Nearly 100 UConn students, including 11 students in the Master of Social Work (MSW) program, are doing their part to stem the spread of COVID-19 through working as contact tracers for the state Department of Public Health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), case investigation and contact tracing is key to controlling the spread of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Contact tracers inform people they have tested positive or may have been exposed to COVID-19; help those who may have been exposed acquire testing; ask people to self-isolate if they have the illness or self-quarantine if they have been in close contact with someone who does; and find out who else may have been exposed to counsel them, as well.
After four MSW students volunteered as contact tracers over the summer to help the cause, the School of Social Work created a contact tracing field placement unit so students could fulfill their field internship requirements as contact tracers.
Field education is a vital piece of the MSW curriculum, allowing students to put theory learned in the classroom into practice and prepare for their social work careers, and many planned arrangements were in flux when agencies turned to telecommuting and many students required remote placements due to the pandemic.
“This was another great opportunity for the School to provide service back to the state of Connecticut during this troubling time when we have increasing COVID cases,” says Milagros Marrero-Johnson, director of strategic programming for the school.
Iyanna Latimer, an MSW student in the Individual, Group, and Family Practice concentration, says that at first, she was unsure about how contact tracing could be considered social work.
“But then I started making the calls,” Latimer says. “I’m dealing with people’s emotions, trying to help them figure out what’s going on; I’m answering their questions, they’re so confused. When you tell someone they have COVID and they find out for the first time, there’s a lot of emotion.
“We make sure the contact has food, isn’t worried about housing or employment, is in a safe place to quarantine — learning what questions to ask and how to ask them is honing my people skills and preparing me for the area of social work I plan to pursue.”
“The first question is always, ‘How are you?’” says Lora Rae Anderson, a spokesperson for the office of the state’s chief operating officer. “Our No. 1 goal is to ensure they have the tools they need to self-quarantine and stay healthy.”
The volunteers and field interns are all trained in the software to make calls and are given scripts to follow for each call. While the goal is to provide resources and encourage those who have been exposed to isolate and to find out who else may have been exposed so they also can be reached, the process is voluntary and confidential.
“As a social worker, you want to be empathetic, to really take the time to understand where the person’s coming from, and of course they’re coming from all different places. There were a lot of different reactions, and you never knew what you’d get — people who took it very seriously and understood the importance of the call and what we were trying to do, some who weren’t paying much attention to what was going on and had to be walked through it, people who were angry,” says MSW student Marcia Hughes, who volunteered as a contact tracer over the summer.
“Eventually, we had access to bring in a nurse from the local health department and I learned no matter how people react, the message is always, ‘We’re here to help, we’re here to help, we’re here to help,’” Hughes says.
“The first question is always, ‘How are you?’” says Lora Rae Anderson, a spokesperson for the office of the state’s chief operating officer. “Our No. 1 goal is to ensure they have the tools they need to self-quarantine and stay healthy.
Brooke Hopkins ‘94 (CLAS), the field instructor for the contact tracing unit, believes the students not only are learning basic case management skills that will serve them as they enter the field, but also are gaining valuable experience practicing empathy and meeting people where they are, as well as grappling with the challenges of remote work.
“To me, this is totally new and nothing we’ve ever done before as social workers,” Hopkins says. “I was very enthusiastic about making this happen. The process that can come out of what we learn doing this is so wonderful, and whether this is something that’s with us never again or these processes could be applied to something new and social workers will have to hit the ground running, I think it’s great experience for these interns.”
More than 90 UConn students from the schools of Social Work, Nursing, and Pharmacy and the Health Leaders pre-professional program are part of the statewide contact tracing program, which comprises more than 800 staff and volunteers, according to Anderson.
Local health departments throughout the state have their own teams, and the student contact tracers are part of a critical statewide team that “floats” to areas where they are most needed.
Anderson emphasizes the importance of contact tracing in halting COVID’s spread. “It’s one of the most important tools we can use in fighting COVID-19. If I am exposed, there’s a chance I don’t test positive for 14 days and I could be spreading COVID-19 that entire time,” she says. “If we get to someone who tests positive and get to their contacts, we can stop the spread before a positive test can.”
While the average number of contacts a positive person gives is one to two, according to Anderson, in any given week there are people who report contact with as many as 20 to 30 other people.
“Asking 20 to 30 people to stay home probably results in thousands of people not getting COVID,” she says. “We treat that as a success.”
Learn more about the state’s coronavirus response, including contact tracing efforts, contact tracing volunteer or job opportunities, and the COVID CT alert app, at portal.ct.gov/coronavirus.