Throughout the pandemic, local public health agencies have relied on contact tracers to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
For some Eastern Iowa contact tracers, that role translates into an opportunity to gain real-world experience in public health.
Dozens of students at the University of Iowa College of Public Health are working part-time as contact tracers for the public health departments in Linn and Johnson counties, identifying and notifying local residents who have been exposed to the novel coronavirus. About 45 students are currently working at Johnson County Public Health.
“It solidified for me that I’m in the right field,” said Taya Westfield, an undergraduate who will earn her bachelor of arts degree in public health this May.
While these students are gaining firsthand experience in their future career, they also are playing a critical role in local agencies’ efforts to stop the spread of the virus in the community.
Across the country, public health agencies have turned to area universities and colleges to find a workforce to help with their effort. Thousands of college students have been certified as contact tracers through Johns Hopkins University’s online course, according to course provider Coursera Inc.
The UI students started the part-time work in May or June.
For Madison Snitker, a graduate student working toward a master’s degree in public health, the job has been an opportunity “to watch public health in action.” She hopes to continue working in a local or state public health capacity once she graduates.
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“The biggest thing for me is that I’m now getting to be part of a staff in a local office and to see that process,” Snitker said. “I’ve been able to help out with that while doing all of the day-to-day work addressing COVID-19.”
For Westfield, public health aligns with her interest in the intersection of public health and social justice.
Nationwide, data has illustrated that division, showing that people of color have borne a disproportionate burden of infections and deaths throughout the pandemic.
“I just appreciated the framework of public health, and it definitely acknowledged different forms of oppression and different levels of health,” Westfield said. “It’s different from other fields, where people dance around the fact people of color have different experiences.”
Before deciding to pursue a master’s degree in public health, graduate student Megan Pospisil said she initially had planned to apply for medical school. However, she found that many patient problems could have been prevented through public health intervention.
She had applied for an internship at Johnson County Public Health early this year and had been invited in May to apply for a job as a contact tracer.
“I thought it would be a good idea to do, to get good hands-on experience,” Pospisil said.
In recent weeks, contact tracing has become a high-stakes job. As new COVID-19 cases have reached totals not seen before in the pandemic, the virus is driving a record-breaking number of patients into hospitals and raising alarm among local officials.
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“I definitely always thought the pandemic was serious, but at first, it didn’t seem as serious as it is now,” Pospisil said.
Public health students say contact tracing has become more complex. Anecdotally, they each are reaching out to more potential exposures than they were in the spring.
“I definitely think with school back in session, that’s been the bigger indicator of things not being the same as they were in May,” Snitker said. “There are a lot more school exposures or work exposures, and there have been more exposures through social contact.”
As a result, local contact tracers have expressed worry with their ability to keep up. Sometimes, Pospisil said “it’s hard to not get overwhelmed.”
The work also has seemed to have taken on a “grim tone” recently, particularly as officials across the state were considering the Thanksgiving holiday and the impact family gatherings could have on the current trend.
Despite some of the roadblocks and the sometimes overwhelming number of cases, contact tracing still is an invaluable effort for the community.
“We do still catch so many people who might be exposed and are out and about doing things and haven’t yet exhibited symptoms,” Snitker said. “The chain gets broken when we do contact tracing. The virus doesn’t keep going from John to Sarah to Tim to Tyler. If we intervene, Tyler stays home so he doesn’t expose someone else.”
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