Students walk around Wilson Plaza on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles, California.

Source: Joana Fernandez Nuñez

It’s Saturday and Taya Westfield is working hard in the Johnson County Public Health Department in Iowa City. Surrounded by a handful of employees, Westfield takes calls, builds rapport, and notifies citizens of potential exposure to Covid-19.

For Westfield, a senior public health student at the University of Iowa, it’s just another typical day as a contact tracer, a job she never planned to do so late in her college career. Westfield found out about the opportunity by chance last spring after taking a course with the county health director. When the pandemic started, he looked for tracers.

Taya Westfield, a senior at the University of Iowa, works as a contact tracer for the Johnson County Public Health Department in Iowa City.

Source: Katy Stites, University of Iowa College of Public Health

“I love being someone who enjoys being involved in my community, and when I see problems it’s up to me to want to help,” she said.

Amid online courses and statewide shutdowns, Westfield is just one of many students across the country joining the fight against Covid-19 and making the leap as newfound contact through programs run by universities and their local health authorities Tracer dare.

These students are entering a dwindling profession that is both underfunded and understaffed. Data from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests the U.S. will need at least 100,000 contact tracers to fight Covid-19 and contain the spread, while some estimates are as high as 300,000. According to a joint study by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the NPR, there were more than 50,000 tracers nationwide in October.

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Last May, the JHU launched a free online contact tracing course through Coursera that attracted more than 1.1 million users, including students from universities and health departments across the country. It’s not the only program offered nationwide, but it’s by far one of the most popular among universities.

Consisting of five modules, the course is aimed at those with no experience in contact tracing, teaching them the pros and cons of the job, including the importance of the virus, its transmission, the communication skills required, and the ethics of handling the virus with data and Privacy, said Emily Gurley, an associate researcher at the university.

“Some people are obviously very good at talking to others and getting the conversation going, but you can teach those skills,” she said.

A range of programs for different needs

Every school program is different. Some students exclusively track a school community while others support local or state health departments as paid tracers. The restrictions also differ in who can participate in the program. At the Dominican University of California at San Rafael, which has partnered with local Marin Health and Human Services, contact tracing is offered as a clinical method for students in the nursing program. Some schools offer students of all majors and backgrounds the option.

The training programs also extend across different locations. Most universities have introduced the JHU course as a prerequisite, which takes around six hours to complete. The course is often complemented by technical training, which differs depending on the university and state. At Syracuse University, students are required to submit a certificate of completion of the JHU course. However, some schools require students to take a test. At the University of California at Los Angeles, students complete 12 hours of live lectures and six skills labs.

Joana Fernández Nuñez, a graduate student at the University of California at Los Angeles who worked as a full-time contact tracer in New Mexico this summer, is currently helping train contact tracers at the university.

Joana Fernandez Nuñez, a PhD student at UCLA, is currently training contact tracers at the university.

Source: Joana Fernandez Nuñez

It is difficult to hear the stories of people affected by Covid-19 and it is difficult not always to have the resources available to help, said Fernández Nuñez, but good communication and empathy are key to being able to do so Process.

“A lot of people have these skills, but sometimes we don’t realize we have them,” she said.

Most university contact tracers never enter an office. Kyra Toquinto, a nursing student at Dominican, opened a store in her husband’s office. On a typical morning, Toquinto, who worked about three half-days a week in the morning, started the day with a meeting followed by a full shift researching, calling, and offering resources who might have been exposed to contact.

Many tracers receive a list of positive cases every morning and spend most of their day doing research and building a network of potential contacts. Other schools, like Syracuse University, have contact tracers on deck at test centers ready to ask questions. Case managers conduct an initial admissions interview for positive patients and then assign student tracers to investigate secondary and tertiary contacts.

While many contact tracers are scripted, every call is unexpected and different no matter how much training is offered. One of the toughest parts of the job is providing layman information to callers and overcoming misinformation about the virus, said Philip Braswell, a University of Alabama – Birmingham School of Medicine graduate who previously drove for Uber and Postmates, said on the job . Another hurdle is overcoming distrust of the government, especially among immigrants, Toquinto said.

Phillip Braswell, a graduate of the University of Alabama at the Birmingham School of Medicine, works as a contact tracer for the Alabama Department of Health.

Source: Phillip Braswell

“You really had to build a trusting relationship to relate with and help them feel safe, to give you the information you need to make sure they can be effectively quarantined,” she said.

Lack of long-term potential

Contact tracing is not a new phenomenon. The profession has been around for decades in public health departments across the country, tracking down HIV and other viruses. However, the demand for contact tracers has increased during the coronavirus pandemic: By October 2020, job vacancies for contact tracer jobs were 25 times higher than six months ago. There are currently more than 170 contact tracer jobs posted on the Glassdoor.com job site.

Contact tracer pay varies by location, but the average is $ 19.72 per hour, according to Indeed.com. This is relatively higher than the $ 11 an hour workers typically make in retail stores, according to ZipRecruiter, or the national average of $ 9.41 an hour for food service workers according to Indeed. However, many students work as contact tracers, volunteers or for credit.

Despite the strong growth, experts say Covid-19 contact tracking programs will likely only last for a short time. The demand for the role will shift as more people are vaccinated and the students should not view the job as a long-term career.

“It won’t go on at that level,” said Christiana Coyle, contact tracing coordinator at the CDC Foundation and professor at New York University’s School of Global Public Health.

Many organizations only employ a handful of contact tracers long-term and hire additional staff such as epidemiologists when there is an “incredible need,” said Coyle, who previously worked as a contact tracer for both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New York City served as the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The growth in contact tracing in universities is due to the need to curb its spread across college campuses. Over the past year schools have been grappling with the question of how to reopen while preventing an outbreak at the same time. Many have failed and only reopened to get online within a week. Now universities are facing another semester of uncertainty.

Syracuse University began completing its contact tracing program in the summer and employed approximately 30 students in the fall semester. Like other universities, program coordinator Dr. Mike Haynie worked closely with the local health authorities to create the program. This also included the development of a database for the exchange of information.

Today the program has expanded to 50 students in various disciplines with four full-time case managers conducting admissions interviews. Students conduct secondary and tertiary interviews from the comfort of their dormitory, through Zoom, by phone, or from the University Health Center.

Many students involved in the program have worked as contact tracers for the state or New York City, said Haynie, the university’s vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and innovation, while others “had no idea” what public health was or was Interested in getting into the field.

“That will be one of the silver linings from Covid,” said Haynie. “It really opened people’s eyes to the importance of being able to make a difference.”

For others, working as a contact tracer only confirmed their decision to join public health, which for Toquinto was a confirmation of their decision to one day work as a medical assistant. Upon graduation, Fernández Nuñez hopes for a career that will help reduce health inequalities, an issue that has come to the fore in the wake of the pandemic.

“It was an opportunity for me to help,” said Fernández Nuñez, reflecting on her experience as a contact tracer over the past year. “It was a way for me to rise to the moment and bring in some of the skills I had.”

CNBC’s “College Voices” is a series of CNBC interns from universities across the country about growing up, getting their college education and starting their careers in these extraordinary times. Samantha Subin is a senior at the University of Maryland studying multi-platform journalism and general business.

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