As Contact Tracers, CSUN Students Track COVID-19

Concept of coronavirus or covid-19 contract tracing showing with network of connected illustrative humans with 3d rendered virus as background

Concept of coronavirus or covid-19 contract tracing showing with a network of connected illustrative humans with 3d rendered virus as background. Photo/graphic by lakshmiprasad S. iStock

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, contact tracing has played a critical role in slowing the spread of the virus. In March 2020, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health turned to CSUN students for help, offering them internships as contact tracers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines contact tracing as a process that lets people know they have been exposed to infectious diseases. Contact tracers then advise them on what to do for their own health and to control the spread of the illness. CSUN students were part of teams that were assigned new cases each day– people to contact who had either tested positive for COVID-19 or had been exposed. Students gave instructions about how to care for themselves and how to quarantine.

This opportunity was established with the help of Cathy Rusch, internship coordinator for the undergraduate public health and health administration programs in the Department of Health Sciences Department and faculty advisor for the Health Administration Student Association.

There were 150 CSUN students who participated as contact tracers from the fall of 2020 to 2021. Currently, there are 70 students interning as contact tracers with the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

“What the students are doing is critical,” said Rusch. “The contact tracing, the leadership opportunities, and understanding disparities in terms of areas that are being hit more than other areas, are all because of how folks had to make phone calls and provide information and resources for individuals. What they are doing for our county, for LA county, for the state, is huge.”

CSUN Today spoke to two CSUN alumni, Gabriel E. Time ’21 (public health) and Rosa Fabian ’21 (public health), who interned remotely with the L.A. County Department of Public Health and shared their insights into the role of contact tracer, how CSUN prepared them and what the experience taught them.

Q: What was a typical day for a contact tracer? How does it work?

Time: As the team lead, my contact tracers were the ones actually on the phones. My tracers would call each person on their list to inform them they either tested positive for COVID or had been in close contact. They had a script that helped them make sure they got/gave all the necessary information. My team members were great because they each were able to “humanize” their scripts to better connect with their cases.

What my team did best was caring for each case holistically. By that, I mean they were able to get the necessary information while understanding that the biggest impact they had on people was just conversing with the people rather than interrogating them. That is the art of contact tracing. A lot of times, the people they would call were all by themselves and had zero human contact. So that phone call from the tracer proved to be invaluable for their mental well-being during probably one of the darkest times of their lives.

Q: What have you learned about public health or humanity in general as a result of interning as a contact tracer during a global pandemic?

Time: I learned that contact tracing is so much more than just tracking COVID. The mental toll it takes on people and their families tend to go unnoticed. Sometimes just calling someone to check up on them makes a huge difference. I also learned in real-time just how important public health is, especially with aspects of making sure people have the correct/accurate facts. There is so much “behind the scene” work that people do not realize goes on to keep us safe and healthy, and that is a large part of public health.

Q: What has stayed with you from your experience with contact tracing?

Time: I remember a couple of times where my team members possibly saved their case’s lives by getting emergency services to their location because they could tell their health was failing over the phone.

Fabian: With regards to the internship itself, one of the most memorable ongoing instances would be watching my team grow from a timid group to a fully rounded/fearless group of contact tracers. As far as memorable moments with calls, I can remember receiving a case of a 2-month-old who tested positive for COVID. This moment is most memorable to me because it showed me that just about anyone can contract the virus, making me feel like what I’m doing is indeed helping everyone, not a specific age group.

Q: How did your CSUN classes and studies in public health prepare you for this work?

Time: I believe that public health is a field that puts the people first. With that being said, I believe our background allowed us to view each case holistically, which is what we learn in public health, as a person which lets us connect better and make a larger impact on each individual.

Fabian: The classes and studies prepared me in the sense that they provided a solid foundation in my understanding of public health. For example, we were taught that health is influenced by many factors, which are generally organized into determinants of health, which include: genetics, behavior, education, environmental and physical influence, economic stability, medical care, and social factors. During this pandemic every one of these determinants was put to the test, understanding each factor and their effect on a population helped me better perform my duty.

Q: What was most rewarding to you about your internship?

Time: Working with my team and with the L.A. County staff. Also, feeling like our hard work directly resulted in lives and health being saved.

Fabian: I would have to say that being able to make an impact within my community and help people understand the seriousness and importance of following safety protocols. Helping people understand that there are means of help if needed. Also, I worked with an amazing team of contact tracers, including the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health mentors who agreed to guide us throughout this internship.

Both graduates are continuing on in the health field. Fabian is currently working for a home health agency, which she says she enjoys. Time wants to become a physician assistant and plans to start coursework for that next summer.

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