For a disease that can be transmitted as covertly and easily as the coronavirus (COVID-19), tracing who has it and who they have been near is critical for slowing its spread. The Mennonite College of Nursing (MCN) and the Department of Health Sciences have teamed up with the McLean County Health Department (MCHD) to facilitate contact tracing to help slow the spread of the virus.
“We currently have nursing students and health promotion and education students doing contact tracing as part of their clinical experience or professional practice experiences,” said MCN Assistant Professor Dr. Melissa Jarvill, who is leading this effort on Illinois State’s campus. “The pandemic has caused challenges for our students and our community—so many people have been affected. As a health care professional, I am grateful that we were able to rise to this challenge, and that our students will have this real-life work experience to complement their studies.”
MCN seniors Shea Boston and Guido Calcagno began contact tracing in August. To prepare, the students completed hours of training through online modules. The students specifically learned about federal medical privacy regulations since they will be handling sensitive information.
Once the students completed training, they went right to work. A majority of the tracers’ time is spent on the phone, calling students who have tested positive or may have been exposed to COVID-19 and tracking down those with whom they have been in close contact.
“If they have been in contact with other people, I write those people down and contact them for being a close contact,” said Boston. “I explain that (positive cases) need to isolate for 10 days. I let them know all the signs and symptoms that would be considered an emergency. I go through to make sure that they don’t need any outside resources.”
However, it isn’t always easy to get ahold of the people whom the students are trying to contact.
“The most difficult part of the job is contacting someone who doesn’t want to be contacted,” said Calcagno. “I try to be friendly with them and understand their emotions.”
Teresa Wang, a community health promotion and education major, volunteered to be a contact tracer. “Lots of people are willing to help as much as they can. I’ve learned to keep the phone calls brief, educational, and casual because you get a better response rate that way, and people tend to be less hostile,” said Wang, a senior from Mahomet. “I am learning so much about how to teach people to be safe and healthy.”
Illinois State alumna Ali Domkuski ’19 is also helping the county with contact tracing. The former Redbird softball player recently accepted a position with MCHD while completing her master’s degree in health administration online. While the MCN students are focused exclusively on-campus contact tracing, Domkuski does contact tracing countywide.
“You can tell there are people in our community that are really taking precautions to be safe and keep others healthy,” said Domkuski. “Everyone wants to go back to school and work, so it’s been good to see the people who are very polite with us and cooperating with the quarantine.”
Domkuski reflected on her time at Illinois State and realized how her education in community health promotion and education prepared her to enter the field. “I’m getting to see how public health works, and it’s definitely going to grow my career,” said Domkuski.
The MCN students recognized the importance of the skills they have gained from contact tracing experience as well as their education at Illinois State.
“It’s so important learning how to work with patients of all backgrounds,” said Boston. “It doesn’t matter who is on the other line; I know how to build that therapeutic relationship with them. I know how to communicate and connect with them to give them the information and care that they need.”
Jarvill summed the students’ work for the county. “As we continue to work to control the spread of COVID-19, it’s important that we continue to come together as a community. “It will take all of us, working together, to eventually beat this pandemic. I look forward to continued partnership with the McLean County Health Department, and encourage anyone in our campus community looking for the most up-to-date information to visit Coronavirus.IllinoisState.edu.”