University of South Florida


College of Public Health graduate student, Miriam Escobar, helps track COVID-19 exposure.

Identifying the ‘At-Risk’: USF Faculty and Students Helping Stop the Spread of COVID-19

More than 60 USF students and faculty members are dispersed across the state of Florida to assist the Florida Department of Health in identifying people who’ve come in contact with someone who’s tested positive for the coronavirus. They’re focused on finding those considered ‘high-risk’, meaning someone who may have attended the same gathering, or were in close proximity.

The USF community is devoted to helping stop the spread of COVID-19. Within a day of the state’s request for assistance, nearly 200 USF students and faculty members applied to volunteer. Their main objective is to track where that person had been over the last two weeks and with whom they had direct contact.

“Our students and faculty were quick to answer the call when the Florida Department of Health needed it most. Public health is a passion and they are putting their passion to work, said Janice Zgibor, PhD, professor of epidemiology and associate dean for academic affairs. “While this situation is difficult, this is an unprecedented training opportunity.”

Shawn McCort is a first-year graduate student working toward his master's degree in public health with a concentration on epidemiology and global communicative disease. He’s assisting the West Palm Beach Health Department in the epidemiology unit in developing a timeline to determine who’s been put at risk. He’s connecting remotely with people who’ve tested positive and says they’ve all been highly supportive of being quarantined. McCort is using their information and has connected with airlines, restaurants and individuals. He said all of the people he’s informed that they’re considered ‘high-risk’ are generally aware they’ve interacted with someone with the coronavirus.

College of Public Health  graduate student, Shawn McCort, wearing a protective shield and mask.

College of Public Health graduate student, Shawn McCort, wearing a protective shield and mask.

“This speaks to the sense of community present here, people aren't hiding their diagnosis, and nobody is shamed for it,” said McCort. “Epidemiology is the science of disease but here we are learning rather quickly that it is more of an art because every case has its own nuances, and we have to prioritize high risk over anyone else.”

Like McCort, majority of the volunteers are from the College of Public Health. The others represent the Colleges of Engineering, Behavioral and Community Sciences, Education, Nursing, and Arts and Sciences. They represent a variety of disciplines, selected for their varying backgrounds that can be utilized in the state’s efforts.

Miriam Escobar served as an emergency responder while in the Air Force. Her bilingual skills are proving to be of great assistance to the Miami-Dade Department of Health where she’s stationed over the next two weeks. Escobar is performing epidemiological investigations over the phone and is set to receive her master's degree in public health with a focus on occupational exposure this summer. She’s been following up with contacts daily, noting any symptomatic changes.

“Some calls are very emotional as you learn how it started with one family member and then another ends up being the sole caregiver for the household,” said Escobar. “Although I cannot solve their issues, I am able to listen, be present during our conversation, and offer support. It is nice to be that shoulder for someone.”

Rachel Ilic is a working toward her master's degree in public health with a concentration on infection control. She’s been an epidemiologist at the Pinellas County Health Department for five years and has been responsible for investigating high-priority cases, such as bioterrorism and meningococcal outbreaks. In responding to the COVID-19 global pandemic, Ilic is now part of the investigations unit within the Incident Management Team.

The USF volunteers say one of their biggest challenges has been keeping up with evolving changes to local and state mandates and providing the latest testing and retesting guidelines. They’re also finding many of the people they’re connecting with are in need of essential supplies and support.

USF just launched the USF United Support Fund to assist students impacted the financial challenges caused by COVID-19. Donations will help address urgent needs like food, toiletries, rent money and other basic essentials

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