Dozens of graduate-level students are helping Tarrant County public health officials in the fight against the novel coronavirus by assisting with contact tracing.
Contact tracing is the process of identifying and informing people who have come in contact with an infected person so they can take precautions.
About 60 students from the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth have been trained to help support investigators in the field. The students work out of a call center at the public health office.
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Suprene Poleon, a graduate student at UNTHSC studying epidemiology is one of the students working with the investigation team.
“We will call patients, people who were cases, people who are COVID-19 positive," Poleon said. "We need to find out a bunch of information about their symptoms, about their demographics, about where they’ve been, or who they’ve contacted."
She described the training process as “hands-on.” Beyond a crash-course on the coronavirus itself, students are also trained on what to ask and how.
"From day one, our team leader has said 'heart first, brain second,' " Poleon said. "I think the experience here is actually going to help me when I have to do surveillance and investigation, and even research projects."
Russell Jones, chief epidemiologist at Tarrant County Public Health, said the students' help is crucial. During a pandemic there is simply not enough staff to call everyone they need to get in touch with, Jones said.
“It’s very important that we try to contact a case — see what they’re doing, who they’ve been around so we can talk to their contacts and let them know we need to self-isolate for a period of time or to see if they have symptoms and get them tested if needed,” Jones said. “So from a case to a contact — and that contact is feeling fine – that’s the first circle we’re worried about. If that contact becomes ill and they were isolated at home because they knew, then it’s only that household. We’re not worried about church or a business or a recreational activity they were at.”
The students have been working at the call center for few weeks and said it’s possible they’ll work through the summer.