just fun little kitsch things instead of something we are having to use to deploy… I can only be happy.”

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