Nearly 100 USF students and faculty members are assisting the state of Florida in addressing the continuing need for contact tracers. When many started volunteering with the Florida Department of Health in March, there were fewer than 500 daily new cases. That number has grown exponentially, with Florida recently averaging 10,000 new cases each day.
Working as contact tracers, the volunteers are stationed in nine county health departments across the state, tasked with calling individuals who have tested positive for the coronavirus and identifying anyone they have been around while infected. Tracers then notify those who may have contracted the virus, encouraging them to get tested and self-quarantine until their results come back.
For Erin Hitchingham, a graduate student in the College of Public Health with a concentration in epidemiology and global communicable disease, the field experience has been both challenging and rewarding.
“Everything is constantly changing. Recommendations are changing, and the way we handle cases is changing on a day-to-day basis,” Hitchingham said. “This opportunity has taught me how to think critically. It’s given me knowledge that I know I will be able to apply to the future and has really strengthened my passion for public health.”
Now in her second rotation, Hitchingham has even gained supervisory experience as she helps lead the on-going contact tracing effort in Hillsborough county.
For College of Public Health graduate student, LaShae Rolle, the opportunity to help combat the pandemic has given her direction and insight into what area she will look to specialize in after graduation.
Stationed in Hendry County, Rolle says she has been able to take on a number of different responsibilities that include administering COVID-19 tests, notifying individuals of their results, and working directly with the epidemiologists to create graphs and charts, among other materials.
“In health care, there is a lot of theory that you learn by reading books and watching videos, but there is nothing like getting real hands-on experience,” Rolle said.
Students, however, aren’t the only members of the USF community to offer their time and expertise during this crisis. Alison Oberne, director of USF’s Bachelor of Science in Public Health Program, is working side-by-side with students and other volunteers at the Hillsborough County site as they continue efforts to slow the spread.
“Our students are gaining some amazing real-world applications,” Oberne said. “In the classroom we learn about epidemiology, we learn about contact tracing, but students don’t necessarily get the opportunity to engage in those efforts. Through this experience, the students are living, breathing and working in the field of public health and epidemiology, skills you can only learn when you’re working in the field.”
According to the American Medical Association, Florida has only about 10% of the contact tracers required. Students interested in volunteering with the Florida Health Department are encouraged to email to Janice Zgzibor, associate dean for academic affairs at USF's College of Public Health.