For many Penn State University students, the return to school after spring break coincided with the start of the coronavirus pandemic. I had planned to complete the field experience required for my DrPH program in the upcoming summer semester, but the pandemic quickly restricted in-person experiential learning and public health internships overall. While considering my options, I found a different way to apply my public health education to a real-world challenge.

Both the Penn State University College of Medicine and the Pennsylvania Department of Health began recruiting student volunteers to help with contact tracing as part of their pandemic response efforts. I jumped at the opportunity to help, despite not having any experience in infectious diseases or contact tracing.

For each program, I performed SWOT analyses (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, and Threats), which public health organizations often use to improve practices and procedures. The SWOT analyses and comparisons I performed allowed me to pinpoint areas for improvement and offer my own recommendations for both programs.

At the Penn State College of Medicine, the contact tracing team was a student-led coalition of medical and public health students from Hershey and University Park. I called people who had been exposed to COVID to inquire about their quarantine experiences and determine their contacts during exposure. Because the people I called were patients in the Penn State Health system and therefore familiar with the institution, they were more likely to answer the phone and were candid with me about their experience. However, we were not able to reach out to individuals who had tested positive at other testing sites in the state.

In addition to conducting contact tracing calls, I co-led the research team with a fellow medical student. We directed a small, close-knit team that reviewed research proposals for relevance and feasibility. Additionally, we created workflows and maintained an online database that allowed students and faculty to propose and collaborate on research ideas efficiently.

For the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Penn State public health students were recruited to assist departmental staff with contact tracing. For this experience, I reached out to the contacts of verified individuals who had been exposed to COVID and enrolled them in an electronic reporting system to input their symptoms while in quarantine.

I also advised staff at healthcare facilities with people who were positive for COVID and provided guidance on how to monitor and track potential exposures. All trainings and resources were provided by the health department, which ensured we were up to date with the latest public health information from CDC and the state. With the phased re-opening of the state, there was potential for more cases and increased workload for department staff.

From my SWOT analyses, I provided the following recommendations for contact tracing programs:

  • Use a combination of both content-based and mastery teaching courses to help contact tracers understand the science behind COVID-19 and become comfortable making calls.
  • Establish a dedicated task force of medical faculty and content experts in infectious disease to help contact tracers who have limited clinical expertise.
  • Provide culturally specific knowledge of the population to help staff and volunteers better serve the community.
  • Consider offering contact tracing experience for academic credit to ensure consistency and accountability.
  • Offering technologies that minimize privacy risk such as phone number masking.
  • Create a list of student volunteers who may assist with other disease outbreaks to improve health department capacity over time.

Being a contact tracer opened my eyes to the importance of public health leadership on the ground in crises like COVID-19. Even though I began the experience with little knowledge about infectious disease, I now feel confident that the skills I’ve gained will prepare me for the unpredictability and limited resources that can arise with a pandemic. While DrPH students are taught leadership in the classroom, it is the field experience that puts this training into context. Because the pandemic continually evolved, I was able to exercise a team leadership style that allowed me and others to learn from each other and make timely decisions. I imagine these experiences will be similar to my future interactions as a public health professional.

Working as a contact tracer has allowed me to interact with people from a range of backgrounds and with varying levels of health literacy. Listening to various community members’ anecdotes personified the health disparities I have studied and seek to address in my future career. I’m grateful to have had this up-close look at the effects of COVID-19 on communities, which has humanized the statistics behind the pandemic.

Eileen S. Flores, MPH, is a third-year Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) student at the Department of Public Health Sciences at Penn State College of Medicine. She earned her bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and behavior at Barnard College of Columbia University and her master’s degree in public health with a concentration in epidemiology at New York Medical College. She has over 10 years of clinical research experience in industry (Unilever, Avon) and academia, with design, implementation, and evaluation of skin studies. Her most recent experience was as a senior research coordinator and researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where she performed translational research on the optimization of screening and surgical procedures for non-melanoma skin cancers and various dermatologic conditions and treatments. She is currently pursuing a Doctor of Public Health degree with a concentration in health systems organization and policy. Her primary research interests are addressing cancer health disparities, especially among minority populations.  

The mission of the DrPH Coalition is to create a community of DrPH students and alumni who leverage their expertise, diversity, and creativity for the advancement of the public’s health. The coalition leverages the leadership and expertise of Doctors of Public Health in public health policy development and action, education and career development, and the promotion of evidence-based public health policies with a focus on factors and issues relevant to elevating trained public health leaders in public health debates, policy, and education. 

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