Georgia State University UCEDD Trainees Step-up for COVID-Tracing Research

October 2, 2020

Universities across the country are adapting to take on the unique challenges COVID-19 has brought to their campuses and larger communities. The Georgia Department of Public Health (GaDPH) offered opportunities for public health students and alumni at Georgia State University (GSU) to train and serve as contact tracers who work to track and prevent further spread of COVID-19. Students were assigned to work as contract tracers within any one of the 18 public health districts in Georgia. Three students affiliated with the Center for Leadership in Disability (CLD) at GSU have engaged in the volunteer-led contact tracing effort.

Jessica Franks is a former GaLEND trainee (2016-2017) and second-year Doctor of Public Health student at GSU. She is also a Health Communications Specialist at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Jessica primarily worked with some of the most vulnerable populations as a Spanish-language interpreter within public health district with a high number of Spanish-speaking residents. "Supporting public health at a local level-and in the middle of a serious global health threat-was a unique learning opportunity. My experience demonstrated the complexities involved in controlling the spread of an infectious disease outbreak in vulnerable communities." she described. "My experience in GaLEND helped me identify some of the gaps in addressing the needs of vulnerable populations, as well as the need for inclusive and accessible communication strategies to ensure vulnerable populations receive critical information in times of public health crises."

John Olmstead is a former UCEDD trainee (2019-2020) and MPH student at GSU. He is now an Applied Epidemiology Fellow with a joint placement at the GaDPH and the CDC. In his two roles, John collaborates with the GaDPH in data surveillance, and joined the CDC air contact investigations team in September, where contact tracing is studied in confirmed cases among air travel passengers. Reflecting on his time at CLD, he notes that his "work with sensitive topics and data that represents not only an illness, but families and individuals. CLD helped to shape my communication skills in keeping humans (not just numbers) at the forefront of my work".

Sonia Sanchez-Alvarez, a current UCEDD trainee, began work with GaDPH as a contact tracer and then began conducting case investigations shortly after, as Georgia was seeing an increase in positive cases. At first, being the only Spanish-speaking contact tracer in the public health district she was assigned, she conducted contact tracing with all Spanish-speaking community members. She called individuals to ask them about their COVID-19 symptoms, their medical history, who they had contact with, and where they might have become  infected. Sonia reflects that her work at CLD "prepared me to better communicate in a sensitive manner with the individuals I had the pleasure of speaking with."

Given the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on people with disabilities and communities of color nationally and in Georgia, it is critically important for contact tracers to possess the knowledge and skills needed to work alongside vulnerable populations. We believe students and professionals affiliated with the UCEDD and LEND networks may be among the best equipped to serve during this crisis. Thank you, Jessica, John, and Sonia for your service!