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Students at Dominican University in San Rafael, California, can learn to be contact tracers and get on-the-job training in pandemic response with the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services.
For months, local health departments across the country have sought to hire large numbers of contact tracers to help identify and reach out to people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. In Marin County, California, officials decided to address the shortage in a unique way—by working with a university to teach public health students to do the job in exchange for course credit.
The resulting class, launching next month at Dominican University in San Rafael, enrolls students in the same online contact tracing course—developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University—that the county uses for its public health employees. Students will also participate in a series of hour-long discussions with county staff about the state of the Covid-19 pandemic in the community, the particulars of contact tracing, and various aspects of county government. Students will apply for county jobs and, if accepted, work remotely as contact tracers for the duration of the semester.
The idea for the course came from the county, said Patti Culross, an assistant professor at Dominican University and the head of the school’s global public health program.
“It was really good timing, because we had been brainstorming ideas about how to involve our students in contact tracing,” she said. “We’d had quite a few students express interest in contact tracing, and we thought this would be a good opportunity for them.”
Contact tracing is a key part of containing contagious diseases, including the novel coronavirus. The process begins when a case investigator notifies a person that they’ve tested positive for the virus, then interviews that person to determine where they went and who they came into contact with during the time period when they were contagious but not yet ill. The contact tracer then follows up with every person on that list to inform them of a potential exposure and discuss next steps, including testing.
Local health departments typically train staff members on both disease investigation and contact tracing, but most municipalities were still unprepared to respond to a large and quickly escalating pandemic. In April, the National Association of County and City Health Officials estimated that an adequate response would require health departments to have 30 trained contact tracers on staff for every 100,000 people in the community. As of late June, only six states and the District of Columbia were meeting or exceeding that benchmark.
Contact tracing has faced other challenges in recent weeks, including testing delays that can result in people not being reached while they are still contagious, and reports that some people are reluctant to answer their phones when tracers call. But lately the biggest obstacle is the sheer number of cases as the pandemic resurges in many states.
Marin County has been trying since spring to bolster its ranks of contact tracers. Having 20 students ready to work in exchange for course credit will be essential in the coming months, particularly if cases rise, said Dr. Lisa Santora, the county’s deputy public health director.
“Having this workflow opportunity with the university will help us better prepare if we see an increase in cases, which we’re expecting to, moving forward,” she said in a TV interview.
Coronavirus cases in the county spiked earlier in July, but have been declining for the past week.
The class begins Aug. 27 and is open to all students, regardless of their majors. Enrollment hasn’t officially opened yet, but Culross said she’s already heard from a dozen students who hope to sign up.
“The pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime experience—hopefully—and obviously there’s no way we could have ever planned this opportunity for our students,” she said. “I’m really happy they’re going to be able to have some meaningful participation in something that’s really affecting lives.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.