Missouri has entered its sixth month of navigating the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and for dozens of health departments across the state, CARES Act funding has been slow to arrive.
That means crucial public-health positions like contact tracers and case investigators have been left unfilled. So, Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services has found one creative stop-gap – Masters in Public Health student volunteers.
Scott Clardy, the Assistant Director at the health department, said that right now all of the staff are working “evenings and lunch hours and weekends to try to get caught up.”
He said the health department was doing okay early in the pandemic, but as businesses reopened and the COVID-19 case count started to rise, they were struggling to stay on top of their case investigations and contact tracing.
“I think it was last week - was the first time in I don't know how many weeks that we were actually totally and completely caught up on contact tracing. We had gotten in touch with everybody,” Clardy said.
He added that this was due, in part, to the help of local Masters in Public Health Students from the University of Missouri.
Lynelle Phillips is a professor in the University of Missouri School of Health Professions, and she came to Clardy several months ago with the idea – let public health students help with the case investigations and earn needed internship hours at the same time.
Phillips said all Masters students in public health have to complete 360 internship hours and many internships had been canceled due to the pandemic. So, she leads a team of these student volunteers, and said this kind of real-world experience is invaluable to students.
“We've had, for about the last month, two to three students in half a day on Wednesday and Thursday, to do case investigations, which is actually really where their bottleneck was here at the health department,” Phillips said. “I'd say we do 20 to 25 case investigations a week. And it's allowed us to really become sort of subject matter experts in this process.”
Phillips added that it’s a win-win for everybody. The health department gets the help they need, the students learn real-world skills and complete their internship hours, and, most importantly – the community benefits.
Because case investigations are a vital part of contact tracing and help prevent the further spread of coronavirus. Phillips said these calls with COVID positive folks can last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
During every call, case investigators have to check on the well-being of the person who has tested positive, take a detailed account of their symptoms and also find out every place the infected person went and every person they came into contact with.
“In the classroom, we have the textbook curriculum of how communicable diseases work, and then you get out into the real world and you realize, ‘Oh, it doesn't quite unfold just how it was described in the textbook,’” Phillips said. “We try and do mock things based on real life, but there's just nothing like real life – when you have to pick up the phone and call somebody and talk about their COVID case.”
Julie Muckerman is one of the case investigation volunteers and a Master’s in public health candidate.
“Obviously, everything that's going on is really unfortunate. No one wants to be in a pandemic, but as a public health student, I think it's a very unique perspective,” Muckerman said. “Like, I just learned about this in the classroom, and now I'm experiencing it in real life.”
She said she wanted to find some way to be helpful during the pandemic, and added that she hopes people realize why the health department is making these calls.
“It's really coming from this place of thinking about the community as a whole,” Muckerman said. “We're not talking about individuals. We're talking about our community. The lives that we have together.”
Phillips said that the student volunteers will continue to help where they’re needed, both here locally, and they’re starting to help out more rural counties – like Miller County, near the Lake of the Ozarks.
Back at the Health Department, Clardy said they are working to hire up to 40 people with about $1.8 million of CARES Act funding – some contact tracers, case investigators, team leads, as well as communicable disease specialists. But he said the Masters in Public Health volunteers have helped the department to fill a big gap.
“We would not be able to meet our goals, and I think still we even struggle to meet that with their help,” Clardy said. “So, our ability to contact people would have been hampered without the help of the students and of all the volunteers from the community.”
And for that, Clardy said – he’s grateful.