As businesses and other organizations across the country plan to re-open and start economic recovery, an additional 100 North Dakota State University students will be trained over several weeks to assist with contact tracing for the COVID-19 pandemic in North Dakota.
In addition to the initial NDSU graduate students in Public Health trained on how to help track the virus among communities, another hundred students from NDSU’s nursing, pharmacy and other health professions programs will assist, along with students from the NDSU Emergency Management program.
“As people gradually begin taking part in regular activities while following physical distancing guidelines set forth by the state of North Dakota, this type of vigilant tracing remains crucial in managing virus exposures,” said Dr. Pamela Jo Johnson, chair of the Public Health Department at NDSU.
Students who currently assist with tracing are contacting people who may have been exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus. They are helping in other ways too. “They are assisting with phone surveys of long-term care facilities prior to testing in such facilities,” said Johnson. Multi-lingual students help if needed as well.
“I am gaining more knowledge from this experience than any textbook or presentation could provide for me,” said Sarah Swartz, NDSU Public Health student who is finishing her master’s degree.
She said the skills will help her be successful as a Public Health professional.
“I have learned how to properly conduct case investigations, identify close contacts of positive cases, and one skill I was not expecting to learn has been time management. Some of us are on-call seven days a week, up to 12 hours a day. During my time in graduate school, we were trained on the idea that infectious disease outbreaks can happen anywhere and at any time,” said Swartz.
Now students are living it in real time. The valuable experience shows Swartz the complexity of Public Health and how to handle high-stress situations.
“One major impact this experience has had on me regarding my chosen profession is that there is not one specific job we do. We all work together, take on any task given to us, and adapt as needed, regardless of title,” she said.
During her time at NDSU, she has focused on management of infectious diseases, Ebola, sexual health and immunizations. According to Swartz, a North Dakota native, “To be able to support my home state during a crisis is a meaningful experience for me.”
Another NDSU graduate student in Public Health, Sargam Ghimire from Nepal, said the ability to help and the experience gained are invaluable. “Contact tracing helps us get back to the potentially exposed individuals and helps us make decisions about quarantine. Quarantine and isolation are very important in a disease surveillance process. They actually help us mitigate the impacts of disease and prevent our health systems from being overwhelmed,” said Ghimire.
“Getting this type of training means getting real time experience to be a part of ground epidemiology work. This training has also given me insights about how I can use this experience in my home country of Nepal where the resources are limited and the needs are dire,” said Ghimire, who plans to work in infectious disease outbreaks and epidemiology upon graduation.
At NDSU, Kylie Hall, project manager in the NDSU Department of Public Health, coordinates efforts of the students who are helping the state with contact tracing.
“Students are gaining practical public health experience and seeing a large-scale public health response in real time. I hope they can take their contact tracing experience and use the lessons learned in their future public health careers,” said Hall.
Students also are learning to quickly adapt to an ever-changing situation.
“They are seeing how an all-hands-on-deck, collaborative approach brings together individuals from the medical field, public health, and academia to address a pandemic,” said Hall. “I hope this helps them realize that you often need people from many different areas to solve a problem. Each person brings a different skillset to the table, but each one is a valuable contributor when addressing coronavirus in North Dakota.”
On a national level, a study from Johns Hopkins University estimates the U.S. will require at least 100,000 additional public health workers to do contact tracing. As people start to resume their activities at work and the community, some Public Health professionals consider contact tracing to be crucial in determining outbreaks or hotspots so they can quickly be addressed.
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