Contact tracing on campus: Stempel MPH students help get it done

Contact tracers have their work cut out for them. Just ask a pair of MPH students in the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. They’re helping to get people to open up in the midst of a pandemic that for months kept many behind closed doors.

As FIU repopulates its campuses and other locations, it has hired five people to handle the critical task of asking COVID-19-positive individuals how—without their knowing it at the time—they might have spread the illness specifically within the university community. Such calls are part of comprehensive protocols instituted to safeguard the health and wellbeing of students and employees. 

When someone who has spent time on campus calls to self-report a positive test result, a contact tracer goes into action. “We have the conversation,” explains Stempel MPH student Alida Acosta, who asks questions to jog the memory and situate folks in particular university locations: “Maybe you posted something on your social media – where were you? What did you have for lunch?”

Sometimes people are frightened, Acosta says, and a few are ashamed. “We let them know we’re not here to judge,” she says, emphasizing that all information remains confidential. (She will also follow up with university folks who might have been exposed to the individual.)

And if anyone balks at taking the time to talk—an interview can last up to two hours—Acosta makes the case for pressing on. A nurse practitioner who works for a medical office that specializes in infectious disease, she has spent the last several months visiting hospitals to assess the needs and progress of COVID-19 patients, many of them elderly. In that role, she has witnessed plenty of terrible outcomes.

“My mother is 80 years old,” she says, “so I see my mother in most of these patients.” When someone is uncooperative on the phone and she entreats them to continue, “That’s what goes through my mind.”

Deborah Pulido worked as a contact tracer with Broward County prior to starting at FIU. (County health departments also follow up on positive cases, but the caseload is large enough that FIU understood the benefit of proactively hiring its own team.) Another Stempel MPH student, she embraces the “It takes a village” approach to solving the current crisis and welcomed the opportunity to put her interpersonal skills to use in support of health education.

“You’re communicating with people. You’re informing them, what are the next steps,” she says of encouraging others to take personal responsibility. 

Two additional critical jobs for Acosta, Pulido and the others: manning the FIU COVID-19 hotline and following up with anyone who gets a “red light” upon using the university’s Panthers Protecting Panthers app. The latter asks those coming to campus a series of questions about their health and possible exposures.

In total, the team, which falls under the purview of the Academic Health Center, is fielding and making about 150 calls per week, although that fluctuates as virus cases surge and decline generally in South Florida, explains lead tracer Karen Burke.

“More than anything,” says Burke, who holds an MPH in epidemiology from another institution, “we serve as a resource. We’re a place that people can ask questions. They can get guidance on what to do in different situations. I think there is a lot of value” to that, she adds, “because there is a lot of anxiety.”