Public health authorities need help responding to COVID-19. Students are answering the call—by picking up the phone.

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Northeastern students Cassandra Dechaine and Magda Pankowska have full course loads and full-time jobs. Starting this week, they’re adding one more task to their busy schedules: contact tracing.

The concept is simple. Someone tests positive for COVID-19 and they either self-isolate at home to recover or, in some more serious cases, are admitted to a hospital. But who have they come into contact with? Where have they been? Where have they passed through?

This week, Dechaine and Pankowska will begin compiling a list of people with whom a patient has interacted, and then track down those people and advise them to self-isolate to prevent further spreading the virus.

Northeastern students Magda Pankowska, left, and Cassandra Dechaine, right, have joined a coalition of volunteers helping health departments across Massachusetts handle the COVID-19 crisis. Photos courtesy of Magda Pankowska and Cassandra Dechaine.

During a pandemic, contact tracing is crucial because it not only leads to early diagnosis, but can uncover vital information on the number of exposed contacts to help public health officials control the spread of an infectious disease.

Dechaine, a second-year student pursuing a dual degree in law and public health, says she was staying home, and following other recommended guidelines, but found herself wishing she could do more to help.

“It’s really hard, as someone who’s in school to try to help people as much as possible, to feel like I’m not doing anything actively,” she says. “I know the local health departments are just super, super overloaded right now, so to help mitigate and help with that as much as possible really interested me.”

Dechaine and Pankowska are among a growing number of Northeastern students (the majority of whom are in the Bouve College of Health Sciences) who have joined a coalition of public health students and professionals to help dozens of health departments across Massachusetts meet their needs as they respond to the COVID-19 crisis. To date, 1,700 people—including 120 Northeastern students and graduates—have signed up to volunteer and 400 volunteers have already been assigned to work with communities. 

This newly formed group, which goes by the name Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps (APHVC), comprises nine schools and programs of public health in Massachusetts, including Northeastern, Boston University, Tufts University, Harvard University, University of Massachusetts Lowell, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Simmons University, Regis College, and the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

The goal of this effort is to leverage the energy, knowledge, and experience of public health students and graduates to buttress the capacity of local health departments across the Commonwealth to not only respond to COVID-19, but also address other areas of public health need.

“We have such a diverse population of students across all of our different schools and programs of public health,” says Neil Maniar, a professor of practice and director of Northeastern’s Master of Public Health program who is co-leading the effort. “If they have individuals in their community who don’t speak English, or they need help understanding materials in different languages, we can deploy student volunteers to help with that.”

Based on a survey of health departments in more than 300 communities, which was coordinated by the Massachusetts Health Officers Association, the APHVC prioritized contact tracing, communication and social media, virtual check-ins, phone banking, public health administration, and language needs.

Maniar says the idea for the Volunteer Corps stems from earlier work that began in 2019 to help the Massachusetts Department of Public Health form an academic health department. This collaborative is now working closely with the COVID-19 Command Center based in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to ensure that the volunteers are helping to address the most critical needs at the community level. 

“We had a call and we came together to say, well, how can we leverage our collective expertise and the passion for public health, the energy, the knowledge, the skills of our students and alumni to help local health departments respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?” Maniar says.

Organizers of the coalition enlisted the help of the Massachusetts Public Health Association to create a survey that was sent out to students studying public health and graduates working in the health field to gauge their interest in volunteering. Within 24 hours, 700 people had signed up, says Maniar. 

Organizers worked with Partners in Health and Harvard University to create a system and database for contact tracing, which is the highest priority in controlling the spread of the virus, Maniar says. 

In addition to learning the contact-tracing system, volunteers are required to undergo training in confidentiality and privacy procedures. They are educated about the structure of health departments in Massachusetts and what each of their roles are. And, says Dechaine, they are trained on stress management and how to interact with people experiencing stress during a public health emergency.

Pankowska, who’s studying infectious diseases (and who’s graduating this spring with a Masters in Public Health), has been assigned to do contact tracing in a small town in southern Massachusetts. She expects to dedicate up to five hours a week to the task, but says that she would be willing to work longer hours “especially as the need becomes greater.”

All the work the volunteers will be doing can and will be done remotely, says Maniar. That’s good from a safety standpoint, but it can be difficult to get people to open up to a stranger over the phone. It will be quite the learning curve, says Dechaine.

“(You’re getting) people to answer their phones to a number that they don’t recognize,” she says. “I anticipate it being a challenge in terms of keeping track of people and actually getting to contact them.”

Volunteers have to also consider the emotional burden that will be placed upon them in shouldering this work, says Pankowska.

“The team lead that I’m working with sent us a really great training about making sure that our mental health state as we’re doing this contact tracing is in a good place, and how to recognize the emotional responses that come with a pandemic like this, and making sure that we’re taking care of our mental health,” she says.

Dechaine says she feels ready to confront these challenges. In addition to the training, she says that the strong social justice framework within the law school and health science department at Northeastern has equipped her with the knowledge and understanding that the experiences of each person will vary, and that’s something she’ll aspire to bring to every phone call. 

Pankowska says friends of hers who are healthcare workers are on the front lines every day, putting their own lives at risk to help others. Though she doesn’t have the skills to work in a clinical care setting, she’s not any less eager to help where she can. She saw an opportunity to be a part of the movement and she took it.

“I feel like this is such a huge undertaking,” she says. “All the organizers who are involved with creating this expansive system and trying to get volunteers connected to the people they need to be connected with, they’re just incredible. Everyone who’s taking this task on is my hero.”

Don’t expect the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps to disband after the pandemic passes, says Maniar. While the focus for now will be entirely on containing the spread of the virus, and potentially mitigating additional waves of the pandemic going into the fall and winter, the coalition will stick around beyond that, he says.

“We want this volunteer corps to continue on to address other areas of need within the community, because this is a great way to channel the energy and passion for public health that our students and alumni and faculty and staff have,” Maniar says.

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